Joe Schmidt exclusive: His battles with the media, his public vs private persona and what he left out of his book
When Joe Schmidt was a kid growing up in small-town New Zealand, he was a hard lad to pin down.
Skinny as a rake, he was nimble on the rugby field, quickly learning how to use his mind in tandem with his feet to avoid getting whacked by bigger, heavier opponents. He was good at it because he had to be.
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Off the field he never stopped moving, because there was an imperative to that too.
The third of eight children in a modest home where his dad was the postmaster in Woodville, a small town near Palmerston North on New Zealand’s north island, he knew the value of a dollar. So if he needed something that was considered above and beyond the basics of getting by, he had to earn it. He got work.
Initially it was a paper round. If your image of kids on paper rounds is from American movies where the rolled up editions get fired by auto-pilot in the general direction of the white picket fence then Schmidt’s was different. He had to deliver a fair few by hand. Against the clock — he would set himself a target of 75 minutes — it was a challenge made trickier when passing Woodville Racecourse, and the chance of being stopped in his tracks by crossing horses.
His next gig was as a runner at said racecourse. It had extra appeal given there would be clashes between school and race meetings, and for a bright kid it mustn’t have been a big deal to let him off. In his book Ordinary Joe, published last week, he paints the picture. If you have ever seen Schmidt on the training field then it’s easy to drift back to the time and place where he was an important cog in the machine.
"After each race I would run up the steps and along the rooftop of the main stand, to get the photo and the confirmed results from the judge. Results and photo in hand, I’d run back across the roof, down the steps, then down the zig zag of the internal stairs to the Secretary’s office underneath the stand. I’d wait for the results to be signed off by the Secretary before running across to the main tote so that all the calculations could be completed and impatient punters could be paid out. The final leg brought me back to the Secretary’s office to pass a copy of the dividends and the total turnover."
In the school holidays he worked in a tree nursery — planting, potting, pruning and weeding. Not a lot of crack there, and a long, tiring day from 7.30am to 5.30pm in which to fill the emptiness. Still, the wage was worth it. And for a driven kid, that equation made sense. Sitting now in a hotel in Dublin all these years later, you wonder where that work ethic came from.
"You know what — it didn’t exist in school," he tells me. "I didn’t work hard in school. I was lucky because my mum was smart and I could read as a very young kid and I did find school very easy. Even the bit where I got strapped (by a teacher). My mates, they were all farm boys. Quite often they needed a hand and I did find school work easy. Once I actually finished university the work ethic came after that because I could see how I could make a difference with kids. I worked really hard."
But you were driven as a young kid. You had jobs all over the gaff. Where others would have been taking it handy you were going hammer and tongs?
"That was almost ingrained. It was inherent. I wanted to have the opportunity to go on tour to Australia with our (school) first XV rugby team so I had to supply that money. When you’ve got eight kids — mum and dad were working but they weren’t on flash money or anything. All the kids worked and did different things."
Ok, was it your folks who pointed the way? How did they meet? Was it across the dance floor at a barn dance in Wairarapa Bush?
"I don’t know, I never really asked them about it."
No? Are they Kiwis born and bred?
It’s not off the stones you licked this perfectionism and work ethic. We are all to some degree shaped by circumstances and our folks. So why are you not putting them in your story?
"It’s . . . I reckon there’s more of my mum in me than my dad, as much as it broke me when I didn’t get back for him (when he was dying, Joe was on a Super Rugby tour with the Auckland Blues)."
What’s your dad’s name?
"David. David Charles."
That’s not in the book.
"No . . . no."
What’s your mam’s name?
That’s not in the book either.
"No . . . no."
"Because . . . because that was one of the things I kind of wanted to keep . . . I’ve always wanted to keep this public persona and the private person separate. I wanted to give a bit of a taste what it was like growing up in New Zealand. I wanted to give a taste of that, and it’s funny: Cliona (Lewis, of Penguin) said to me: ‘It’s not really an autobiography.’ I don’t know what you’d place it as. It’s a bit of a mish-mash because the 10 central chapters are more about what I’ve learnt and how I’ve stumbled across these learnings and what other people might look at and get something from. I didn’t want it just to be a story about me because I’ve read lots of autobiographies and I find them interesting but I don’t necessarily get anything from them, or get a real insight into how they think. It’s a whole lot of events they’re involved in but not quite how they think. So, yeah. It was a battle for me."
