Wednesday 18 September 2019

Schmidt vs Hansen: World's best coaches are like chalk and cheese

Kiwis Hansen and Schmidt are both proven winners but their approaches are very different

Joe Schmidt and Steve Hansen will lock horns once again tomorrow. Photo: Getty Images
Joe Schmidt and Steve Hansen will lock horns once again tomorrow. Photo: Getty Images

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

They hail from different islands in the same country and while they have in common a ruthless winning streak and a lifetime in coaching, Joe Schmidt and Steve Hansen come across as very different characters.

If he guides the world champions to their title defence, the All Blacks supremo will become the most successful coach of the modern era.

If he chooses to step down and let someone else have a go, there are many in New Zealand who believe the Ireland head coach should be next in line.

They have largely operated in parallel universes as coaches, but since 2013 they have crossed paths three times and their teams have engaged in high-quality epics.

Hansen is 2-1 up, but he knows his team have been in a game each time.

He clearly respects Schmidt's work with Ireland and that respect has led him, and his assistant Ian Foster, to use their public appearances this week to try and get under the Ireland coach's skin.

Just like the Lions tour when he and his acolytes in the local media lobbed grenade after grenade at Warren Gatland, Hansen has been probing for a reaction. Schmidt has refused to engage.

It began a few weeks back when he suggested Conor Murray would make a miraculous recovery for this week's game, a theory he doubled-down on on Sunday.

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When Ireland ruled Murray out, Foster turned his attention to Bundee Aki and Johnny Sexton. - a topic Hansen returned to, saying: "he likes to get what he wants".

Speaking before the 2015 World Cup final, Hansen outlined his approach to his media dealings.

"In an event like this you know you are going to have a lot of media commitments before you start," he said.

"You set your mindset: let's have a bit of fun with them.

"The key thing is you want to get messages across to the people who support you, which is your fans. You try and do it as nicely as you can. I said right at the beginning, enjoy the banter. No point being up here and hating it. Fudge it until you make it then get out of here."

It is clear from his many media engagements in his time as Ireland coach that Schmidt does not share Hansen's enthusiasm.

"Personally, it's not something I engage in," he said when asked about Hansen's gamesmanship.

"I don't know if it is gamesmanship; players like to get what they want on the pitch. Some are maybe more vocal than others. The engagement from All Blacks with the referee last weekend was no different to other teams.

"For me, I am too worried about my players and my team and how we need to perform to worry too much about what other people might be saying."

Schmidt's aversion to controversy and discomfort with media scrutiny may well be one of the things that puts him off the idea of succeeding Hansen.

A recent documentary about the world's No 1 team shone a light on the intrusion into the coach's private life as he and his wife erected fencing to stop interested on-lookers peering into his back garden. For all of Schmidt's popularity here, that's not something he has to deal with.

As for Hansen's impact on the pitch, Schmidt was effusive in his praise.

"His record is unbelievably good, isn't it? It's incredible," he said.

"He's obviously had a team at the top of world rugby for nine years and that is an incredibly difficult thing to do.

"That can't be one era, that has got to be transitioning from one era to the next. When people like Richie McCaw and Dan Carter step away others have to step in. But when you look who has stepped in, Kieran Read taking over the captaincy, Beauden Barrett - the World Player of the Year two times - stepping into the breach as a No 10.

"It's pretty hard to fault the quality of player they have.

"I would have liked to have gone along to Steve's training sessions and meetings this week, but I wasn't invited."

Although he said he didn't have time to take in everything that has been said this week, Schmidt certainly seemed to be aware of Foster's comments about Aki, who has come in for sustained criticism in his homeland for his decision to move to Connacht and play for Ireland.

The Ireland coach was ready with a few home truths for the Kiwi audience.

"I think Bundee has fully demonstrated his commitment through the last year," said Schmidt.

"Everybody knows he's going to give 100pc.

"It's like asking, 'was Jerome Kaino 100pc ready to play for the All Blacks, because he was born in a foreign country? Or Chris Masoe, or Joe Rokocoko; or any of those guys?' So having coached all those guys, they were very ready to play for the All Blacks."

So, Schmidt is tuned in enough even if he doesn't want to get too involved in the verbal sparring.

All of the off-field stuff pales in importance to the on-pitch preparation where Schmidt brings a level of intensity and attention to detail to the party. In contrast, Hansen gives the impression of a more broad-strokes approach.

Certainly, he is expecting Schmidt to throw something his way.

"Joe's pretty good at finding a trick or two, so we'll be expecting one or two coming our way," he said.

Schmidt was sceptical of the idea that anything he can do would surprise the world's best team.

"I guess we'll find out on Saturday," he said.

"I'm not sure we've cooked up many surprises but you'd certainly love to be able to create a little bit of time and space somewhere because it looks like there's a massive, green rectangle there but with 15 incredibly athletic, incredibly competitive men on the opposition, it's still very hard to find a lot of space."

As ever, he'll let his team do the talking on the pitch.

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