Tuesday 21 May 2019

Neil Francis: 'IRFU and media can spin it however they like but no one can replace Joe Schmidt'

History of sport teaches us that it's the best coaches, and not the players, who ultimately deliver success

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

The big one last Saturday was just a sensational game of rugby. Two brilliantly coached teams went at each other with murderous vigour - no vegans at this one. Professional athletes playing at the height of power, dazzling offence and thunderous hits in defence - these are the boys who make the noise. The huge crowd got value for their money.

Later that day, they probably went to see Ireland play the All Blacks.

At 11.30 last Saturday morning, Blackrock College beat St Michael's 30-27 in front of 1,000 people. A schools friendly (there is that word again) played in November - so what? It was, by all accounts, a fantastic game of rugby. I didn't make it along but you can be guaranteed that anyone connected to the Leinster Academy would have made it their business to be there. The goldmine!

There were, as usual, several outstanding prospects fully versed in the higher arts of strength and conditioning, dietary needs, video consumption and high-end skill regimens. Professionals before they become professionals. A seemingly inexhaustible seam of quality players primed to play professional rugby: diligent, hard-working, eager and bursting to get up the ladder.

Scott Penny, who played for Leinster on Friday night against the Ospreys, played in the Leinster Schools Senior Cup last March, a mere nine months ago. Penny has scored eight tries in seven games for Leinster A. He scored again on Friday night. What do they do with the boy? No point in naming who else is on Leinster's roster in the back-row stocks. It's like a bread queue in communist Russia.

Garry Ringrose, Joey Carbery and Jordi Murphy, all alumni of Blackrock, and James Ryan, Luke McGrath and Dan Leavy, all alumni of St Michael's have, over the course of the year, played significant parts in the success of Leinster and Ireland.

The goldmine has been producing 24-carat quality since the 1860s. It's just that it's only since about 10 years ago that they have been able to harness and fully exploit it.

Latent, dormant and unrealised but always there waiting to be discovered and fully utilised. Our schools system over the whole island is the envy of the rugby world. It was producing in the 1970s, '80s and '90s when the national side was getting tonked from one season to the next.

How come we are only recognising it now? That's right, because they are winning. Not just winning but sweeping all before them. We all know the reason.

One of the stock lines in the coaching world is that in order to be a great coach it is important to have a squad of great players. I'm not sure that applies to Joe Schmidt. I would be confident that the team that played yesterday against the Yanks could be competitive in the Six Nations, based purely on the fact that they are coached by Schmidt.

There is an absolute in the argument: modern professional team sports are all about coaching. You will go a long way with a good coach. You can conquer the world with an exceptional one. The point I am making is that the talent in the schools was always there, but was no use to man or beast if you had a mutt in charge.

In Schmidt, Ireland have a miner of talent. A persuader, a man with integrity, resilience and resolve. A man with burning desire who embraces hard work. A man who insists you buy into him before you buy into his vision.

He is not an innovator, a pioneer or a trailblazer, but pragmatists divine success out of systems and process. Prescriptive is the term they use. This is all underpinned by a blisteringly bright intellect.

Some of the things that Schmidt has managed to achieve with his teams here have been nothing short of miraculous. When he dies and isn't resurrected on the third day, don't worry, he will have figured it out on the fourth.

One of the things that stood out for me about Schmidt came in his second season with Leinster. Athletes and people in the music business will tell you all about the difficult second year syndrome. Schmidt's charges were doing rather well in his second season at the helm but there is always a moment that you can point to where it could have come undone.

Late on in the 2012 Heineken Cup semi-final against Clermont in Bordeaux, the barbarians were storming the gate and Leinster had to withstand a force-five hurricane. There was a gap in play and Sky's cameras zoomed in on Leinster's coaches in their box. Schmidt wasn't there! Call of nature or a certainty in the 4.15 at Doncaster? Two days later and I called John Greene, sports editor of the Sunday Independent. We talked about the game, but the mystery of where Joe had disappeared to remained. An hour later:

"What are you doing for lunch?"


