Friday 27 April 2018

Joe Schmidt: 'I live or die by what I do'

Leinster need a plan to beat Toulouse, and Joe Schmidt is a man with a plan, writes Brendan Fanning

Joe Schmidt: 'They probably put the parameters down because they didn't know who they were going to get, but when did Leinster players not arrive into Irish camp in good condition?' Photo: Tony Gavin
Joe Schmidt: 'They probably put the parameters down because they didn't know who they were going to get, but when did Leinster players not arrive into Irish camp in good condition?' Photo: Tony Gavin

There was something about Napolioni Nalaga's try for Clermont in last season's French Championship final that went well beyond its impact on the game. And that immediate impact was massive, for it took Clermont far enough away from Perpignan that a pursuit from the Catalans wasn't worth mounting.

The move had started back on the half-way line with a setpiece play. It had been crafted on the training ground to open up space in a certain area and that's exactly what it did. First Aurelien Rougerie was put away, then the link with Anthony Floch, and then Brock James attacking close in. By the time the powerful Fijian scooped up the ball to score, the damage to Perpignan was irreparable.

The response from the hordes of Auvergnians in a packed Stade de France was deafening. This was deliverance for a rugby-mad people who had become afraid to believe that their day would ever come. And that deliverance had been facilitated by two Kiwis who were under extraordinary pressure themselves, weighed down because here was another final and history had reinforced that finals were not things that this club could win. But Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt refused to be broken by it -- rather they worked on the things that win games, not finals: planning and preparation. And it worked.

"They continually talked about it," Schmidt remembers. "People asked me had we a monkey on our back? It was a silverback gorilla. It was getting ridiculous: 99 years, 11 finals, three finals in a row before we won the fourth. I felt we had been pretty unlucky the previous season against Perpignan and I really did feel we were capable of beating them, but they are strong right through the team and they're hard to break down defensively.

"But the pressure energised me. I worked very hard on strategy with VC. We talked a lot about selection and what was the best make-up of our team. We looked at a lot of footage. And that try we scored was certainly a part of that."

Was there not a part of him that didn't want to open the curtains that morning for fear that he would be closing them that night on a century of failure?

"Like any person you're motivated a bit by the fear of losing again but I certainly wasn't depressed or put off by it. Part of that was the energy to look a bit deeper. One thing you can do as a coach is filter stuff, so by the time it gets through to the player it's simple: this is what we think will work; here's a couple of images that can bed that in and an idea of how or why we think this can work. Let's put that together on the field and see if we can do it well enough. It's almost as simple as that really."

The thing that really strikes you about Joe Schmidt is his self-belief. He is at the other end of the scale from arrogance, but he exudes such energy in what he is doing and has such confidence in the people around him that it takes over everything. From this you infer that finally stepping into a head coach's role has given him extra gas. After four roles as assistant, from New Zealand Schools, to Bay of Plenty to the Auckland Blues to four years in Clermont, his time had come. So when Leinster came knocking he knew he had to answer, for the sake of his career.

"No, not at all," he says. "Far from it. To be honest I was really enjoying what I was doing. I was happy. Obviously I'd worked with Vern for a number of years both in Bay of Plenty and Clermont. I'm happy being an assistant coach. I would still have a lot of say on who we were looking to recruit, who we were selecting in the backline, how we play. I felt like I had good input without being at the forefront of things. I could keep a low profile. The thing that I know that people don't see is that it's very much a team effort in the backroom. I know my head's the one on the block but they're certainly helping me keep it above water as far as the public are concerned. It's just a case of keeping the ship moving forward."

So why leave the Auvergne? When Schmidt arrived with wife and four kids in tow, they were aliens. When they sat down for a meet-and-greet lunch with team manager Neil McIlroy, a Scot who has been in France for years, it was sandwiches and bottled water for the Kiwis. By the time they left four years later, they were fluent in the language, and Schmidt had come to treasure his 'fat lunches' with Vern Cotter of a Friday.

With the captain's run out of the way, they would repair to a downtown restaurant where foie gras and a couple of Bordeaux merlots would disappear, usually finishing off with a few wedges of Saint-Nectaire, a rich and traditional cheese of the region. And maybe a glass or two of Saint Emilion to make sure it hit the spot. Then it would be off home for a kip. Grand job. Why would you want to leave?

"I don't want to sound like I'm not making my own decisions but I came over a couple of times and spoke to them (Leinster) and had a look around and met with a couple of the players -- Jon Sexton and Leo Cullen -- and they seemed really keen to get something that maybe, misguided as they were, I would offer," he says. "Something slightly different to what they'd been getting and which had been working. I still was really hesitant because again I was really comfortable in Clermont. I could finally speak the language with no problems and the fat lunches were great. The whole lifestyle thing was very good and I did enjoy it.

"But there were two key motivations: one, smart man Mick Dawson (Leinster chief executive) actually got my wife over. She speaks good French but she was actually more comfortable in an English-speaking environment. Irish people are very open, very welcoming and very friendly. I don't mean that in any kind of superficial way. That's a genuine sentiment. And we felt that from 20 years ago when we left Mullingar. We've got really good friends there. So they took her over and showed her a few schools and a few houses and she got excited about the shift. In the end I've got to work. I'm a pretty simple guy. I get immersed in what I'm doing. For her to be happy is really important.

"And then our youngest son Luke had been really sick. He had a few medical issues in France and we felt it would be much easier for him to slot into an English-speaking environment.

"He's in Stratford National School and it's been fantastic for him -- they've been incredibly supportive, as was everyone in Clermont. It puts things in perspective. One of the things being a rugby coach is that I live or die by what I do, but you get perspective when your son has a nine-hour operation (aged 4) and you're not sure if he's going to come out of it. It puts rugby in perspective."

