Sunday 17 December 2017

Tony Ward: There's something about Joe - and we're so lucky to have him

For the players and the IRFU, Ireland coach's fanatical attention to detail and hands-on approach makes him a dream to work with

Joe Schmidt can always push players to their limits, even if they are as talented as Brian O'Driscoll Photo: PA News
Joe Schmidt can always push players to their limits, even if they are as talented as Brian O'Driscoll Photo: PA News
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

What is it about Joe Schmidt? Back in August 2010, I happened to bump into Frank O'Driscoll, dad of Brian, as the pre-season was well under way. Needless to say, we discussed all things rugby at the time but the main point from that particular conversation was his comment in relation to his son.

"The new coach is going down a bomb," he said. "Brian has never enjoyed training more."

Brian O'Driscoll speaking with Joe Schmidt Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Brian O'Driscoll speaking with Joe Schmidt Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Naturally, I dug a little bit deeper as to what it was that was motivating our national captain to make such a sweeping statement.

To paraphrase O'Driscoll the elder: "It is his emphasis on the most basic skills. Specifically on passing accuracy and precision in training. The lads are loving the intensity of the grid work. It's nothing earth-shattering, just repetitiveness in the quest for handling perfection."

The Schmidt mantra from day one back in Mullingar and Wilson's Hospital in the late eighties was 'to take what you are good at and become exceptional at it'. However the game may have changed in the interim, quick and accurate hands will beat quick feet every time.

Having just arrived here from his role as assistant to Vern Cotter at Clermont Auvergne, the Leinster head coach knew he was inheriting a battle-hardened forward unit courtesy of Michael Cheika. Even greater still was the realisation that in Eoin Reddan, Johnny Sexton, Luke Fitzgerald, Gordon D'Arcy, O'Driscoll, Shane Horgan, Isa Nacewa, Fergus McFadden, Ian Madigan, Isaac Boss, Dave and Rob Kearney, he possessed some of the most naturally talented backs ever to have represented the province.

What followed is now history as Leinster under the new man put together back-to-back European Cups at the Millennium Stadium in 2011 and at Twickenham 12 months later.

In those two finals alone they racked up 75 points including seven tries. It was riveting stuff and as close as any Irish team has ever been to total winning rugby. But the above facts also underline one of the keys to the Schmidt modus operandi. He always plays to his team's strengths and he targets what he perceives to be opposition weaknesses in equal measure.

He is an astute tactician but an extremely hard-working one too. He is, like so many top coaches in varying disciplines, a tactical insomniac. He is a great communicator and that for me is the chief component to successful coaching at any level in any code.

Having the technical knowledge is one thing but having the ability to impart that knowledge is much more relevant again. Coming from a teaching background clearly helps Schmidt. Show me a top teacher and I'll show you a pretty slick communicator.

And while it might be unfair to describe him as having OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), he is meticulous to the nth degree. He demands nothing in terms of work ethic in the build-up to any game that he doesn't commit himself to.

Perfect preparation makes for perfect performance. It is his mantra and by God do his players know it.

The angelic looks can deceive. Behind that facade is a ruthless determination, a cutting edge that never but never suffers fools gladly. He is sensitive but totally motivated when it comes to chasing individual and collective goals.

This skinny kid from Woodville (his description not mine) is now a coaching colossus on the global stage (my words not his) or, as O'Driscoll the younger describes him, "the ultimate player's coach".

For any coach at any level in any discipline there can be no greater compliment. To be the best that you can be, yet appreciated for what you do and who you are by those under your direct control, is some compliment and takes some doing.

It hardly needs emphasising but as a representative of Irish rugby and specifically the governing body when under the media spotlight, he is an IRFU dream. Intelligent and witty yet deadly serious and respectful of every question he fields.

He carries victory and defeat with equal humility and leaves the can-opener to others irrespective of inner rage, particularly post-match. That also takes some doing but is in essence why this Joe, our Joe, is different.

As a player, I would love to have played under him. When I think of the coaching system in those days and many of the coaches who put themselves up as such, I cringe.

From a player's perspective, the current incumbent is easy to relate to because he gets life in the bubble that is rugby.


He is a fanatic for detail with an insatiable appetite for learning and improvement. Training reflects that.

If you turned up in Lansdowne, Merrion Road, Anglesea Road or wherever back in the day and were numbered from 16 to 20-whatever, your presence was irrelevant. And, take it from one who knows, you were made to feel that way too.

Today at Carton House every training session is meaningful and competitive with form in camp factored into selection detail. Along with a management staff in which he trusts, this head coach devises a strategic plan based on the next opposition and works through training forensically ahead of the team announcement and plan implementation.

It's a system in which players also trust because they know it to be honest and fair - words that didn't exist in the selection lexicon for a previous generation.

To watch our main man during the pre-match warm-up is an insight in itself. Different strokes I know but whereas others - Steve Hansen and Cheika over the past fortnight for example - oversee and leave the final ritual to coaching assistants and fitness staff, not the skinny kid from Woodville.

In the midst of every back-line drill is our tracksuit-clad main man, tweaking and fine-tuning the accuracy and precision at the core of his coaching.

You cannot put a value on such enthusiasm but once the fire in the belly is quenched, the ice in that brilliant mind takes over. He is match- not player-driven. Replacements reflect trend. He reads what is unfolding and backs gut over any premeditated plan.

He's far from infallible but we are so fortunate to have him.

Long may he rule.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport