Thursday 22 August 2019

Vincent Hogan: With Joe Schmidt, never before has a more outwardly gentle soul cast such a formidable rugby shadow

Four years into his tenure as Ireland rugby coach, Schmidt continues to set high standards that can make life uncomfortable for the players in his care, as some will have found out after last weekend's struggle against Fiji

Joe Schmidt and Ireland would relish beating Argentina after their World Cup defeat to the Pumas. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt and Ireland would relish beating Argentina after their World Cup defeat to the Pumas. Photo: Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The Monday after Ireland's emphatic 2014 November series victory over South Africa, Paul O'Connell remembers Joe Schmidt's video review as an "edge-of-your-seat" exercise that left the players both educated and chastened.

Schmidt was furious over the concession of a late, consolation Springbok try and no other detail of the 29-15 triumph seemed to interest him. That try represented everything he sought to powerhose out of the Irish psyche, specifically the contaminant of complacency.

Just a year in the job, Schmidt's standards were - even then - stretching the players in a way that they'd never been stretched before.

His review, thus, proved pitiless. O'Connell recalls it as leaving them feeling as if "we'd had the s**t kicked out of us". Then, almost as a concluding after-thought, Schmidt congratulated them on "an outstanding result".

The consensus this week was that Monday would have been a difficult day for Dave Kearney. Others may have been more subtly culpable for the intercept try that brought Fiji back into last Saturday's Test, but it was Kearney who threw the fugitive pass devoured by Timoci Nagusa.

That moment will have put a target on his forehead.

Because the gently malleable Schmidt so familiar to a 'Late Late Show' audience is unrecognisable to those who work, daily, on his professional terms. Kearney will, thus, undoubtedly have been braced for a cold video forensic. Others, too, will have presented themselves for review, open to the possibility of withering analysis.

One of Joe Schmidt's favourite catchphrases is: "You are what you repeatedly do!" Sloppiness offends him and anybody susceptible to the condition is seldom indulged beyond a repeat offence.

It is why he has become one of the most coveted coaches in world rugby, defending a win quota of just short of 70pc today as he reaches a half century of Tests with Ireland. Back-to-back Six Nations titles, an historic victory over the All Blacks and the first ever away Test win in South Africa all italicise the altered psyche he has brought to Irish rugby in four remarkable seasons. Eddie O'Sullivan won three Triple Crowns and Declan Kidney a Grand Slam, yet the popular view of Schmidt seems to hold that he is moving things to higher plain.

Statistically, it may require a World Cup semi-final place in Japan two years from now to put some flesh on the bones of that conviction but, for now, there are few if any contrarian noises stalking his stewardship of the Irish team.

Schmidt is broadly expected to return to New Zealand after that tournament and there is significant enthusiasm in his homeland for the idea that, in time, he may coach the All Blacks. But for now, he is on a mission to give Irish rugby a depth and ruthlessness that isn't traditionally piped into the national condition.

There are, thus, gentler environments to be in than the Irish team base when a mirror gets handed around.

Just three months after impressing on the Lions tour, Jack McGrath was left out of Schmidt's match-day squad for the South Africa game two weeks ago without any soft-soaping of his fall from grace. McGrath discovered his fate in front of the full squad. Just sat through the process of 23 names being called out, none of them his.

This is not a genteel, hand-on-the-shoulder work environment.

Some players quietly admit that Schmidt's relentless pursuit of improvement can be exhausting, even joyless. Famously, the scarcity of down-time during the 2014 summer tour to Argentina drew grumbles, yet Ireland went there as Six Nations champions and would retain that title the following spring.

Better still, at a time the Irish game-plan was being derided as ultra-conservative, they secured that second title with a four-try demolition of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Winning coaches don't have to explain themselves. Schmidt's stock was soaring prior to that autumn's World Cup and, if Ireland hit a familiar glass ceiling at quarter-final level (O'Sullivan, intriguingly, one of the few who red-flagged Ireland's narrowness in defence before the Argentina defeat), the absence through injury of men like O'Connell, Johnny Sexton, Seán O'Brien, Peter O'Mahony and Jared Payne tended to place an asterisk under any end-of-tournament recrimination.

And Schmidt is now in the process of seeding the Irish squad in a way that fire-proofs it against similar depletion in 2019.

To that end, the wild shuffling of cards - 13 changes last weekend, 14 changes now - speak of a need to give players game-time before resuming obedient service to the IRFU's unyielding demand for a decent Six Nations campaign.

Another coach might be mildly forgiving of errors in such circumstances, but that simply isn't Joe Schmidt's way.

In Tom English's 'No Borders - Playing Rugby for Ireland', Andrew Trimble delivered an intriguing snapshot of the dynamic at play during Schmidt's video reviews. "It's tough and unpleasant at times," explained Trimble. "It's not the kind of environment you're there to enjoy. You're there to work. Some of the training sessions and even some of the meetings we had were so stressful.

