Friday 22 February 2019

Vincent Hogan on Joe Schmidt: The accidental maestro, the perfectionist behind Ireland's extraordinary success

Joe Schmidt during an Ireland rugby open training session at the Aviva Stadium
Joe Schmidt during an Ireland rugby open training session at the Aviva Stadium
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt. Photo: Getty Images
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

He went home last July, back to the High School in Palmerston North where he'd taught for eight years and taken his first, reluctant steps as a rugby coach. And Joe Schmidt spoke to the students about leadership, about the cold winds that go gusting through young men's lives.

"We grow up thinking the world is fair, but it's not," he told them. "So you're not always going to get the results you're looking for. The challenge is to pick yourself up again when you have those days."

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We have become proprietorial about him on this side of the world, about this outwardly reticent drill sergeant whose time in Irish rugby has given us a new understanding of obsession's grammar. But, of course, ownership is a dubious concept in professional sport. Schmidt is of another place, and even a missionary eventually feels the tug of home.

And, be clear on this, Joe Schmidt's people want him back.

He was named the Manawatu Standard's 'Sportsperson of the Year' for 2018 after an all-conquering season with Ireland that found the perfect capstone through another victory against his own; this self-proclaimed "incredibly accidental coach" with just about every door in world rugby now gapingly open to him.

The IRFU would instantly despatch a Securicor van if they thought money could keep him in Ireland beyond this autumn's World Cup. And even the All Blacks seem of a mind to sidestep rigid convention, offering him a role in Steve Hansen's backroom two years ago when, historically, an apprenticeship in Super Rugby seemed obligatory.

But the tug of home isn't drawing Schmidt towards another dressing-room now. If anything, it's pushing him away. While his coaching career is testament to a fastidious side, to his trust in detail and that technical gift for unlocking secret doors, there is a simple dignity communicated too of a man whose love of family will forever trump the game. His son Luke's struggles with epilepsy will be the unchallenged priority of Joe and Kellie Schmidt in 2020.

There will, he says, be no backward glances.

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Maybe with great coaches, a clock is always ticking. When Joe Schmidt first came to Ireland in the early '90s, on a gap year from teaching at Tauranga Boys' High School in the Bay of Plenty, he was a man in a hurry to learn. It's well-documented how quickly he became immersed in Mullingar Rugby Club and the unlikely schools success he helped Wilson's Hospital achieve.

But Schmidt, keen to explore every thread of a rural Irish life, pitched up on GAA fields with Mullingar Shamrocks too, even playing a junior football league match in September of '92 against Milltownpass.

A voracious reader, his story is that of the eternal student then, always listening, absorbing, storing. His coaching career initially followed a relatively slow-burn path, through Mullingar, Palmerston North, Napier Boys, Tauranga Boys' College, New Zealand Schools, Bay of Plenty, Auckland Blues and Clermont Auvergne, before torquing spectacularly with Leinster and Ireland.

Joe Schmidt has some final words for his Ireland team before the 2015 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina. Photo: Getty Images
Joe Schmidt has some final words for his Ireland team before the 2015 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina. Photo: Getty Images

And now?

Schmidt could be anything he wants to be. Three Six Nations titles with Ireland, a Grand Slam, a series victory in Australia, a first ever Test win in South Africa and, of course, those two defeats of the All Blacks make him rugby's hottest coach.

Yet he talks down his role as if it's the technical equivalent of lobbing fish into the mouths of dolphins.

Just last week, explaining his plan to step away from rugby, he told the New Zealand Herald: "You can't keep riding your luck. I've had an unbelievable time in the game, whether it be with Bay of Plenty and (winning) the Ranfurly Shield or even when we finished up at The Blues with the last semi-final, which I thought was a really good step.

"You've got to run out of luck at some stage. I felt we (Ireland) did a bit in 2015 at the World Cup, so that's something that's probably a good time to finish on - post-that I'll have had two shots at trying to get guys ready for that. And then finish up from there."

Maybe on some level those lines capture the Schmidt paradox. The easy self-deprecation tangled up with a compulsion to always tick another box. That gentle, Huckleberry Finn shrug next to the famous five-mile stare.

Schmidt is a harder nut than he likes people to believe. We know that now, but he's never felt a need to be surly or laconic in a world where some coaches have the social graces of house plants. Maybe his upbringing in the small town of Woodville, near Palmerston North, coloured him this way, equipping him with a humility that makes him instantly likeable.

