Comment: Joe Schmidt's authoritarian approach with Ireland a classic case of the end justifying the means
It would be hard to argue with the man’s record. A win rate of more than 70 per cent, third in the world rankings, the first coach in the history of Irish rugby to lead the national team to a Test victory over the All Blacks, two Six Nations titles in four years and on course for a third this season – possibly even a Grand Slam if the stars align on St Patrick’s Day at Twickenham next month. Joe Schmidt is among the most successful coaches in world rugby. No question.
Why then the nagging feeling that, for all their success on the pitch, the architect of that success remains, if not unappreciated in his adopted homeland, then unloved. Or is that unfair? Perhaps that feeling is confined to Ireland’s rugby media.
There have been lots of interesting sub-plots to this year’s Six Nations. And the souring of relations between Schmidt and the Irish press has been one of them. It was a footnote in their eight-try victory over Italy two weekends ago but, for the first time in his 52-Test reign, the Kiwi cancelled his briefing with Irish dailies after the game.
Fair enough, you might think. And you would not be alone. Many supporters were quick to side with Schmidt and the Irish Rugby Football Union when the news was made public, accusing Ireland’s press of rabble-rousing with stories about Munster’s Gerbrandt Grobler and his past doping ban, or Ireland captain Rory Best attending the rape trial of Ulster team-mates Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding on the eve of the Six Nations.
Certainly there will be few tears shed for the loss of access suffered by a few rugby journalists. It does, though, point to a wider issue and one which is of more relevance where Schmidt and Ireland are concerned. The cancelled “dailies huddle” was part of a wider move by Schmidt to reduce the media’s access to his team and produce more content “in-house”.
Fewer players and coaches are being made available full stop.
Or, as another source puts it: “I think the image you get of Joe on the sofa of the Late Late Show is very different to the one we see and hear. Behind his smile, he is an absolute control freak – but he can’t control the media so he tries to control the access we have …”
It is an interesting insight into the world of Schmidt, whose control freakery is of course legendary. The terms “Auschmidtz” and “Schmidtler”, first used by Ireland’s players, behind Schmidt’s back, around the time of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, to describe the intensity of life in Ireland’s team camp, were apparently only used jokingly.
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But some believe there was an element of relief, as well as sadness, when that campaign was brought to a juddering halt by Argentina in the last eight.
“Players respect and admire Joe, but there is a limit,” says another source. “He has eased off a bit on the players to be fair. I think when he first came in he felt he had them ‘full time’ and could drill them full time. But you do hear things. I think he was on at them again recently about the team leaking out. Brow-beating them …”
Schmidt and Warren Gatland, his opposite number in Saturday’s mouthwatering clash between Ireland and Wales in Dublin, present fascinating character studies as coaches. Both Kiwis, and both – like their fellow Antipodean Eddie Jones – former schoolteachers. But where Gatland is perhaps a little more hands-off with his pupils (and Jones a little more mischievous), Schmidt is fully hands on; more didactic, more methodical, more controlling.
“You play the game with two voices in your head,” Johnny Sexton, Ireland’s fly-half, once said, “your own and Joe’s commentary. Make a mistake and you know you’re going to hear about it on Monday morning.”
Those methods are undoubtedly effective. Even disgruntled players such as Simon Zebo – whose mercurial talents were never fully trusted by Schmidt and who has now been dropped by Ireland since announcing his intention to move to France at the end of this season – are forced to acknowledge the New Zealander’s tactical brilliance (although Zebo did taking a parting shot at Ireland’s “rigid structure”).
Ultimately, though, most players and fans believe the end justifies the means. There have been grumblings (which surfaced again recently when Ireland did not manage a single line break in their win over France) about the team’s lack of creativity. But Schmidt has a contract until after next year’s World Cup and there is no chance of him leaving before then. He is the most successful rugby coach ever to work in Ireland.
“Is he popular? He is really popular,” argues Luke Fitzgerald, who played under Schmidt at both Leinster and Ireland and has more reason than most to feel ambivalent towards the Kiwi. He once received a public dressing down from his coach which left him, by his own admission, wanting to butt him. But he says he does not hold it against him.
“I just think he’s really, really good at his job. He’s tough. He’s the kind of guy who can kill you with a line. But, exactly as you say, the end justifies the means. And one thing you know as a player is that there won’t be anyone working harder than him. That always makes it easier to go the extra mile. That’s why we’ve been so consistent.
“Sometimes the rugby might be overly pragmatic but I don’t think you can really argue with the results.”