Tuesday 15 October 2019

Comment: Architect of finest hour retreats from centre stage to ensure players feel full force of crowning glory

17 March 2018; Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt prior to the NatWest Six Nations Rugby Championship match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium in London, England. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
17 March 2018; Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt prior to the NatWest Six Nations Rugby Championship match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium in London, England. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

When I saw a familiar figure standing near the tunnel at Twickenham on Saturday afternoon I had to do a double-take.

The Grand Slam party had kicked off on the pitch with the Ireland players about to collect their medals and lift the Six Nations and Triple Crown trophies. Dozens of photographers stood in line, with their cameras pointed in the direction of the stage for the money shot of one of the most historic moments in Irish sport.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Sportsfile

Yet behind them all, away from the flash photography and flashing lights, was also the priceless sight of the head coach who has framed a new vision for Irish rugby.

Before the full-time whistle blew, Joe Schmidt left his seat in the stand and walked down the steps to be with the players pitch-side.

He showed them what they meant to him as he gave huge hugs to a team that had just delivered an epic performance, who put into practice what they learned from the team of coaches and which they had driven themselves as players.

As they moved centre-stage for the presentations, Schmidt retreated out of prime-time view towards the tunnel. He looked a picture of contentment as he watched the players feel the full force of the glory they had worked so hard to achieve.

Schmidt took on the role of bystander wanting this to be all about the players.

When Schmidt's voice briefly cracked with emotion in an interview around 15 minutes later it was both surprising and not surprising at all.

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The previous weekend after their win over Scotland, Schmidt watched some of the second half of France's game with England on a small TV with us in the tunnel at the Aviva Stadium.

It felt strange watching him watch a game which confirmed Ireland as Six Nations champions for the third time under his watch.

He left with around 10 minutes to go to attend dinner with the team and Scotland but it felt like Ireland had been denied that big moment with players and coaches sharing a championship title together on the pitch in front of their fans.

But Ireland got their epic moment a week later. They seemed ahead of the game in every way on Saturday. They arrived around 20 minutes earlier than expected to Twickenham, conscious of any possible traffic problems and not wanting to leave anything to chance.

When they finally reached that pinnacle of a Grand Slam it must have felt like a huge pressure release for Schmidt.

We are used to the Ireland head coach viewing performances after a game through the prism of how it can be improved, searching, scrutinising and breaking it all down so Ireland can be even better the next time.

But this time he broke this victory down to being all about the players and it was then that Schmidt's voice cracked with the emotion of how much he knew it meant for players like Rory Best and Johnny Sexton.

Schmidt moving to Ireland has been one of the best things that's ever happened to Irish rugby. But not just because the standards he sets rolls down through the rugby system but because of his generosity to other sports people.

In this Six Nations, Munster head coach Johann van Graan has visited the Ireland camp as well as coaches from Leinster, Connacht, plus Jared Payne and Dwayne Peel from Ulster.

And Mayo Gaelic football manager Stephen Rochford also visited an Ireland session this season.

Watching the players' reactions when they saw family and friends in the stands at Twickenham was one of the most heart-tugging moments of Saturday. It's the people and the players, not just the plays, which drew the real emotion.

Schmidt has made family such an important part of this team. After the Scotland game, players brought their kids into the dressing-room, providing shared memories with their fathers that they will always remember.

Working pitch-side for a day like Saturday in Twickenham is like flicking from standard to high definition. Everything happens up close.

Like seeing the genuine hug of congratulations Dylan Hartley gave Best in the tunnel after the game, like hearing the celebrations in the Ireland dressing-room and feeling their togetherness, like nearly walking into the Ireland dressing-room at half-time (by mistake!), and even feeling the generosity of people like Ireland team masseur Willie Bennett who brought out a cup of coffee and a tray of sandwiches for me despite having enough to be doing with the team. Thanks Willie!

More than anything Schmidt has shared with us the value of humility.

In his post-match interview he mentioned Christy Moore coming into camp at Carton House last Monday and singing Ordinary Man at one stage. "They are ordinary men who are an extraordinary team who delivered exceptional deeds," Schmidt said.

There's something in that for everyone. This Grand Slam belongs to all of us. Schmidt's greatest gift is that he's allowed us all to dream of what is possible.

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