Schmidt stock sky high, but lure of more Leinster glory set to delay move home
EVER since speculation about Pat Lam's future as Auckland Blues coach began to build a few weeks ago, Joe Schmidt's name has been in the mix as a possible replacement.
It ratcheted up significantly this week with the news that the Blues had advertised Lam's position as head coach following a dire run of results in the Super 15 (one win from 10), with New Zealand media subsequently reporting that Schmidt is on top of the Auckland franchise's wish-list -- preferably as a package with fellow Leinster Kiwis Jono Gibbes and Greg Feek.
It is no surprise. Southern hemisphere disdain for rugby north of the equator is not at the levels it used to be and the Heineken Cup, in particular, attracts concerted attention and not a little envy Down Under.
There is still the belief that the Super 15 is the superior competition, but only the most one-eyed southern observers would fail to acknowledge the ever-improving quality of the Heineken Cup and its marked superiority in terms of support and atmosphere.
And, with Leinster riding high as the northern hemisphere's strongest club outfit, chasing their third European title in four seasons, it is inevitable that Schmidt's name would crop up for a coaching position in his native land.
This is in keeping with a history of southern hemisphere coaches using Europe as a launch-pad for their careers back home, with John Mitchell, Wayne Smith, Alan Gaffney, Jim Williams and now Tony McGahan all benefiting from stints in the north before returning south.
Gibbes was not reading too much into it yesterday.
"Did they not get my number, they rang Joe?" joked the Leinster forwards coach, who has just signed a two-year deal to remain with the province.
"Nah, it's just speculation. They make great stories, speculating on who could be a coach and all that. It's good interest more than anything, I don't really see too much in that."
Nonetheless, the speculation emphasises the high regard Schmidt and his assistants now command in a rugby environment that is not easily won over.
It is not just Leinster's results that have impressed New Zealand observers, it is also the style of rugby fostered under the Kiwi and the way he has developed a squad to the point where Leinster could now field two teams and expect both to compete successfully in league and cup.
There is little chance of the Auckland Blues getting their man, at this stage, but the push and pull factors are worth examining in the context of a coach now regarded as one of the best in the business.
REASONS TO STAY
The primary reason the Auckland Blues are dealing more in hope than expectation.
Schmidt is contracted with Leinster until the summer of 2013 and there are no indications he has interest in leaving before time, while the province would be understandably keen for him to sign an extension.
Commercially, the northern hemisphere is the place to be for players and coaches and, after arriving as a relatively unheralded replacement for Michael Cheika, you would expect Schmidt now commands a salary in the region of €300,000 and is worth every cent.
The Super Rugby franchises cannot compete with Europe's top clubs when it comes to wages, so there is no financial motivation behind a return home.
2 Ireland job
Schmidt is the outstanding candidate to be the next Ireland coach and there is already a swell of support for Leinster's head man to move up to the national team when Declan Kidney's contract expires next year.
How the IRFU feel about the matter and whether coaching Ireland is an ambition of Schmidt's is unclear, but there is no doubt he is excellently qualified for the position, both in terms of working with the provinces and translating provincial form to the national stage.
3 European domination
Cheika got the ball rolling, gradually bringing Leinster forward over his five years at the helm, but Schmidt picked it up and ran with it to the point where Leinster could conceivably dominate the European club game for the next five or six years.
While there is a core of experience in the squad, the overall age profile is relatively young and the talent bubbling under would be the envy of any side on the continent.
Ulster will put it up to Leinster next weekend, but it is very hard to see Schmidt's side failing to make it back-to-back Heineken Cup titles and they would be immediately installed as favourites to become the first team to win three in a row. Hard to walk away from that.
REASONS TO BE TEMPTED HOME
1 All Blacks
The ultimate goal for any New Zealand coach is to take charge of the All Blacks and that requires coaching a Super 15 franchise to be considered for the position.
Steve Hansen is the man in situ on a two-year contract, hoping for an extension until the 2015 World Cup, but Schmidt has already been touted as a possible replacement, and taking a job with the Auckland Blues would get that process properly under way.
2 Auckland potential
The Blues went into the Super 15 as one of the teams tipped to win the competition, and their run of defeats under Lam represents a woeful failure to make the most of an extremely talented squad.
It is a squad packed with current and future All Blacks and also an environment Schmidt knows extremely well, having spent three years there as assistant coach between 2004 and '07 before moving to Clermont.
The Blues have been existing in the shadow of the Canterbury Crusaders for many years, the cause of much angst for the side from New Zealand's biggest city, and there would be similarities between rejuvenating this sleeping giant and Leinster's rise to prominence.
3 Home comforts
Just as it was for McGahan, there is considerable allure to a return home with your family after an extended period abroad.
Schmidt has been away from home since 2007 and, though he has thoroughly enjoyed his time in France and Ireland, the pull of his native country would be considerable.
4 Fresh targets
Schmidt has already scaled the summit in Europe and there is every chance he could add to last season's achievements with a Heineken Cup and Pro12 double over the next two weeks.
That would constitute 'job done' by anybody's standards and the prospect of the fresh challenge of picking the Blues out of the gutter could prove to be an enticing one in those circumstances.
However, though it has been another fantastic season for Leinster, nothing has been won yet, and the prospect of claiming successive European titles next week, followed by a tilt at the three-in-a-row, is a goal that is well worth pursuing and perhaps the strongest reason why the Blues' advances are set to be unfulfilled.