That was that then. Dublin is still a newish home to the Schmidts and all is well. At least it is now. There was a moment at the Magners League launch in Cardiff at the start of the season when you looked at Schmidt and wondered if he knew what he had let himself in for.

"Really fallen on my face here," he says as he recalls looking at the Heineken Cup pool for the first time. The best bit was that he would have Declan Kidney all over him like a rash when it came to monitoring every minute Leinster's Ireland contingent spent on the field. Welcome to World Cup year, Joe.

The morning of the league launch, Ireland manager Paul McNaughton was quoted along the lines that despite rumours to the contrary, the provinces would get to touch and feel the stars in the early rounds of the league. News to Schmidt, that one. Already by that stage Munster's Tony McGahan was up in arms. You sensed it would be a rocky road for Schmidt before he found the pace of life here. As a matter of interest, when was the last time he sat down with Declan Kidney to catch up?

"We sat down about four or five weeks ago to talk through some of the pre-season stuff in their build-up to the World Cup and how that's going to be put together and the role of the provinces," he says.

"For me probably -- I am conscious of being politically correct on this as well because I am a believer in it (the Player Management Programme). It's a must. My major gripe would be the (lack of) flexibility within it. To be fair to the Irish rugby union, I was a new coach and they probably put the parameters down because they didn't know who they were going to get, but when did Leinster players not arrive into Irish camp in good condition? That's one of the teething issues that with a bit more communication I think we'll get through and we'll have a bit more of a smooth transition in between camps. As I say, it's difficult for the IRFU because they don't know who the hell I am. They don't know whether I'm going to be prepared to thrash players and do what's best for Leinster at all costs even if it's at the expense of the Irish national side. I'd hope they'd have a little bit more confidence in what we're doing in Leinster across the board."

Indeed. Beasting is not on the agenda. Isa Nacewa, their leading contender for player of the season, plays every week because he is looked after, even though he is not on the Ireland roster and in theory Schmidt could drive him till he drops. Training days rarely exceed 70 minutes on the park.

The results have at times been stunning: the demolition of Racing and Clermont in Dublin; the first half in Limerick last month; and the opening quarter of devastation against Ulster last weekend. When Leinster play like that they look as good as any club team in world rugby. So all is sweetness and light?

Not quite. Moving from France, where the rugby hacks are your mates more than your critics, to this corner of the world has been a tricky transition for Schmidt. He was taken aback for example by some of the admittedly empty-headed criticism that came his way when Leinster were losing three of their first four Magners games last September.

At one level it is perfectly reasonable for him to demand that media commentators should start by researching their topic before booting their laptops. Yes, but it would be nice too if bankers in this country knew something useful about banking. And there are a few spoofers pulling down a salary as rugby coaches as well. That's the world we live in, and when clowns slag you off the best reaction is to remember that you're at the circus. He is animated over the treatment of his team by Sky on their review last week of the win over Leicester, another top-quality performance.

"On the Rugby Club that was a disgrace in my opinion," he says. "I was really disappointed with the actual commentator from Sky who certainly led the questioning -- 'Ah you know so it's the best cheats that win is it?' And George Chuter -- I don't know if you've seen the slow motion punch from Chuter to Leo's (Cullen) jaw. How he stays on the field I'm amazed.

"He's a good player and he's a competitor and fair dues to him but he got away with that. But to say that we were getting away with stuff -- on the evidence of looking at the video? I think Nigel Owens was very balanced. We didn't get any favours. We'd disagree with some of his decisions but in a game where he has to make a thousand decisions and you disagree with a handful of them? Then he's done a really good job. If Alesana Tuilagi had been awarded that try would the shoe have been on the other foot? I'm not sure."

Schmidt's main worry is that England's Dave Pearson, who is in the middle for Saturday's showdown with Toulouse, might be swayed by the impression of Leinster's wide boys having done a number on Leicester's choir boys. You would hope not. Still, Schmidt has plans for a team he knows well from recent experience and he doesn't want them mucked up. As it happens his record against them with Clermont was very good: six wins from eight meetings, but a handful of them could have gone the other way and he wouldn't be tucking those match reports under his pillow at night.

In any case that was with Clermont, not Leinster. And the fact that this is a whole new season he says is all the context Leinster need, he reckons, parking Leinster's humiliation at forward in last year's semi-final.

"I think season to season it loses its relevance," he says. "I was really concerned about Clermont this season. I thought they came here last year (with him on board) and had done enough to win the game but didn't and then having them in our pool this season and having to go over there and knowing the fervour that is Stade Marcel Michelin -- that concerned me. And the fact that if they're interested and they put their mind to it you're not safe when they're away from home either.

"But I felt that there was a difference (in performance) there this season and maybe we can get the same difference against Toulouse. I'd love to think so but I'm also a realist.

"From one year to the next it's not necessarily the same beast that you're working with. The thing with Toulouse is just the depth of quality. If they play Heymans at fullback and Medard and Clerc on the wings you're in trouble and if they put Poitrenaud at fullback with the same wingers or move Heymans it's the same.

"But at the quarters I'm thinking: 'Ah Gee I just hope we get past Leicester and whatever happens after that I can live with'. I can't live with that now! We've got to get to Cardiff. I think there's a real motivation in the team but at the same time you can be as motivated as you like. Against Toulouse you've got to be motivated, accurate and aggressive. And very, very complete on the day because they have such a number of arms they can throw at you."

Leinster are not exactly strait-jacketed themselves. There is a way to win on Saturday, a plan that will work, and no man is better placed than Schmidt to figure it out. Off you go there Joe.

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