Well it was a battle you lost.
"Yeah . . . yeah."
Was your dad born in the 1930s?
"Thirties . . . yeah."
So was your grandad involved in the Second World War?
"My grandad changed his name to Smith during the war. Because they were getting bricks thrown in the windows because his name was Schmidt. And that’s a German name. But we actually came from north Poland, kind of Prussia. In 1875, three generations (of the Schmidt family) on the same boat to Napier, Hawkes Bay. So is that part of my story? It probably is. We didn’t end up far from there. Woodville is two hours from Napier, where they first landed. I’ve got a lot of relations in Dannevirke and the Hawkes Bay.
"Before the war there was a real German influence through the Wairarapa. People wouldn’t think it but there’s quite a Chinese influence in mining areas of the South Island. In NZ it’s funny because coming here (to Ireland) there are so many accents, a huge amount. In NZ there’s only one accent really and then down in the deep south they roll their Rs. And that’s it. Because it’s such a young country. I didn’t think people would be interested in that, you know?"
Did you get any grief as a kid in school?
"Ah, yeah. I did. Kids tease other kids for anything they can find. So one thing was my name. And my name is Josef (he pronounces it with a Y). I was named after a tenor, some singer. Some German tenor. And that’s a bad connection, because my singing is very poor!"
There are worse Josefs you could have been named after.
"Yeah, true. Look, in the end I didn’t think there’d be massive interest in that so I kind of felt like you don’t want the book to be too big. The central part of the book were those 10 chapters in the middle, and the first part was a bit of that formative stuff — people are interested in how you end up being who you are. These are some of the influences."
* * * * *
IT’S appropriate that a book that will be filed out of place under sports autobiographies should have a title that is well wide of the mark. Joe Schmidt is to the ordinary man what Yogi was to the average bear. He is unique in Irish sport; he enjoys widespread respect across the rugby world for his achievements at club and international level. Joe Schmidt is extremely bright, and as you can tell from his earliest years on the planet, his metabolism zips along like the racehorses that used to cross his path on the paper round: big, snorting speedsters for which he developed a love that lingers.
He doesn’t mind a bit of physical hardship, yet in the book he presents the occasional exposure to corporal punishment in school as notable. To anyone raised in the Irish education system pre the early 1980s, getting whacked by teachers was a regular feature. But the barefoot bit in Schmidt’s story is alien to us.
The only time he was sent off a rugby field was when his old man was the ref. The offence was to delight in the misfortune of a rival, coincidentally another kid with a Prussian name. And when the young Schmidt questioned the decision he was told to walk home for good measure. Off his own bat he completed the journey barefoot rather than scuff the studs on his boots. Painful, but makes sense if you had worked your butt off to buy the boots in the first place. In any case, respect. And it’s a long way from ordinary.
The idea for the title — 'Ordinary Joe' — came from an email he sent to a childhood friend who had written to him, wondering if it was the same Joe Schmidt after Ireland had beaten the All Blacks in Chicago in 2016. Yep, just the same Ordinary Joe was the reply.
"What people don’t realise is, I’m no different from that kid," he says now. "I’ve learned a lot along the way but I’m still the ordinary person that I was then. And people have this perception. Even my family — my wider family I mean — they perceive you as someone slightly different. I’m just the same guy."
It’s not credible.
"You might say that but I don’t see it and I don’t feel it. Sometimes I see it — the New Zealand job at the moment, and there’s a lot of talk around and one of my mates sent me this article yesterday saying that NZ rugby desperately needs Joe. I don’t see that. I see the headline but I don’t feel it. They’ll do really well without me. They have great coaches and great people involved. So part of it is I’m trying to tell people I’m no different from what I was. And if I was intelligent I was lucky. I feel my mum was very intelligent, she read widely."
Christina Schmidt would read to the kids while preparing meals for them, an exercise that kept them in some sort of order, and, for Joe, it passed on a love of books. Much of that reading has been around the job: first as a teacher, who took his career very seriously and was tipping away successfully at it until rugby dragged him away; and latterly on leadership and how it could improve his coaching and motivation of people.
