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Driven by the ‘relentless pursuit of excellence’

Leinster's players couldn't help but chuckle at the timing of yesterday's official announcement.

"A Monday!" they erupted. Monday is usually the day when the new Ireland coach can be at his most irascible, when the irritations of yet another inevitably failed quest for the elusive perfect game have crimpled his Sunday night sleep.

Don't let the public persona fool you. Earlier this month, when Ian Madigan's performance away to Wasps prompted purring from every quarter, Schmidt was keen to join in. Up to a point.

"He hung on in the tackle in the first-half there and was pinged so he'll have to sharpen up there a bit," said the Kiwi.

Unlike his predecessor, Schmidt will always find an opportunity to talk up players; it's just that he will always ensure they recognise their frailties also.

Schmidt's relentless quest for perfection will never be attained; it is simply an impossibility. He revels in the investigation though.

"Just the relentless pursuit of excellence," according to his Leinster captain, Leo Cullen. "He demands high standards. It's like he's embedded himself in our heads when we're on the field."

It is pointed that Brian O'Driscoll references Schmidt as his greatest coaching influence of a decade – trumping stellar names such as Kidney, Cheika, Williams, Henry, Gatland and O'Sullivan.

Enlightened

O'Driscoll, more than anyone, appreciates Schmidt's enlightened approach to the game; the former captain's recently amplified anxiety at how the Irish coaching set-up were delivering mixed messages in back play offers a stark contrast to his experience at provincial level.

Whether Schmidt can achieve a smooth transfer to the international stage is obviously a moot point; it is different territory and, although his intimate knowledge of the other province's players is extensive, it will be clearly a novel experience for him to attempt to integrate them in the one team.

"If there was a philosophy it would be about using the ball as best we can," Schmidt has said of an approach to coaching honed by nearly a quarter of a century of patient nurturing. They've got to have a little bit of excitement about what they are going to be doing.

"When you're a kid and you start playing rugby that's the reason you play – you want to be able to get a run with the ball and get excited about playing."

Schmidt's arrival is timely, just as Declan Kidney's was when he replaced Eddie O'Sullivan in 2008. For Ireland are a stale outfit in need of urgent resuscitation. Kidney made an immediate impact yet failed to build on it; Schmidt's task will be to engineer a more consistent Ireland while also ensuring that they are much more attractive to watch.

Regrettably, the IRFU's cack-handed succession plan – not to mention the dumb timing that sees a second successive national coach appointed mid-World Cup cycle – handicaps Schmidt before he starts.

He would like to pick and choose his back-room staff but the time is not ideal to do so; hence he may be lumbered with some of the remnants of the old regime.

Schmidt is a selfless, committed hard worker and his experiences in delegation since assuming head coach responsibilities after many years as an assistant have not always been successful.

Earlier this season, he apparently deferred to his assistants at Leinster before impatience gripped him and he renewed his pre-eminence.

He also arrives to the top posting as the IRFU remain marooned with one foot in an amateurish past, tentatively rolling up their collective trouser legs to take the belated plunge into a world where professionals run the professional game at international level.

While Schmidt waits for that to happen, the uncertainty will not be helpful and one hopes he has already refused to succumb to the occasional brow-beating by the old blazers.

When a director of rugby is eventually confirmed, Schmidt's involvement in that process must be integral or else he risks being utterly undermined.

There have been too many personality clashes that have belittled Irish rugby in recent times – not to mention petty provincial rivalries. Although Schmidt has – quite rightly – battled with the IRFU in the past, not to mention the provinces with whom he must now align himself (most recently Munster amidst the whole Paul O'Connell farrago), he has always placed rugby to the fore of his agenda.

He doesn't suffer fools gladly but he has never allowed personal animosity to invade his professional reasoning.

Although transferred from the parochial, cheerleading media environment he enjoyed as an assistant in France and New Zealand, Schmidt has belatedly appreciated the often rigorous nature of media debate in Ireland.

He understands that a steady provision of professional, constructive criticism will now come with the territory.

Outlining his family situation on 'The Late Late Show' earlier this month was an important step in delineating his newly-acquired status as 'public property', even if the top job in Irish rugby has courted him and not the other way around.

His family circumstances demand as much respect and distance as before now; few can comprehend what Joe and wife Kellie experienced with son Luke in those harrowing days in France when he was struck down with a brain tumour.

Indeed, Schmidt had contemplated returning to New Zealand and his erstwhile life as an English teacher in order to spend more time with all his family.

His brilliance as a rugby coach has now allowed him the platform to return under his own steam. Irish rugby supporters can only hope it is later, rather than sooner. He knows the pitfalls. "This is an insecure profession," he acknowledges freely. Schmidt's skills are not always inured to relative failure.

When his Leinster side were racked by injuries this term, he discovered his reserves were just not as competent and his ability to weave magic necessarily restricted. Kidney discovered much the same in his luckless final few months, even if he compounded ill luck with ill-judgement.

Nevertheless, if Schmidt's tenure is anything like that of his time in charge of Leinster, with whom he dominated European rugby, then the Irish international team may just put the smiles back on people's faces again.

Irish Independent