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Friends reunited as old pals Joe and Vern lock horns


Clermont manager Neil McIlroy (centre) expects a classic tactical battle on Saturday when Joe Schmidt and Vern Cotter renew rivalry

Clermont manager Neil McIlroy (centre) expects a classic tactical battle on Saturday when Joe Schmidt and Vern Cotter renew rivalry

AFP/Getty Images

Clermont manager Neil McIlroy (centre) expects a classic tactical battle on Saturday when Joe Schmidt and Vern Cotter renew rivalry

"Some look at things that are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not?"

When we first met Vern Cotter, we knew just why the 2005 Lions were going to be eaten alive by the All Blacks that summer.

Standing before us was a 42-year-old bloke from the bush who suddenly started quoting the above aphorism from Shaw a day before his Bay of Plenty side were about to take on the tourists.

"Who is this bloke?" we asked a colleague. "That's Vern," said our friend. "Oh".

We learned later that 'Vern' was not your average Kiwi. Not alone had he fluent English but French, too. Four years earlier, he was top of the class in the NZ RFU's coaching module; John Mitchell was just one who lagged behind.

"He always used to play the Te Puke farmer thing a little bit, turning up in gum boots, but make no mistake, he's got his degree and done his time at university. He's a smart man."

Joe Schmidt said that of Cotter earlier this year. He should know.

A couple of years before the Lions' visit, Schmidt had been persuaded from his school principal's role to link up with Cotter when the latter saw his work with the Tauranga Boys' first XV.

Thus was born a storied relationship between a stereotypical duo: the bookish, analytical don and the gruff, grunting farmer. Except, as we have already seen, appearances can be deceptive.

"He's a smiling assassin," remarked Cotter once; a statement for him which borders on the elaborate. Not for him the apparent bubbly, cuddly image posited by Schmidt.

A smaller constituency has witnessed Private Joe but those on the inside can relate to the fact that he is a world apart from Public Joe.

The stereotype of good cop/bad cop is almost too convenient a tag for this duo who, after their domestic rise to prominence, transferred their skills to Europe and Clermont.


"It's doing a disservice to Joe saying that he isn't necessarily the bad cop," says Clermont manager Neil McIlroy.

"Joe can tell people things quite directly as well. He doesn't have that rough exterior, rough Kiwi farmer like Vern, or even the physical stature. But he can be quite direct and if he needs to get a point over, he can do so in a pretty uncompromising fashion as well."

McIlroy, a son of the Scottish Borders, initially recruited Cotter alone, in 2006; Schmidt followed a year later.

"Bringing in Vern was exactly what we needed at the time, by way of a straight-talking, hard-nosed individual," explains McIlroy; Clermont would soon be transformed from a sleeping giant into champions of France.

"And then his subsequent idea to bring in his former assistant was successful because he knew it would counter-balance his skills and it worked well for us."

They dovetailed superbly, as Clermont veteran lock Jamie Cudmore recalls; again, interestingly, the Canadian cites Schmidt as the steelier of the pair, despite outward appearance.

"The hardest would be Joe," he reveals. "You'd get picked apart from him and then you'd have to get the work done for Vern. Joe is the real school teacher type, he'll pick apart all aspects of your game quite well.

"Vern will take a couple of the points and hammer them home, with volume and heavy work to try to get things right for the following week. He definitely changed, like anybody they adapt and progress in certain areas.

"We worked on volume in the early days and then he brought in more precision which would have come from Joe after he arrived. Vern has evolved as a coach because of that."

Nathan Hines, the former Scotland lock, had Schmidt for two successful seasons at Leinster before joining Clermont and Cotter in 2011; ask him was there a good cop/bad cop vibe and he laughs loudly.

"Definitely good cop, bad cop mate! They complement each other. I never had them both but I can definitely tell from having each of them that they go about their business differently.

"They'll both question you and what you're doing but they will choose different approaches to get the same result. I've never heard Joe being angry, I don't think I've ever heard him yell. Whereas a few times I've had Vern let it all out. He was as mad as a cut snake when I first met him, he isn't as angry now.

"Joe doesn't need to get angry. He has all the numbers. He's the parent who tells you that they're not angry but disappointed, you know? Which probably would make anyone feel worse, they'd rather the parent was angry compared to being disappointed.

"He'll show you a clip. And he'll say 'you're better than that, we know that, you know that'. If you don't know what you've been doing, he will know it for sure. And he'll tell you."

When they eventually sprung out on their own, Schmidt achieved instantaneous success with both Leinster and Ireland; Cotter's work with Scotland is a much more foreboding gig altogether.

"When they're in the bubble of the team environment, that's where they're at their most natural," adds McIlroy.

"Vern is not somebody who enjoys going in front of the media. He realises it's part of the job but not many coaches enjoy it. The real man is in the team environment.

"Rugby teams don't need showmen or media guys, they need sincere and honest people in the team environment and they're both at their best in that situation.

"The Irish players from O'Driscoll through O'Connell have cited Joe's analysis and the detail that they all appreciate. They know if they work hard it will be seen by Joe."

This week, they must respond to defeat; a rare occurrence for Schmidt but currently a routine affliction for Cotter. Neither man will, however, budge from their single-minded approach.

"You saw Joe's face at the end of the Welsh game," says Hines. "It was a face of thunder. You could tell he was pretty disappointed. Inside he'll be really mad.

"He won't take that out on the players, though. His motivation this week will be to find ways to sharpen things up. He knows the team have form behind them and they'll be looking to go to Murrayfield and just try to tidy up one or two things.

"Vern is in a different situation. He has the team going in the right direction. And even though Scottish supporters have heard the same thing over and over again, they're gallant losers all the time.

"They're probably a year away from being really, really good. I honestly don't feel they're that far away. Their attacking stuff is really good, it's just making sure that Vern can get their defensive stuff up to scratch."

They are apart for now but some, as their former player at Bay of Plenty, Paul Tupai, said yesterday, feel they could once more be reunited for the biggest job of them all, coaching the All Blacks when they eventually decide to return home.

"There's no doubt they would want to be in that handful of coaches that will be getting the job at some point down the line," Tupai says.

"I think they have to be in that category, with everything they've achieved already, and no doubt with more to come.

"I wouldn't be surprised if they already have a plan, to try to get back there together. And they've definitely got to be up there."

McIlroy feels a sense of pride in their achievements.

"It's pleasing for us as an organisation. That's how we look at our player recruitment, the individual personality is just as important as one's playing skills and that extends to coaching technicians.

"We spend 11 months together and it might not be as high level as international rugby but it is pretty intense. Getting the right individual is important for us.

"Still, it's strange to see them going head against each other this weekend."

For now, both men will try to out-wit each other this week where once they toiled together to out-wit others.

Which, in a roundabout way, leads us back to Shaw.

"Men are wise in proportion, not to their experience, but to their capacity for experience."

Irish Independent