Friday 24 January 2020

'Joe Schmidt and I were going down these country roads s******g ourselves and he blamed me'

John Plumtree enjoyed his year working with Ireland, but he’s happy to be brewing up a storm with the Hurricanes, writes Ruaidhri O’Connor

John Plumtree. Photo: Getty Images
John Plumtree. Photo: Getty Images

Ruaidhri O’Connor

The little things stand out for John Plumtree as he reflects on his season with Joe Schmidt and the Ireland team. Sure, there was Six Nations glory, but some of the most memorable moments came away from the pitch.

The genial New Zealander served as Schmidt's forwards coach during his first season in charge and while his stay ended prematurely when he was offered the opportunity to move home, he has plenty of fond memories.

John Plumtree with Joe Schmidt and Les Kiss during his time with Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile
John Plumtree with Joe Schmidt and Les Kiss during his time with Ireland. Photo: Sportsfile

There was the night he and Schmidt got lost en route back from Ravenhill to Dublin and ended up driving along the border, scared stiff.

"We had a lot of fun," he says with a smile, recalling his first trip to see a game with the boss.

"We went up to Belfast and of course, you know, Joe chats away… I thought he knew how to get back down to Dublin, but we missed the turn-off.

"We ended up going inland and it was late, it was after 11pm because Ulster had just finished playing and, holy s**t, Joe is going through these little towns and country roads and we're s******g ourselves.

"We only got home about one in the morning, having gone the long route - and, of course, he blamed me! I was supposed to be on the phone. So, we still laugh about that.


"Those trips were great with Joe. He's such a good bugger to talk to, it wasn't just all about rugby, it was other things as well. I miss Joe, he's a good man.

"He's serious about his business, but he's got another side to him that's bloody witty and that's why he's so popular. He doesn't take it too seriously all the time, you know?

"When it's time for rugby he does, but the other side of it is he's bloody funny."

Plumtree took charge of the Ireland forwards in 2013 and left at the end of his first season when the opportunity to come home and coach at the Hurricanes came up.

He was a popular man among the players, helping the side to the Six Nations title and a series win over Argentina before heading for Wellington.

The Kiwi, who won two caps for his wife Lara's native South Africa in the 1990s, is an influential figure at the franchise - who secured a first Super Rugby title under his guidance last season.

He'd been away for a long time, coaching the Sharks of Natal in South Africa from 2008 to 2013, until he was ousted by World Cup winner John Smit when he was appointed chief executive of the region. Smit has since admitted his mistake.

Wellington was the place he wanted to settle and when the opportunity to work as part of Chris Boyd's team with the Hurricanes came up he couldn't turn it down.

"I thought I would stay in Ireland for three years at least," he says of the move.

"Who knows where it might have gone from there, but I always had my eye on doing the Hurricanes at some stage of my career. And I guess with Chris phoning me up the temptation was there for me.

"I was getting my kids back into New Zealand rugby, because they're promising young players, so the temptation was there for that as well. There were tough decisions.

"My long-term goal is to coach this team. I'd like to be head coach of the Hurricanes in the future, but I had to get back into New Zealand rugby to get settled and learn certain things, I hadn't coached Super Rugby in New Zealand before.

"So I had one eye on the future, to be involved at a higher level back in New Zealand, and I guess the opportunity to do that came earlier than I thought it would.

"My whole thinking at the moment is really about family first and although it was tough leaving Ireland, getting my kids back here was important.

"When the opportunity came to go to Wellington, which is close to home and everything for me, I think I did the right thing, because the kids now have a base.

"They're going to play rugby, they're going to go overseas, they're going to do their thing. But at least New Zealand will be their home, whereas in Ireland, both of them would have been in university and I might have left and they would have stayed and we'd all get split up.

"You've got to remember, too, that my exit out of Durban wasn't flash. I needed to get out and Joe phoned and said 'do you want an opportunity?' It wasn't around finance or anything like that, it was just 'thanks for phoning me, I'll come'."

And the experience of working with Schmidt has helped him since he returned.

"Just around his preparation and the detail he goes into," he explains.

"When I got back here I saw more of that as well from the other coaches so that was great for me.

"I learnt from them and brought back what I knew, I guess. Now we're finding ways to get our messages across and put plans in place to hopefully get better results.

"So, yeah, it's been bloody good. It's just lucky, working with good people, you learn good things from them. That was a big thing I got out of Ireland. My family's not from here, they're from Taranaki. I knew quite a few people here so the transition here was easier, but there was still settling the kids into school and having to go through all of that.

"Joe will go through the same thing when he comes back."

The prospect of the Ireland head coach heading home has hung over him since he took the job in 2013.

Last year he signed a new deal to keep him in position until the 2019 World Cup and he is widely expected to move home to New Zealand after that. Plumtree is not sure what his old mate intends to do.

"I don't know what's happening, he had a big choice to make whether he was going to extend his contract out until the next World Cup, didn't he?" he says.

"Him and Warren Gatland, Vern Cotter, the Kiwi coaches overseas are always talked about in terms of coming back here and playing roles in New Zealand rugby again and I'm sure that'll happen.

"It's just whether Joe ever leaves Ireland, I don't know, maybe he's too Irish now. It will be interesting to see.

"There's a benefit from coaching overseas in places like Ireland and South Africa and the UK.

"You come back and you've grown as a coach, but I think you've got to remember with coaches that some put a big emphasis on their families and others think about their careers and stuff.

"That can lead to different circumstances and opportunities in what you do.

"I've always wanted my family to be together at the same time, I wasn't prepared to sacrifice going away and leaving the kids.

"Coaches get too wrapped up in their coaching role with their rugby teams, they've got to be careful about that."


His boys Reece (18), a full-back, and Taine (17), a second-row, are in the Wellington academy and it seems Ireland didn't just lose an influential and respected coach, but a pair of highly promising players who were enjoying their time at Blackrock College so much they didn't want to leave.

"They've got fond memories of Blackrock, my kids. They loved it, they were p****d when I said to them they were leaving," he recalls.

"That Dart train, they just got on it and they were gone. I didn't even know where they were gone, they just got out of the house, jumped on the train and they were gone. Bloody hell, it was loose.

"They could stop anywhere. They miss it.

"My middle boy (Taine), when they were all going to say goodbye to their mates and that, about 20-odd girls came out to the house and I didn't even know he had a girlfriend.

"There was tears and all of this, the whole classroom of girls came out and Lara, my wife, was going 'holy hell, what's going on here?'

"I'd warned them, 'don't get a bloody girlfriend because we're leaving', but one of them did and didn't tell us.

"That was emotional - no wonder I wasn't No 1 in the family!"

The move has worked out well for them all in the end and this morning his Hurricanes side face the Lions. Beyond that their Super Rugby title defence remains alive.

Plumtree left his mark on Irish rugby and Ireland made an impression him, but he's happy with his decision to leave.

Irish Independent

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