He talks about Woodville in a way that brings to mind that old Jim Murray line about middle America being full of towns where "the train only stopped if it hit a cow".

Schmidt says he sometimes experiences a sense of incredulity now at the scale of the rugby crowds teeming through his everyday world. "It's pretty hard to imagine for someone born in Kawakawa, population 1,400 people," he once joked. "And you're shifted to the metropolis of Woodville, 1,600 people. Huge!"

Yet so many of New Zealand's rugby gods rose from such small towns that a bucolic background could never be mistaken for a millstone. Schmidt always understood that.

Johnny Sexton and his wife Laura, with son Luca, share a joke with Joe Schmidt during Ireland women’s World Cup game with New Zealand in 2014. Photo: Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton and his wife Laura, with son Luca, share a joke with Joe Schmidt during Ireland women’s World Cup game with New Zealand in 2014. Photo: Sportsfile

Once told by his coach at Manawatu that he was too small to be a serious player, he piled on two stone through a personally designed weights programme. That coach, former All Black Mark Donaldson, would admit: "He gave me a slap in the face with what he achieved in the gym."

And underestimating Joe Schmidt is a mistake rugby people stopped making quite some time ago.

His most famous moment as a player can still be tracked on YouTube, this blond-haired wraith outsprinting Jean-Baptiste Lafond to a cross-kick when scoring for Manawatu against France in '89. The coaching side of things? As it happens, that materialised at much the same time. And in spite of Schmidt's own instinct.

A point-guard in basketball, he volunteered to coach the game while teaching at Palmerston North. The sporting director, Dave Syms, duly welcomed the offer, announcing: "That's brilliant. Basketball is on Friday nights, it won't affect your rugby coaching on Saturday mornings!"

Hence the "accidental coach" self-portrait, the impression of dice falling one way to change the rugby world when they might just as easily have fallen another.

And, within New Zealand, minds are clearly opening now to the idea of Schmidt, some day, coaching the All Blacks, his record in the northern hemisphere simply brooking no argument. After all, during Hansen's time in charge of Wales, he did not record a single victory against New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England, France or Ireland.

In the last two years alone, Schmidt has overseen wins over every other top-ten ranked country, Ireland winning 17 of their last 18 Test matches. That's compelling arithmetic that even the most hard-edged power-brokers cannot wisely disregard. The historic narrowness of an All Blacks' view of the world has begun to soften.

Accordingly, some of Schmidt's own people seem convulsed with an idea/hope that he might merely be playing a game of bluff here. After that recent announcement about taking a break from the game, the New Zealand Herald's Liam Napier wrote sceptically: "In the stack of cards, Schmidt's statement has only moved him from ace to joker!"

The Prodigal is wanted by his own.

So there was a distinctly convoluted sound to the provocation coming Schmidt's way this week from England's training base in Portugal. He has long been impervious to the kind of schoolyard rhetoric that had John Mitchell predicting the likelihood of Ireland trying "to bore the s**t out of" England's supposedly all-singing, all-dancing entertainment troupe in Dublin tomorrow. So Mitchell's words carried the sound of pebbles tossed against a wrought-iron gate.

If Schmidt's Ireland have a name for risk-averse rugby, they have also become one of the most tactically astute in the game. After all, they scored exactly double (22) England's haul of tries in the November internationals, and the ease with which all that thunder and white bluster was decommisioned at Twickenham on St Patrick's Day felt like a tactical watershed; England not so much beaten as ignored.

Pretty much everything about Ireland that day spoke of a coaching mismatch. So Mitchell's incendiary? If England cannot bring this rivalry back to what it used to be - a battle of size, will and flaring emotions - then Eddie Jones must look to out-strategise Schmidt instead. And it's clear that English faith in that possibility is threadbare.

Jones' style is to play the Aussie street-fighter these weeks, the "convict" in his own words. But, if England believe they can get under Schmidt's skin this way, they haven't been paying attention. Because there is a side to the him that occupies a recurring, anecdotal place in the soaring story of rugby's World Coach of the Year. One communicating a capacity for ruthlessness frankly irreconcilable with the Mills and Boon version of Joe Schmidt we see sporadically in a Late Late Show studio.

