Saturday 19 October 2019

Schmidt's Mullingar connection

Leinster boss tells David Kelly how his brief stay in the midland town helped shape the man and the coach we see today

Joe Schmidt with his wife Kellie during his spell in Mullingar in the early 1990s, when he crossed paths with Niall Breslin
Joe Schmidt with his wife Kellie during his spell in Mullingar in the early 1990s, when he crossed paths with Niall Breslin
David Kelly

David Kelly

He knows the flight took 24 hours, but it's not that he remembers. No, it's the drive. Nearly two hours it was, himself and Kellie luckily intimate enough not to be embarrassed by the sudden lurches of the car from one side of the N4 to the other.

All the way to Mullingar and Joe Schmidt is wondering just what he had signed up for when his mate Mark Ronaldson offloaded this gig.

As the car veered violently onwards, the 24-year-old seemed as if he had been given the first real hospital pass of his adult life.

And thence to a smoke-filled, musty-smelling pub on Dominick Street. It would become a second home for a year or more, that and the Mullingar RFC playing pitches out in Cullion. He would soon cherish these places.

"I obviously had no idea where it was," recalls Schmidt now, 21 years on. "I remember being picked up at the airport, being brought through a load of back roads to Con Gilsenan's pub."

He would spend even more time on the tarmac, battling the varicose veins of the pre-Celtic Tiger road system to bring teams to numerous venues throughout the country. He would never cherish the roads. Even now he shudders at the memory.

"The roads were as bad as you could get. I have a memory of trying to get through Killucan en route to Dublin. It was always a jam and pretty slow going."

Schmidt would repay the characteristic warmth in equally generous measure. And, since returning to Ireland as Leinster coach, the midlands town is one of his favourite ports of call on the pre-season roster of open training sessions.

International Rugby Newsletter

Rugby insights and commentary from our renowned journalists like Neil Francis, Will Slattery, Alan Quinlan & Cian Tracey.

He was playing for Manuwatu back home at the time, and teaching in Palmerstown boys school when he decided to take his "OE", a Kiwi tradition of taking a year out of life to travel overseas.

The UK was his planned destination; his pal's late shimmy diverted him to Mullingar. He brought the seniors on a decent run in the Towns Cup, but it was at schools level where he really made an impact.

Joe Weafer, a legend in these parts who tragically succumbed so early to cancer when only 45, pestered Schmidt to coach his Multyfarnham outfit in Section A of the Leinster Schools' Cup.

The pair would combine to lead the school to a historic first ever win. Andrew Thompson, future Shannon stalwart, was on the team and will still tell you Schmidt was one of the best coaches he every worked with.

And boy did they play. The man, who now demands of Leinster to be the best passing team in world rugby, has always instilled such high standards.

"I remember John West was refereeing the final against Conleth's in Donnybrook and he was just loving it," smiles Schmidt, even then preferring the role as reserved assistant to the genial Weafer.

"We threw the ball around. We scored five tries, Nico Drion and Raymond Bell got two each, Liam Plunkett scored the other."

It is little coincidence that the trio played in the back three; Conleth's sole riposte was from a five-metre scrum.

The club was his heartbeat for that year, though. "They put out four senior teams on a weekend, so it was a big unit," he remembers.

"There were the selectors picking the team and I remember being picked at 10 at first, but I initially wanted to play 13 or 15. It was strange not being able to control that at first!

"They were a really good bunch of people. It was about trying to keep people motivated because it was a voluntary labour of love. Whether it was a bitterly cold evening of training or rocking up on a Sunday to go to Enniscorthy or wherever. So, I just tried to keep it fun and keep people interested."

Ultimately, while it gave Schmidt his first real taste of a future, by then unplanned, as a professional coach, it was the people who made the greatest impression on the temporary visitor.

That would imprint itself irrevocably on his conscience, throughout his period in France and, latterly, when Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson first began wooing him to become Michael Cheika's successor.

"I suppose in terms of the people, that really sticks in the memory thoughout," he admits. "When I was at Clermont I was an assistant, I was pretty comfortable and enjoyed keeping a low profile, to be quite honest. I wasn't looking to become a head coach.

"It wasn't until the third time we came over here, when Ronan O'Donnell (Leinster's operations manager) took Kellie around and showed her a few schools and she was sold."

Kellie always enjoyed the Mullingar life, immersing herself in overseeing PE in a local school; only a fortnight ago she returned to some old haunts in Mullingar with her sister and mother.

"Without throwing out platitudes, the people are generally open and warm here," says Schmidt. "We have friends in France, but they're a bit more closed and formal, you don't know what you should say, madam or mademoiselle, tu or vous.

"Whereas here they're very open and normal. A bit like New Zealand in many respects, so it's become a home from home for us."

That fleeting visit to Mullingar helped shape the man and the coach we see today.

Even if his first glimpses of this country weren't the most auspicious.

"But when I had my first taste of Guinness, it sort of kicked on from there," he smiles. "It took a while to grow on me."

It's been worth the wait.

The Left Wing: Welcome to Irish rugby's biggest week - is an upset on the cards?

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport