Saturday 24 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Schmidt’s spectacular achievements make him greatest manager in Irish sports history

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt arrives prior to the NatWest Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Scotland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt arrives prior to the NatWest Six Nations Rugby Championship match between Ireland and Scotland at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

Joe Schmidt is the greatest Irish team manager of all-time. Not just the best manager of an Irish national team but the best manager in the history of Irish sport.

Who's been better? Brian Cody and Mick O'Dwyer are towering figures but their achievements are probably too parochial for pre-eminence. Schmidt's only real rival may be Jack Charlton whose feat in bringing Ireland to the 1990 World Cup quarter-finals still seems remarkable.

Yet there's a difference between turning a team into contenders and making them into winners. The Six Nations may be an attenuated affair compared to the World Cup but rugby is a global game all the same and right now only one team on the planet is better than Ireland. Considering our relatively limited player numbers this is a spectacular achievement.

It's not just that Schmidt has brought Ireland three championships in five years - for only the second time in history. It's the manner in which those triumphs have been achieved and the difficulties which have been overcome.

On Saturday Jeremy Guscott attributed Ireland's success to the team having been together for a long time. But this isn't really true. Only seven starters from the side which clinched the Six Nations three years ago started against Scotland. Only nine starters survived from the team which this week last year got stuffed by Wales.

That was probably the low point of Schmidt's reign. There seemed to be doubts about the team's direction, even if no-one echoed the previous year's declaration by George Hook that, "Schmidt may well be the worst coach/selector in Irish rugby history," a claim which makes the man who refused to sign The Beatles because he thought guitar groups were on the way out seem a genius of foresight.

Ireland have not lost since that Welsh defeat because Schmidt (pictured) has somehow managed to simultaneously improve, rebuild and consolidate. After any reverse, everyone suggests players who might improve things.

Yet 12 months ago no-one mentioned James Ryan, still in the Leinster Academy, or his former U-20 team-mate Jacob Stockdale. Suggestions that Dan Leavy could be one of the best back rowers in the Six Nations or Cian Healy might recapture his old fire would have raised eyebrows. Chris Farrell? Andrew Porter? Yeah right.

The notion of Ireland as the most battle-hardened of Six Nations teams is fallacious. Tadhg Furlong only became a first choice during the 2016 end-of-season internationals. That's also where Garry Ringrose came in. CJ Stander made his debut just two years ago. Bundee Aki is still a Six Nations novice.

There is a core of experienced players at the heart of the side but Ireland are a work in progress. They just happen to resemble the finished article.

The essence of Schmidt is that he makes teams win. The Irish rugby teams of the mid- to late-noughties contained perhaps more individual talent than the current side, crewed as they were by players from Europe conquering Munster and Leinster outfits.

Yet, though they won a Grand Slam in 2009, Ireland arguably underachieved back then. 2007 was a classic example, the last-gasp defeat to France in Croke Park compounded by the late lapse against Italy which let the title slip.

Under Warren Gatland and Eddie O'Sullivan Ireland were always knocking at the door and not quite getting in. Declan Kidney didn't build on his first-season success. His final years were Ireland's Brezhnev era, all drift, lassitude and disillusion.

When the new manager took over in 2014 he inherited a team which had won just three of its previous 10 Six Nations matches.

A transition period seemed inevitable. Instead he won two titles on the trot. Both triumphs had a whiff of overachievement about them. Ireland were dogged rather than devastating.

Yet getting two titles from a standing start revealed Schmidt as a very special operator.

He might have attained legendary status in just his third game in charge had the All Blacks not engineered a try in added time to deny Ireland an historic win which, it turned out, was just being postponed for a short while. Watching New Zealand go through phase after phase at the death while knowing that a single mistake would spell defeat, you marvelled at the sang-froid and precision. What would it be like to follow a team like that?

You know now. Ireland have scored 17 tries in this year's championship but the first thing about 2018 which will always spring to mind will be the 41 phases in Paris and the Johnny Sexton drop goal. It was perhaps the quintessential Schmidt moment. His team did what had to be done.

No-one could have predicted Ireland wrapping up the title with a week to spare. It's said that teams 'need everything to go right' to win the big ones. Yet everything didn't go right for Schmidt. He lost Jamie Heaslip, Sean O'Brien and Jared Payne, then Josh van Der Flier, then Robbie Henshaw, then Chris Farrell who had to be replaced by Garry Ringrose who'd been missing earlier on himself. Against Wales, Tadhg Furlong and Iain Henderson were hors de combat.

Yet the machine trundled. The players who filled in played above expectations. Everyone did. When that happens the manager deserves enormous credit.

Through it all Schmidt has, one untypical media wobble aside, been a dignified and understated presence. That is his way. In a job which encourages egotism, he seems remarkably free of it. There is nothing of Mourinho, or Jones about him. Or of Charlton either. Perhaps that's what tips the scales and makes him the finest manager this country has ever seen.

There's been no show like this Joe show.

Irish Independent

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