"Every ruck you're going into you're going, 'Please, please get this right, otherwise Joe will see it'. It's really impressive how he changed the culture to the point where if we're doing things that are not quite up to the level of accuracy or intensity or physicality, then it's completely unacceptable.

"It's embarrassing whenever you get something wrong. And it should be embarrassing."

In the same book, Brian O'Driscoll observed that Schmidt "rarely shouts, but his words can be lethal. He can cut you down in an instant and the pitch of his voice doesn't need to rise or fall."

When Joe Schmidt first took the Irish job, his standards caught all bar the Leinster players (with whom he'd already won two Heineken Cups and an Amlin Challenge) off guard. His capacity to force things, to constantly demand more, initially left O'Connell fearing he would need to spend six hours reviewing each match video to see all of the things that his coach saw.

Yet Schmidt's way has never been any different, right from his infant coaching experience with Palmerston North Boys' High School where the head teacher, Dave Syms, described him as "a fanatic for detail".

The eccentric safari that makes up his CV since, Mullingar (with a triumphant Leinster 'A' Schools Cup cameo at Wilson's Hospital, Multyfarnham thrown in), Palmerston North again, Napier Boys, Tauranga Boys' College, New Zealand Schools, Bay of Plenty, Auckland Blues, Clermont Auvergne, then back to Ireland with Leinster, has delivered an extraordinary breadth of life and preparatory rugby experiences for the position he now holds.

He openly describes himself as paranoid, a man who fixates on "worst-case scenarios".

And that will, broadly, be the energy coursing through his veins now. For Schmidt, this series is about the need to establish cover, to identify alternatives, to see to it that nobody in the ecosystem becomes indispensable. Hence the callowness of last weekend's starting 15 against Fiji won't remotely have softened Monday's forensic.

And if, as presumed, Kearney encountered the sharp end of his coach's tongue, the experience won't have been unfamiliar.

During his first year as Irish coach, Schmidt startled onlookers during an open Irish training session at Newforge outside Belfast by loudly upbraiding the Leinster player for a fleeting lapse of concentration. He did so with the declaration, "We don't watch, we work here!"

Yet what will more specifically have galled him about last weekend's contest was how Ireland's game slowed to Fiji's taste after the resumption, how they were out-smarted at the rucks, how 70pc possession over those closing 40 minutes yielded a paltry scoring return of just two Ian Keatley penalties.

Publicly, he described the performance as "scratchy". Privately, the language in his head might have been less gentle. Schmidt's insistence is that standards of application and execution simply cannot be uneven. He demands of all players that they train as they intend to play. Whimsy is not tolerated.

Indeed, the fact that Ireland's midfield against Fiji might have been made up, notionally, of his fifth and sixth choices for centre will have been immaterial last Monday.

First choice or sixth, the same gospel must apply.

And so the convenient idea that today might offer some semblance of vengeance for a World Cup quarter-final defeat two years ago won't get much traction in the Irish dressing-room. Ireland will expect to beat the struggling Pumas, only the detail of how they go about it holding Joe Schmidt's attention.

Never before has a more outwardly gentle soul cast such a formidable rugby shadow.

O'Connell says he came to adore the often brutal video reviews, almost because of the ruthlessness articulated. The technical detail of Schmidt's work left room neither for compromise nor ambivalence. In his autobiography, O'Connell reveals that, when Schmidt took the Irish job in 2013, he found him "completely different to every other coach I'd had before then".

He says that he even came to quietly envy the Leinster players who, by then, had already had three years' exposure to Joe's standards.

"When he reviewed a performance, he looked at everything," wrote O'Connell last year. "He used one-liners or buzzwords to get his message across. He wanted those words to jump into our heads when the situation called for them.

"If there was a ball on the ground in training, everyone nearby shouted 'Scraps!' and tried to dive on it.

"When we were on our backs with the ball after carrying, he wanted us to contort, rotate, swivel - it was about stopping a poacher from getting on us. Great coaching is often about imagery and cues. Joe told us he wanted us to be like a mackerel that had just been pulled in and was jumping around on the bottom of the boat."

After today, Ireland will face another sixteen Tests before their World Cup warm-up games, ten of them in the Six Nations. The window for experimentation is, thus, narrowing penally for Schmidt who has capped 31 players since that Cardiff loss to the Pumas.

He was one of four coaches who resisted the invitation to assist Warren Gatland on this summer's Lions adventure in his homeland, choosing instead to travel with eight uncapped players on Ireland's tour of the USA and Japan. That decision highlighted Schmidt's commitment to buttressing the Irish team with support players he could trust.

Whether that commitment has met with the evidence he hoped for may, after last weekend especially, still be open to some debate now.

Yet, what cannot be denied is the sense of a formidable rugby man, working off the highest of principle and ambition. A man still pushing uncomfortable standards. And, whatever rolls his way in the Far East two years from now, Joe Schmidt's Irish legacy will outlive it.

Irish Independent

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