'I don't know if there's another Joe out there' - Ronan O'Gara hails impact of Schmidt
In town to promote the Guinness Series, Ronan O'Gara allows his mind to wander forward for a moment to contemplate a potential future without Joe Schmidt at the helm of the Ireland team.
The New Zealander's big decision is looming large at the end of this international window and the IRFU's potential succession plan has come into sharp focus.
Having worked with Schmidt during the 2017 summer tour and watched his work from afar, O'Gara's admiration for the Ireland coach is well known. He has worked in Ireland, France and New Zealand but is not sure if there is a like-for-like replacement out there.
But he believes there are talented individuals within the Irish system ready to take over under the guidance of performance director David Nucifora.
"I would put on record how impressive he (Schmidt) has been obviously, but the whole show has been," O'Gara said. "Nucifora, for the first three or four years, there wasn't a mention of him but now people see it's his strategies and thought processes - somebody has to have a plan. It can't be just the IRFU. Someone must be leading those meetings and giving them direction.
"We are quick to knock the English but look at the job (Stuart) Lancaster is doing at Leinster, look at Andy Farrell with Ireland. They are quality coaches.
"It doesn't matter where you are from - get the best people and players will be inspired to perform like they have under Joe. But I don't think there is another Joe out there.
"We haven't seen that in the past in Ireland, have we? Our team won a Grand Slam and we were competitive but Joe, that maximisation is a great word. It changes very quickly too. You don't know or if ever they will stop or will they keep going and going and going and going and going and going and going and going.
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"They believe they can do it."
Leinster, O'Gara is reminded, suffered a dip in the years after Schmidt left and when he returned after his Parisian stint Johnny Sexton questioned the dip in culture.
"A lot of culture is player-driven," O'Gara said. "It's ifs and buts. The great thing about it is there is clarity either way and then you make a plan.
"We have to acknowledge the job he has done - we are respected around the world, and rightly so as they are consistently producing. James Ryan and Jordan Larmour (below) expect to win silverware.
"It wasn't that way 10 years ago. It's great for the 15-year-olds in this country to see it is the norm to be winning World Cups; why shouldn't we be thinking that getting out of the group is a good thing or getting to a semi-final is a good thing. Once the mindset is changed, it is good for those who come after you."
Last week, O'Gara hopped a ball about a potential return for Conor Murray against the All Blacks and in the days since he has seen it bounce from Japan - where Steve Hansen cast doubt on the scrum-half's absence - to Chicago where Simon Easterby revealed he hadn't been ruled out.
Now, O'Gara isn't so sure.
"I'd say in his own head he'd probably like two games before he's playing them, you know," he said. "But they have their own rules. He's been out a long time... It's nearly the first of November now, he needs to be playing. I can't see how he'll play.
"I met him at the Munster dinner in London and I got the impression from him that he thought he was days away, rather than weeks .
"Even if he starts next Monday as a full week, that's still two... well, that's easy to do, if he was able to do full contact on Monday."
And yet O'Gara dismisses the idea that the All Blacks would be too tough an opponent to come back against.
"I don't think the opposition comes into it, really. Obviously, if you're playing the USA, the result isn't in question," he said.
"I don't think you can ever think like that. He's got to decide for himself. You could get some big Polynesian playing for the States too... he'll have that, obviously, against New Zealand."
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