Monday 14 October 2019

Tony Ward: 'It's a big ask but Joe Schmidt leading Ireland to World Cup glory would be a fitting way to bow out'

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

LET’S toss out a few names readily identifiable with success in Irish sport. Kevin Heffernan, Mick O’Dwyer, Brian Cody, Jack Charlton, Mickey Harte, Jim Gavin and in more recent times, however limited the exposure, Graham Shaw. No doubt many other names will trip more easily off the tongues of others.

But how do you measure success? In terms of silverware, Charlton won nothing. Nor indeed did John Giles before him, but in terms of influencing a generation and for the children of each era, these times were special for different reasons.

In a rugby context I’m not sure Declan Kidney or Eddie O’Sullivan get the respect that each deserves for progress and achievements made in their tenure. Each broke the mould with Kidney, in particular, the bar-setter for Munster and Ireland. And I’ll also take some convincing that the Grand Slam of 2009 didn’t lay the foundations among the then teenage wanabees for what was achieved at Twickenham on this year’s memorable Paddy’s Day.

Planting the seeds of interest is of course one thing; bringing them to fruition quite something else again. It takes a certain type of character to marry all the requisite traits for success in any sporting endeavour. So, on behalf of a nation that will be forever indebted can I say to Josef ‘Joe’ Schmidt go raibh míle maith agat a million times over for coming our way.

It is impossible to compare codes or eras, but in terms of achievement at the highest international level Schmidt stands first (and by extension the greatest) among equals.

The cynics might suggest an element of choreography on his part, but – however great the coincidence – to announce his impending departure within hours of being officially acclaimed as the top coach in world rugby offers a hint for those who are set to follow that the only way is down.

None of us know what lies ahead, but a Grand Slam defence opener against England at the Aviva to be followed by a World Cup which, while taking nothing for granted (least of all Scotland in our opening group game), seems at this distance destined for a quarter-final against New Zealand or South Africa. So, if Joe really wanted to finish on top, the time to return to the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ was now and not 11 months further down such a challenging road.

But therein lies the key to why ‘Schmidt the coach’ is what he is. Driven by ambition but fuelled with honesty. In terms of hard graft, he never demands anything of his ever-growing squad that he doesn’t give of himself in the build-up. Show me any successful Schmidt team – whether with Leinster or Ireland – and I’ll show you a group that has emptied itself of everything it has to bring to the table.

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Watching the final quarter replacements in the most recent win (how sweet it is to write that) over New Zealand encapsulated the Schmidt era for me. The departing players were wiped, but the stadium was on its feet by way of a standing ovation for what we’d just witnessed. The foot soldiers empty, then along comes the cavalry. The ‘Joe Show’ has taken rugby at the highest level to places we didn’t think possible.

We’re not yet No 1 and we’ve still to get beyond the last eight at any World Cup, but I defy anyone to belittle this achievement for a country in which the oval ball code is still, at best, the fourth most popular team sport.

It is phenomenal what Ireland has achieved in tangible terms (never mind the ripple effect on the next generation) since Schmidt took the national reins five years ago.

Of course I haven’t had the experience, given that he is over a decade less on planet earth than me, of playing under Schmidt the coach. That said, I’ve got to know him reasonably well and obviously spoken to many of those closest to him throughout his time with Leinster and Ireland, and yes I can go back all the way to his introductory days at Wilson’s Hospital and his impact on Section A (as it then was) of the Leinster Schools Cup.

Put simply, the ‘Joe effect’ on Irish rugby has been incalculable. Of course, he hasn’t done it alone and in this regard, David Nucifora above every other individual in Lansdowne Road deserves massive credit in how he and the IRFU have gone about their business in supporting the head coach. With the two most important hearts beating as one, Irish rugby has been the winner – on field and off.

I don’t like speaking about legacy because that implies past tense. I would love if his most tangible legacy were still to come. Back-to-back Grand Slams would represent another giant step again – especially, when you bear in mind it was 61 years between 1948 and 2009 – but to win a World Cup would represent the ultimate legacy.

God help Andy Farrell (whose succession as main man I warmly welcome), Simon Easterby and whoever else is possibly on the ticket. His is an impossible act to follow and definitely in the realm of Cody and Gavin with the Cats and Dubs, respectively.

As to how much he will be missed, only time will tell. His traits are many, with attitude to work probably greatest of all. Failing to prepare forms no part of his working lexicon. He is a typically obsessive teacher whereby preparation, goal-setting and lesson planning is central.

The players know what to expect when they hit the driveway in Carton House and he never ever lets them down. All he asks in return is attitude. When combined with work ethic, it makes for a pretty potent cocktail and one hell of a starting point, specifically in any given match week.

He is meticulous and, by his own admission in private moments, a bit of a control freak. Probably better described as putting heart and soul into everything he does. But he has also been blessed with a system that he has known since his early days here at Multyfarnham in Westmeath. And no coach has maximised that well of talent better than Schmidt – initially at Leinster but by extension through player development and positive communication with the other three provinces. Shoulder to shoulder now has meaning.

Seldom has the coaching system been so united in its overall objective. Not for a minute am I suggesting all of the four provinces are singing off the one page. That would be impractical.

Players determine strategy and not the other way around, but open lines between head honcho and the provincial main men makes for all sorts of possibilities. Never before have those lines been more efficiently open and for that Nucifora and Schmidt (despite that obsessiveness) must take the credit.

Will he be undermined in any way through making this decision now?  Not at all. It is what it is with this head coach continuing to set the standards. He knows no other way. Just how lucky are we that he chose to pass our way.

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