He certainly has an intolerant eye for what he perceives to be malingerers or daydreamers in the squad environment. The famous 'lost key card holder' incident at Carton House during Ireland's first autumn assembly on his watch - a stone-faced Schmidt holding it up to the group and declaring: "If we're sloppy off the pitch, then we'll be sloppy on it" - quickly set a defining tone for the standards he would demand of them.

And while it's never quite been the "nanny state" laughably depicted by one English newspaper recently, the coach is famous for that kind of micro-management and methodical attention to detail.

Paul O'Connell has spoken of how a Monday video session could be an "edge of your seat" exercise, recounting one after the 2014 November defeat of South Africa as leaving the players feeling "as if we'd had the s**t kicked out of us."

Andrew Trimble has described how the atmosphere in camp could be "tough and unpleasant at times".

Brian O'Driscoll recalls a man who "rarely shouts, but his words can be lethal".

Dave Kearney was once angrily upbraided for a lapse of concentration during an open training session at Newforge outside Belfast with the cutting observation, "We don't watch, we work here!"

Yet, of all the stories touching on the steel in Schmidt's leadership, maybe none resounds louder than that told by Luke Fitzgerald about a pre-World Cup training camp in London four years ago involving a training match against Harlequins.

Fitzgerald remembers cutting through in a couple of clean line-breaks, only for Schmidt to take issue with the lines taken. In his Left Wing podcast on independent.ie, he described the moment thus: "He started giving out to me in front of both teams. Whatever about giving out to me in front of the Irish lads… I've never been so embarrassed. I completely fell apart and left the place nearly in tears. I didn't know whether to box him or… I just fell apart."

Asked subsequently to expand on that moment in his An Irishman Abroad interview with Jarlath Regan, Fitzgerald revealed how "the word from the group" was that Schmidt believed him to be revealing "a little too much" in his podcasts these days.

On that moment against Harlequins, he told Regan: "Towards the end of the session, I couldn't even catch the ball. The most basic thing… I swear to God. I completely capitulated, I was so embarrassed. I couldn't believe it. Whatever about our crew, don't be trying to put down a marker in front of everyone else and being the big man.

"Like you know… our crew… that's fine. Dress me down all you like. I felt like sticking the head in him. I was just… I was not a happy camper. We were staying in a really nice little town outside London and I had to go off and have a coffee by myself and just write down a few things, just to calm myself down, clear the head, scrunch it up, throw the paper away and start again."

After that Grand Slam win at Twickenham last March, even Jonathan Sexton alluded to a coach whose perfectionist ways meant "at times, you're driven demented with him".

Yet not one player or former player questions the relentlessly positive impact Schmidt has in a team-room, the sense of comfort to be taken from his detail, the clarity of instruction, the setting of behavioural standards that demand everyone strives endlessly for self-improvement.

Schmidt's two most recent predecessors as Ireland coach, Declan Kidney and Eddie O'Sullivan, were themselves outstanding successes, winning a Grand Slam and three Triple Crowns respectively. Yet, it feels as if the New Zealander has rewritten everything here.

Even Fitzgerald, while admitting "he could decimate you with a single line", is quick to add: "I think people accept that there's always challenges when you're trying to do something great. And this guy challenges you, helps bring the best out of you. While he can be tough to work with, we're not supposed to be his friends in there."

He seeks a player's attention, not affection.

Schmidt will have a plan now, because he always does. And, win or lose tomorrow, he will come to the media auditorium after with that familiar gentle, civilised manner. Even quarrelsome questions will get time and grace and adult consideration. He knows no other way.

And maybe on some level, that's a side of Joe Schmidt becoming increasingly attractive to his own people now. New Zealand may have won the last two World Cups, but they did so with Graham Henry and Hansen both adhering to that gruff, stone-faced cliché of an All Blacks coach. The uber-male. The man of granite.

When Hansen was asked about fielding criticism after last November's loss in Dublin, he turned his focus rather gracelessly on the media, suggesting: "The good thing people could do is not click on it; then they wouldn't have a job and it'd be great."

An ugly, crass reply.

That same week, Schmidt, typically, dismissed his role in the tactical masterclass responsible for the All Blacks' first ever defeat at Lansdowne Road.

Asked about the detail in his playbook, he smiled bashfully: "I mostly steal them from other people. I've come up with some incredibly bad moves in my time. They looked good on paper though!"

Little wonder the rest of the world is smitten.

Irish Independent

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