A familiar face is looming over Ireland’s Test series with New Zealand
“I have decided to finish coaching and will prioritise family commitments after the RWC in 2019.”
Joe Schmidt dropped his biggest bombshell at his moment of greatest strength. The morning after he was named World Rugby Coach of the Year at the end of a remarkable 2018, the canny New Zealander announced his decision to quit as Ireland supremo after the following year’s World Cup.
That wasn’t the surprise. What was shocking was Schmidt’s wording. He wasn’t just walking away from Ireland, he was leaving coaching behind altogether.
And yet, less than four years on, the smiling assassin was back in a tracksuit this week, running sessions in his native New Zealand.
Even in 2018, nobody would have been surprised that Schmidt would be part of the All Blacks’ set-up for the 2023 World Cup campaign.
However, the way things have unfolded in the subsequent years to bring about that result could not have been predicted. Like everyone, Covid-19 played a big part in shaping the next four years of Schmidt’s life.
In the 12 months that followed his coronation in Monte Carlo, the Kiwi suffered a personal trauma with the death of his mother and a series of bruising losses on the field that culminated in the World Cup quarter-final tanking against his home country at the 2019 World Cup.
The enduring image of his final game was of him sitting spent in the coaches’ box in Yokohama as his team kept on playing with the result long gone.
By the time he returned to his Dublin home, even Schmidt knew he needed a break.
“I did run out of energy, you get a little bit used up, but you do get refreshed,” he said in June 2020 as he contemplated life in lockdown and his next steps.
By then, he’d released a book to mixed reviews and was given the Freedom of Dublin, appeared on The Late, Late Show and began attending matches as a supporter.
A few Dublin clubs got him in for sessions, but when Clermont and Spain offered him brief windows to review how they do things, he jumped at the chance. The bug was beginning to bite.
In truth, the ‘finish coaching’ line hadn’t lasted long and was probably designed to quell speculation during his final year.
By Christmas 2018, he was saying “you never say never” about coaching beyond the World Cup, but the difficult nature of the end of his tenure took a toll.
Still, lockdown reframed Schmidt’s thinking and when World Rugby approached him about their newly created, high-powered Director of Rugby role, he decided to take it.
By then, he’d relocated to Lake Taupo in New Zealand because he feared for his son Luke as schools opened up in Ireland.
With some family remaining in Dublin, the Schmidts hoped the World Rugby role would mean they could jet between the two hemispheres, but travel restrictions put paid to that ambition. He kept a low profile, although he was an influential figure in the corridors of power.
He came in with a broad remit to improve refereeing standards and make the game safer and more exciting at the same time.
During his time with Ireland, Schmidt became known for submitting forensic, lengthy missives about refereeing performances, but now the shoe was on the other foot.
When Rassie Erasmus’s video nasty went public during the Lions tour last year, Schmidt and referees’ chief Joel Jutge were the two men he was addressing as he highlighted a myriad of perceived flaws in referee Nic Berry’s performance.
At some stage, the politics began to grind Schmidt down and the lure of greater involvement in the game grew. After a year, he opted to remain in New Zealand for good and left World Rugby “to spend more time with his family”.
“Our son has a set of challenges, having had a brain tumour as a young man and epilepsy as a result. He’s really settled here and is well looked after by the local community, so staying here made a lot of sense,” he said in December.
He took up a role as a “support coach” at his old Super Rugby franchise, the Blues, but that was just a taster.
The All Blacks knew he was in-country and, having failed to land him during his time with Ireland, new coach Ian Foster was determined to secure his services for this World Cup cycle.
Grant Fox was stepping down as the All Blacks’ independent selector at the end of the World Cup and Foster thought Schmidt could reshape that role and become an important player in the set-up.
“Foz called me and told me he was the preferred candidate. He was after Joe, but Joe wasn’t available. He said, ‘Mate, can you give me a hand for a year’ because he didn’t want a filler,” Fox recalled this week as he prepares to hand over the role to Schmidt.
“He was always after Joe. It turned into two years and Joe still wasn’t available and then late last year, he told me, ‘I finally got him, but I can’t have him until August!’
“We didn’t know at the time, but Joe was getting involved with the Blues and the other part is he doesn’t want to be involved against Ireland, which we respect because it’s a team he coached for a long time and is passionate about.
“He’ll add tremendously to our group, he’ll do more than me.”
Fox was a sounding board for Steve Hansen, an independent voice who challenged the coaches on their thinking.
Schmidt, however, is expected to play a more hands-on role and Foster will encourage him to do so.
“He’s very analytical in a practical way. He’s got a big picture of the game and communicates that and breaks that down well to the playing group. It’s been pretty easy to see the success he’s had,” the head coach said. “What I like is that he probably sees the game a bit different to me. It’s a great time to bring a fresh set of eyes in. It puts us under the microscope and make sure we’re maximising our growth opportunities.”
Although many in Ireland have their doubts, Schmidt insists he’s happy to be the assistant once again.
“I’ve been working from home for 14 months, my wife runs the home and I’m used to being second fiddle!” he said.
“I’ve no qualms about that, it’s something I’m looking forward to.
“A lot of head coaching is actually managing up and out and not getting the time you want with your feet on the ground, doing the job.
“I’m actually looking forward to a little less of that management and more being in that head-space about player development and the conversations with Fozzy and his team.”
This week, the best-laid plans to avoid confrontation with Ireland went out the window as Covid-19 struck Foster and two of his assistants down and Schmidt stepped up to lead the team.
While he was determined to keep a low profile during this window, his influence in the preparation for the squad was an open secret before he was drafted in.
Now, he’s central to the whole thing.
Perhaps a taste of All Black involvement will see him crave the top job, or maybe he’s reached a point where the intense scrutiny that comes with that position is just too much to bear.
Whatever happens this week, he was back where he is happiest and doing what he does best.
For the rest of the world, that’s a scary proposition.