As Ireland coach he also consumed a fair amount of the written word on rugby, either directly or through his PR man, who he says would filter a fair bit. Schmidt’s first bruising contact with the fourth estate was when he was assistant coach at the Auckland Blues, his second pro coaching gig after packing in teaching. His son Tim came home upset one day that the kids in school had been slagging him for his da’s part in the Blues’ ordinary season. You can imagine the pain that would cause, and the guilt. Over the years that would have been wiped out by the reams of newsprint devoted to his many successes. Anyway, he includes a chapter in the book on the media. Why?
"You know what, because they had an impact on me. And I’m only just being honest. They have an impact on my family. The media chapter (originally) was longer than that because I started off saying how the world has changed for the media and I had a couple of things about the big takeovers — not your one (Mediahuis buying Independent News & Media) which is too recent — but more in the last couple of years, and how tough it is in the current environment where change is almost a constant. You’re being sold to people or there’s a change in emphasis. I talked a little about the pressures (on journalists) to get something."
He wants us to get it on his terms though.
In the book he mentions the story of All Black legend Brad Thorn coming to Leinster, and how Schmidt got a call from a journalist looking for confirmation of the story. It was an especially awkward time because he was waiting for his son, Luke, to have surgery for his epilepsy condition.
Long story short, it was this journalist who made the call and Schmidt asked that we hold off as the deal wasn’t over the line, and he committed to giving decent background on it when the Japan element — where Thorn was still playing — was squared away. We agreed, reluctantly, fearing that someone else would get it and run with it. As it happened they didn’t. Thorn signed and Schmidt was true to his word and gave us decent stuff on it.
That’s how he’d like all his media stuff to work: a story easily enough confirmed, and put to bed with something for both parties. The best stories are invariably more awkward, and it’s plain wrong to suggest coaches are glad to get those calls checking facts. Schmidt cites the cosy setting from his time assisting Vern Cotter in Bay of Plenty where a local journalist used to travel on the team bus and pop up regularly in the changing room.
He was local, trusted and positive by nature, and the access he had to the team and players was much greater than I’ve experienced since.
It sounds like the man was so deeply embedded he should have written his name on the soles of his shoes.
By a distance the most controversial story across Schmidt’s career, from New Zealand to France to Ireland, was the Belfast Rape Case. It gets only a few paragraphs by way of explaining that Rory Best hadn’t flown the coop in the lead up to the France game last year to attend the trial, rather it was the usual midweek break when all the players head home for 24 hours. He doesn’t get any closer than that.
"These guys (Penguin) thought it wasn’t a good idea to go there," he says.
The bigger picture around that case is one he has opinions on, for sure, but if he’s not wading in to those waters then it’s understandable that the smaller one is not explored either. And that featured the huge disruption to the nuts and bolts of squad development for Japan. His unpublished plan had been to get Johnny Sexton, Paddy Jackson, Joey Carbery and Stuart Olding all on the plane for the World Cup, with Olding as the ideal squad player who could fill 10 or 12.
Like a lot of other stuff in the Joe Schmidt story, it gets left out of the official version. There is lots of detail on the matches he played and the players he coached — an index would have been useful to keep track of this cast of hundreds, but evidently the publishers reckoned this should be a route map uncharted — and a good insight into life on the road through diaries written through the Grand Slam Six Nations of 2018 and the World Cup.
Unsurprisingly, there is no about-turn on the methods Ireland used to get into position for the great leap towards — and falling short of — a World Cup semi-final. That would have been out of character for a man so sure about pretty much everything he did. Joe Schmidt’s book is like the house party where you arrive and find the kitchen door locked. And the beer is in the fridge. So when he writes about the grief of not getting home from a rugby tour in South Africa when his dad was dying, it reminds you that he told us so little of the man who took such pride in his achievements.
Why did he issue the invitation at all? A few years ago he congratulated his predecessor with Ireland, Declan Kidney, on a book bearing Kidney’s picture, which Schmidt saw somewhere and reckoned must be his autobiography. Kidney alarmed him by saying it had been written by someone else, with zero input from Kidney. To Schmidt this sounded like having his house party crashed.
"(I wrote it) partly because I wanted to keep some control of my own story," says the man for whom control has always been king. Moreover he adds that a player subsequently contacted him to say an unofficial biography was being written on him, and he had been asked for a quote. "He asked: 'Hey are you ok with me talking to this journalist cos he’s writing a book about you? I said go for your life but I’m going to try and beat it if I can."
Not surprisingly, Joe Schmidt won that race. In the rush to get over the line however he left out so much we would have loved to know.
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