"Come in, I have some gold for you."

The photographers had picked up the headmaster just behind the dead-ball line. Schmidt knew his team were labouring under the onslaught. Talking into a microphone for review on Monday morning was of no value. Schmidt was prowling like a caged tiger behind the dead-ball line barking out instructions. If his players had any notions of raising the white flag . . . well they would have to do it when their coach was no more than five metres away.

Schmidt's mere presence in such proximity to his players acted as the great deterrent. Who would break ranks? Schmidt knew that his players would not capitulate when he was in knife-throwing distance of them. It was the only thing left for Schmidt to do and he fully realised the consequence of his actions. It worked. Leinster held out and won the cup a few weeks later.

I have never seen any coach at that level do something like that. At that moment I recognised what we had: an exceptional coach.

There are few enough of them around. The redoubtable Bill Belichick is an obvious one. To win seven Super Bowls in a coaching capacity in a cut-throat league is just unbelievable. Like Schmidt, he has a power of command that even good coaches just don't have. Belichick is a proven and consistent winner. It is strikingly obvious how clearly his DNA is embroidered all over the teams he coaches. I will talk about Belichick's coaching tree further on, to copperfasten how damaging Schmidt's departure will be and the consequences for Irish rugby.

Jim Gavin could also live in this company. Dublin still had absolute quality coming through their ranks from that long trek through the desert since the win in 1995. Pat Gilroy's team won in 2011, but what we are seeing now is something special. It is all about the calibre of coach that you have.

Steve Hansen, I don't think is in the same league as the three coaches I've mentioned. Hansen coached Wales from 2002 to 2004. He won 10 out of his 30 Tests. All those wins came against teams such as Romania, Tonga, Fiji, Canada etc. If you are any good as a coach you win matches against teams that are better than you. You win matches despite the fact that the squad you have are as stylish as sackcloth. You make them better.

Coaching a team that has hegemony on success since the early 1900s, a team that would rather die than lose, is quite a head start on anybody else. Given New Zealand's heritage, am I being uncharitable in saying that anyone could coach them to an 80 per cent record? Yes I am; pretty much anyone. Give Hansen Scotland and see if he could do better than Gregor Townsend. Give Joe Scotland and they will win the Six Nations.

When someone makes an announcement about an announcement they are going to make, it seems pretty clear to me that Hansen will jump after the World Cup. Joe will follow suit tomorrow and he will probably take over the All Blacks position straight away. Schmidt will then go bald-headed for that 100 per cent record until he wins a second World Cup - this time with New Zealand. I do wonder how the All Blacks will react to his methods and his personality. He will be successful. It will, though, be interesting to see how he performs with the best team in the world.

Meanwhile, the IRFU seem to take the view that the graveyards are full of indispensable men. Joe Schmidt is one of a kind and is irreplaceable. They have been a bit skittish (publicly) in their demeanour, confident even, about the future, knowing full well that whoever replaces him won't come remotely close to replicating the success that we have had.

The IRFU and the media have named names, reassured us that the systems are in place and of course that the talent is flowing through in ever more sparkling parcels. Schmidt's assistants and current management team will take it on to the next level.

The Belichick coaching tree is a salutary lesson for organisations that think they have hired someone who has supped on the salmon of knowledge. Eight of Belichick's assistant coaches have been hired as NFL coaches. Seven assistant coaches have become head coaches at NCAA level. Nineteen assistant coaches have been eagerly recruited to be assistant coaches in other franchises. That's a lot of coaches who worked with The Man, who probably thought they knew what was what. Knew the systems, heard the crucial calls being made. They could do that. They have experienced it. No!

Only one coach, Nick Saban, has been a success. The rest of them, who coached brilliantly talented rosters, floundered badly. They posted losing records and shuffled away into the shadows, barely acknowledging the lack of intellectual breadth and intuition. You either have it or you don't. A singular lack of personality. Found out!

No other man on the planet would come close to harnessing and exploiting the talent of our top 50 players in Ireland the way Joe Schmidt has.

It's all about the coach.

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