Wednesday 12 December 2018

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'Bumper year shows how hard it will be to replace Joe Schmidt'

Ireland coach looks set to announce post-World Cup departure today with Farrell and Lancaster the favourites to replace him

Hat-trick hero: Andrew Conway on his way to scoring his third, and Ireland’s seventh try against USA. Photo: Sportsfile
Hat-trick hero: Andrew Conway on his way to scoring his third, and Ireland’s seventh try against USA. Photo: Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The beginning of the end of the Joe Schmidt era is set to be heralded by an email from IRFU headquarters in the next 48 hours.

The decision has been well flagged and, barring a stunning last-minute change of mind from the Ireland coach and his family, who met yesterday to make a final call on their big decision, the Union will have to plan for life without their most successful head coach after Ireland's World Cup campaign finishes in Japan next year.

Decision time: Joe Schmidt. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Decision time: Joe Schmidt. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

On Saturday Schmidt pretty much let the cat out of the bag when he talked through the process of his decision in the aftermath of a routine win over the USA.

Asked if he had informed the Union of his intentions, he said: "A little bit, yeah. And they've said, 'don't be rash, if you change your mind, we'd love to continue that conversation or if you change your mind we don't need to have a conversation, or if we just continue as we are, that's great'."

One imagines that if Schmidt's decision was to stay on he'd never have set himself this deadline, but by announcing his departure date he is giving the IRFU time to find a replacement - and the man who takes over the top job will face a difficult task in maintaining the ridiculously high standards the New Zealander has set.

Next year's World Cup will ultimately define Schmidt's legacy, but in delivering a return of three Six Nations titles in five seasons, a host of historic results and producing a run of 17 wins in 18 Tests, he has set quite a benchmark.

Replacing him will be the job of performance director David Nucifora.

Assistant coaches Andy Farrell, Simon Easterby and Richie Murphy are all in contract until the end of the 2019/20 season and Nucifora may choose to hand the reins over to that ticket until the end of the campaign.

The former Wallaby hooker, who enjoys a long-standing, strong relationship with Schmidt going back to their days at the Auckland Blues, has been kept in the loop by the coach.

He has no doubt been planning for this moment for some time and it would be no surprise if the contingency plans were already in train.

Nucifora has previously expressed a desire to promote from within the Irish system, while IRFU chief executive Philip Browne endorsed the idea of adopting the English ticket of Stuart Lancaster and Farrell despite their results at the 2015 World Cup.

Perhaps Farrell will hold the reins until the summer of 2020, at which point Lancaster, currently a key figure at Leinster where he operates as a powerful senior coach, would come on board.

That would allow the province the time and space to find a replacement for the influential Englishman, who commutes from his family home across the Irish Sea.

The roaring success of the Leinster experiment has proven that titles and hierarchy can mean little if the structure is not right and so Farrell could become the figurehead at the front of house, with Lancaster operating on the pitch and behind the scenes.

When Nucifora made his statement about replacing from within, he did so at a time when Rassie Erasmus, Les Kiss and Pat Lam were in situ. They have all been replaced and the current incumbents at Munster, Ulster and Connacht are not well enough established in their roles to be considered for the top job.

Leo Cullen is another whose candidacy must come under consideration given his success at Leinster, but having been promoted into the top job at his home province, the former second-row may feel that another step up would be premature.

If Nucifora looks abroad he'll find a couple of Irish candidates in Mark McCall and Conor O'Shea, but both are in work and have expressed no public desire to take on the role.

Some will question the idea of reuniting the combination that tanked so badly in 2015, but Lancaster and Farrell have not put a foot wrong since arriving in Ireland.

Ireland have appointed an English coach before in Brian Ashton and there would be little resistance to the idea within the dressing-room, where both figures are admired.

It is clear that they have learnt from the experience of their home World Cup and come out the better for it.

It is not known if Schmidt will have a hand in appointing his successor, but it would be unwise not to at least seek his counsel given his knowledge of the game and deep care for the future of Irish rugby.

Ultimately, he is putting family first with his big decision.

"I guess I'm my own worst enemy when it comes to working," he said.

"I tend to be a little bit of a workaholic and so if there's a competitive advantage that I can find that I can help players attain then I'm going to be looking as hard as I possibly can.

"And that means that I'm out of the house a fair bit or even at home I'm plugging away, looking at things with a microscope. So that's probably a character flaw. If you probably talk to some of the people on the staff, it's one of many I have!

"Hopefully they don't disclose all the other ones, but I think it's one of those things that, you know, I first talked to the family in the summer and I'll be going backwards and forwards with the IRFU tomorrow.

"I gave myself the deadline of tomorrow, or Monday morning to say this is it definitively. So definitively, yeah, it will be then."

Not that there's a chance he'll be slacking off .

"Either way, the next 11 months is massive, whether it continues beyond that or whether that's the end point," he concluded.

"It's massive. We've got the two biggest tournaments we play. We've got the Six Nations as defending champs and the World Cup where we're certainly not the defending champs because we don't get past the quarter-finals and we'd love to do that."

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