Sunday 26 May 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'Joe Schmidt hasn't just brought success to Irish rugby, he has liberated us from 'moral victory' psyche'

'We managed to stumble across a coach who didn’t labour under the usual Irish psychological hang-up that we were good, but not that good.' Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
'We managed to stumble across a coach who didn’t labour under the usual Irish psychological hang-up that we were good, but not that good.' Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

So, it's a case of - nearly - farewell Joe, and thanks for the memories.

The cliché that all political, and coaching, careers end in failure is a cliché because, like most clichés, it also happens to be true. A political leader or a coaching colossus can only try to bring his people to the promised land so often before the experience becomes wearisome and the people demand someone else take over their dreams.

With Joe Schmidt, it's different. In fact, there is arguably no precedent for it in Irish public life.

Since a little known Kiwi schoolteacher arrived to take over Leinster in 2010, he has become a man who not only transformed the fortunes of Leinster and Irish rugby, but transformed the way the game is perceived in this country.

It wasn't so long ago that rugby was largely confined to the established private schools and while there were some working-class enclaves in places, like Limerick - and it should be remembered, lesser known bastions of rugby such as Carlow, Clondalkin and Tallaght - it wasn't just ignored by those who grew up outside its catchment areas, it was openly mocked and derided as a game for toffs.

We like to think we're not as class-riven a society as our friends in Britain. But a quick breakdown of the demographics of the average rugby match, compared to the average football game, would quickly disabuse anyone of the notion that we're a nation unburdened by the rigid social structures of other countries.

That has, by and large, changed now and changed for the better.

In areas where once the only jerseys worn by kids used to be Man Utd and Liverpool, now you can see them wearing Leinster, Munster and Ireland tops. For that, we can thank Schmidt.

The right man at the right time who was able to fully exploit the increased professionalism of the players, he managed to take a nation that was used to hovering around the lower rungs of the top tier of teams and turn them into a unit to be feared.

Before then, every tantalising hint of success and better days to come seemed only to usher in more disasters. That was still the era of the 'moral victory', when we were happy to keep the likes of France or England to as small a winning margin as possible as long as we gave a gutsy performance for 60 minutes.

It's a long time since the phrase 'moral victory' has been invoked in this country - and to the current squad of players, the idea of a 'moral victory' must seem both absurd and defeatist.

In the five years since he took over the national helm, Schmidt has orchestrated - deep breath - a Grand Slam, two Six Nations titles, not one but two wins over the All Blacks, who we had never beaten before, a series win down in Australia, a couple of clean sweeps in the November internationals and a first ever win on South African soil.

The fact that even Triple Crowns, which used to form the height of our own low expectations, aren't even really counted anymore shows how far Irish rugby has come, not just in terms of execution and standard, but in aspirations and expectations.

That's why there is an obvious symmetry to his decision to step down from the Irish gig after the World Cup in Japan next year.

Unlike football, there is no great achievement in reaching the Rugby World Cup. But it seems that we enter each successive tournament with higher expectations than the last time, and promptly leave under an even darker cloud. Usually, it often feels to the fans, at the hands of the bloody Argentinians, who seem to derive an almost visceral pleasure from knocking us out.

For a nation like ours to have never progressed past the quarter-final stage is still quite baffling, and the various failures, which down the years have encompassed everything from a basic lack of preparation to bad luck to hellish injuries, remain a scar on the psyche of the average rugby fan.

But in Schmidt, we managed to stumble across a coach who didn't labour under the usual Irish psychological hang-up that we were good, but not that good; that we could compete against the best of them for two-thirds of a game but shouldn't really expect any better.

It was always going to require a coach who didn't have that insecurity coded into his DNA and if there is one thing people from New Zealand have grown up with and expect at all times, it is to win on the rugby field - no excuses, no weasel words, no moral victories, just the rugby equivalent of cold, hard steel and a ruthless desire to put the opposition to the sword.

In many ways, you could probably argue that the most important result along this road to ruthless efficiency was also the most heartbreaking.

That last-gasp defeat to the All Blacks in Dublin in 2013, which involved the visitors needing a try in injury time, followed by a retaken conversion, would have crippled previous Irish teams who thought it was simply written in the stars that we would never beat the best rugby nation on the planet. But that last-second sickener simply seemed to stir Schmidt ever onwards. He was always quick to stress that this was a game we lost rather than a game the Kiwis won, and that sense of never-again permeated the structure - to the point where any individual player who didn't do exactly what the coach wanted, when he wanted, didn't last long in the set-up.

Comparisons between the contrasting fortunes of Irish rugby and the national football team may be unfair, but they are also inevitable, and it's notable that Schmidt seemed to pay more attention to Roy Keane's old diktat 'fail to prepare, prepare to fail' than even Keane himself did during his mysterious and still unexplained time as number two.

Ordinarily, a coach announcing he will quit in a year's time would cause concern that the players might be tempted, even subconsciously, to take their foot off the pedal.

But the transition from Schmidt to his assistant Andy Farrell makes seamless sense, and while many Irish fans remain convinced that the gods of sport enjoy tormenting us, there is an edge to this outfit that's justified by the performances.

Once the Six Nations campaign is out of the way, we can start counting down to the World Cup - normally a cause for fretful consternation, we will enter this one with a genuine sense of hope.

It would be nice to imagine Schmidt finishing his career in the manner of Brian O'Driscoll, who enjoyed a year-long send-off, rather than Paul O'Connell, who left the field in agony.

Schmidt will do his damnedest to make sure it's the former, but either way, he goes with the thanks of a grateful nation ringing in his ears.

Few coaches ever get that luxury.

Then again, few coaches ever deserved it quite like this man.

Irish Independent

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