Saturday 21 September 2019

35 wins, one draw, six defeats and one lost appendix - Joe Schmidt brings curtain down on Aviva Stadium career

With just six defeats in 42 matches in all, departing coach turned Dublin into a venue where teams hated to go

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

IF Joe Schmidt ever picks up his quill and pens a memoir, the Aviva Stadium will provide a backdrop to much of his Irish rugby life.

His Leinster appearances at the newly-reconstructed Lansdowne Road were fleeting, but they were significant and when he ascended to the Ireland job he helped turned a less-than-popular stadium into something of a fortress.

It is easy to forget how lukewarm the public was to the glass bowl on the banks of the Dodder after it replaced the crumbling, but much-loved, old ground in 2011.

That has changed in the years since, with the 2013 classic defeat to New Zealand the day the atmosphere in the stadium finally caught fire.

The match-day experience relies on the home team being competitive and inspiring the crowd to respond. Throughout his time in charge, Schmidt's teams have been difficult to beat at the Aviva Stadium.

When he first arrived to coach at the venue, his back was against the wall. A new face in a new town, his Leinster side hadn't caught fire and the New Zealander had been the subject of criticism. They beat Munster and never looked back, collecting two Heineken Cups, a Challenge Cup and a Pro12 before he ascended to the Irish throne.

Clermont Auvergne did manage a win over Leinster on his final outing, while Australia and New Zealand claimed victories in very different circumstances in Dublin 4 during his first three games in charge. Since then, he has only experienced defeat three times at home.

Today, barring a reversal of his decision to "quit coaching" after the World Cup, he'll return for the final time to the familiar surrounds of the sound-proofed coaching box from which he has conducted the orchestra on so many occasions.

International Rugby Newsletter

Rugby insights and commentary from our renowned journalists like Neil Francis, Will Slattery, Alan Quinlan & Cian Tracey.

Despite the rare losses, every team that has come to Dublin during Schmidt's time in charge has tasted defeat at least once.

"It's a bit of a blur, to be honest," he said when asked to reflect on his time coaching at the stadium this week.

"I think the great days have been the ones where the players have done something a little bit special, and you've seen players grow.

"A few years ago (2017), when England were on the cusp of breaking the record for the most consecutive wins and they were on the cusp of going back-to-back Grand Slams and Kieran Marmion started at No 9 and did such an phenomenal job for us.

"Luke McGrath coming off the bench, he put that kick into the corner that just took that pressure off… Peter O'Mahony had come in to the starting XV when Jamie Heaslip pulled out so late in the day, grabs the lineout right towards the end and plucks it away from Maro Itoje. There's moments like that that obviously linger.

"There were the sad days, like 2013 against the All Blacks, but they're counter-balanced now because whoever has come here we've managed to beat at some stage through the last six years so it's been a privilege… I've got to say."

Of all the days and all of the wins, the one that will linger longest in the memory will be the defeat of New Zealand in 2018. They'd beaten the All Blacks in Chicago two years earlier, but the world champions came back with a vengeance two weeks later and won a brutal contest in Dublin.

At the third time of asking, Schmidt's team delivered what could come to be considered the signature performance of his time in charge.

"It was huge," he recalled. "The glass is incredibly thick in the coaches' box which is probably a good thing sometimes, but even then you could feel the atmosphere.

"It was phenomenal right up until that last play where the ball went down and we're just outside our 22 and we're coming off the line… those are moments that you do certainly cherish."

Back in May, at the Rugby Players Ireland annual awards Schmidt was asked about the part of the job that he's had to work on the most.

Given how much input and control he appears to have on events down below, it was no surprise that the time he spends in that glass cage of emotion in the West Stand came to mind.

"The bit I still struggle with, and I've never said it to anyone, is during the match, I get so torn up," he said.

"It might not look like that and they show some other coaches who are a lot more animated than I am, but I'm so emotionally attached to what's happening out there that it's so hard to stay logic . . . to stay based on what I see and making logical decisions. To give a bit of direction potentially or just stay out of the way.

"There was a great coach who said, 'The first thing you need to do is listen to the game,' and I try to listen to the game early on and not to say too much, not to think too much about what we need to do later on and try to feel our way through the first few minutes and see what's happening.

"At the same time you might be attacking or defending and you're living on the edge of your seat.

"You're trying to stay logical, think about how you can try to solve problems and create some problems for our opponents. I'm not that good at it, to be honest, I'd like to be better."

Some days he deals with it better than others, but on one occasion in 2014 he coached Ireland to victory over Australia under incredible duress.

"I hyperventilate, I've been resuscitated a number of times… once I even needed to have my appendix removed after the game," he recalled.

"I remember saying to Les Kiss just before leaving for the ground that he might have to take over, I was in a lot of pain. It wasn't until I was being interviewed after the game and the doctor walked past and did a double-take and said: 'You need to see a doctor'.

"I always thought that was quite funny considering he was a doctor…. He obviously meant a real doctor!

"I was thrown into a car, Dr John Ryan was on duty - a fantastic guy - and he took me off to St Vincent's and within two hours I was minus an appendix.

"On the way to the hospital, John asked me to rate the pain on a scale of 10 and I said I was pretty uncomfortable, I'd be about a seven and he said, 'that's all right, we'll have you there in no time', sped up and, boom, right over a speed-bump! It went straight up to a nine, but his intentions were good!"

That was the starkest day, but before he even ascended to the Ireland job Schmidt had happy memories of Lansdowne Road.

"It's been a privilege to have been involved in Leinster as well," he said this week. "Watching Isa Nacewa score that try against Leicester (in the 2010 European quarter-final) when we desperately needed that. We'd butchered a try in the first half and we would have had breathing space and then when it became so tight for someone like Isa to go 45 metres, pretty much, was phenomenal.

"The Toulouse (semi-final) where early in the game (David) Skrela hits the post and we think, 'oh, that's great, he's missed' except that they got seven points off it because then it bounces on the ground and they scored. I think the lead changed six times… to win that one is super as well. The year of the big snow, the Clermont game - we'd lost away there (but) the following week Cian Healy had a big breakfast and he charged through most people who were in his way.

"All those things kind of meld into a fantastic memory bank but we've had a few days where we've slipped up as well but they are very, very few which has been a relief really because you're emotionally connected, your head's in the game and when the game goes good, it's a massive relief."

Today, the stakes are low and the World Cup looms but for the final time at the Aviva Stadium the Joe Show gets under way.

It's been quite the ride.

Indo Sport

The Left Wing: Ireland's fullback dilemma, World Cup bonding and the squad standby list

Also in Sport