Wednesday 23 October 2019

David Kelly: 'It seems almost impossible to imagine Irish rugby without Joe Schmidt, but we should not despair'

Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt
David Kelly

David Kelly

And so Joe Schmidt begins the longest goodbye to Irish rugby – in return, Irish rugby hopes that their departing coach can ensure it is the greatest goodbye by achieving a World Cup high in Japan 2019.

Ireland discovered the news this morning, some perhaps still hoping against hope that Schmidt might decide to renege on a decision he made many weeks ago and stay after all.

Theirs was a selfish despair, but understandable, given the extraordinary legacy established by the honorary Irishman and the fear that, when he takes his leave, all that is left behind will somehow crumble as if an edifice constructed on sand.

But this would be to undermine the wider impact of Schmidt's role, one that has far more impact than the glorious Triple Crown of World Rugby awards on Sunday night when Paddy swept the boards in glamorous Monaco.

For Schmidt did more than just helm Ireland during their most prosperous days.

He also infused, like all the greatest teachers and coaches, a sense within all, from Jonathan Sexton, the world's greatest player, to the unpaid volunteer in the wilds of a distant Gaeltacht, what can be achieved by extracting the maximum from themselves.

Schmidt's legendary obsession for detail, his laser-like destruction of faults, his astute judgement of character, a ruthlessness that often bordered on unfairness, would have accomplished nothing without the mutual investment of everyone around him.

Perhaps this is the anxiety that grips so many who have wondered what life may be like without him.

International Rugby Newsletter

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

Irish rugby should not be afraid; if anything, Irish rugby should remain supremely confident in its own ability to thrive without him.

The sport is bigger than one man.

Leinster moved on from Schmidt and so did he.

To paraphrase old Willie S, nothing may become Joe Schmidt as Irish coach like his leaving of the post.

The announcement of his successor, Andy Farrell, possesses the careful fingerprints of someone who has imprinted his signature on every aspect of the sport in its most successful period.

The IRFU will claim some ownership of the succession stakes but without Schmidt's imprimatur, the appointment would not have occurred.

It is sport's equivalent of a last will and testament.

The IRFU, as Schmidt alluded to last Saturday, harboured vain hopes of changing the Kiwi's mind; they should have known that the very success of their coach was founded on single-mindedness.

Much as the decision toyed with his soul and fizzled his brain, once he had made it, he was never going to change his mind.

Letting go gets harder the older you get, especially when the tug of remaining pulls equally hard.

It was difficult enough twenty years ago when he reluctantly swapped a career in professional English teaching for a career in professional coaching.

Perhaps again the words of the Bard he once imparted to the kids on New Zealand's south island all those years ago reverberated as he pondered his next professional and personal move.

“I have more care to stay than will to go.”

Schmidt and Irish rugby, beginning with his successful stint with Leinster, have become so inextricably linked that it seems almost impossible to imagine them apart.

It might have seemed conceivable that the pair might have parted ways following the last World Cup, were it not for the quarter-final implosion against Argentina which seemed to compel both sides to strive more strenuously to smash Irish rugby's glass ceiling in Japan.

Ireland were never better prepared for a World Cup than they were in 2015 – aside from every edition before then, natch – but even then it wasn't enough to end the sequence of familiar last eight exits.

Both Schmidt and the IRFU have redoubled their efforts in the intervening time to ensure that 2019 will be the year when they finally reach the last four and, perhaps, seek to advance still further.

Theirs has been a thorough, fine tooth-combed investigation into every single aspect of preparation and development that can gain Ireland the extra edge.

Radical interprovincial transfers, relentless overseas recruitment and a renewed commitment to maximising squad depth have all served to deliver that aim.

If players aren't happy; whether they be the exiled Simon Zebo to Donnacha Ryan; or have seen their professional careers take a sudden lurch, from Joey Carbery to Jordi Murphy; the over-arching aim from the IRFU has been to right the wrongs of 2015.

And Schmidt, the sleep-deprived general, will be eager to make his final stride as determinedly as his first.

It would be a fitting send-off for the naturalised Irish citizen were he to lead his adopted land into uncharted waters.

Sport, however, doesn't guarantee conclusions like those within the pages of a novel.

The difficulty for Schmidt, and by extension, the IRFU, is that their inseparable fates had to be decided before their World Cup destiny is.

The IRFU must even privately acknowledge that it will be almost an impossibility for Schmidt's putative replacement to match the extraordinary achievements of his predecessor.

And unless Schmidt is offered the All Blacks job next year, it is unlikely he will ever replicate the working conditions in Ireland which have allowed him to harness his extraordinary coaching ability.

This underpinned the emotional and professional tug of war between the IRFU and Schmidt since the summer.

Did the IRFU need Schmidt more than Schmidt need the IRFU?

Far from being desperately reliant on each other, the IRFU and Schmidt needed to determine how they can cope without each other.

For that will mark a measure of supreme confidence in their own abilities to manage an uncertain future, rather than merely clinging on because they cannot possibly contemplate any other kind.

The IRFU have revealed a succession plan which involved those already within the national coaching set-up, while Schmidt's commitment to maintaining continuity – with or without him – has also seen a variety of young Irish coaches being invited into the national camp.

The future without Joe Schmidt should not cause despair but anticipation, the same feeling he once inspired in so many others, the fuel that will ensure the sport can continue to thrive.

He may back, who knows? He deserves time within the bosom of his family and the mother he talks about so dearly. New Zealand will beckon him some day.

That is all for the future; for now, there is work to be done. We have learned now to accept that under Schmidt it will be undertaken successfully.

“Parting is such sweet sorrow that I shall say goodnight till it be morrow.”

Online Editors

The Left Wing: Ireland fall short again, 2019 slump and what Andy Farrell must do as head coach

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport