Tuesday 20 February 2018

'This is a whole different ball game . . .'

Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

You wouldn't readily associate Joe Schmidt with Jimmy Cagney, but if you were in Leinster's HQ in UCD last week the two might have fleetingly occupied the same space in your mind.

The scene was this: Schmidt's briefing was running over time; his PR man was battling to get the coach away from the table, where he was playing a winning hand, and onto the park where a captain's run needed running. Eh, one more question Joe: "What was the first thing that came into your mind when you got the call telling you the job was yours?"

Schmidt stressed that he didn't want his response spun into a negative context.

"The first thing I thought, was 'what have I got myself into?'" he said. "I can't be any more honest than that. Like I said on Monday, we all have a little bit of fear of the unknown. I feel like I know the game reasonably well. I've lived and breathed the game for the bulk of my years and certainly in the last 12, but this is a whole different ball game."

Then the PR man was shoving him out the door, and dragging him down the corridor, just like poor Jimmy, in Angels with Dirty Faces, was being dragged off to the plug-in chair. And while Jimmy howled like a baby, so it would be reported that he wasn't a poster boy gangster for kids, Schmidt too had a parting shot, fired over his shoulder. "And I don't want you putting a negative spin on that!"

The summit of negativity regarding Joe Schmidt was reached at the end of September 2010 when he oversaw three defeats from four games on his first month in the job. Since then pretty much the only detonations have been love bombs.

He is already Leinster's most successful coach, and by the time he clears his desk in three weeks, Schmidt may well have nailed four titles in three seasons. He didn't so much win by a country mile the race to succeed Declan Kidney, rather he agreed to the formality of going to the starting line.

Next comes minutiae and house-keeping. He touches base with about 40 players this morning in Carton House to sort admin issues ahead of the tours to North America for the senior squad – where the playing group will probably be 28, announced next weekend after the Amlin Cup final – and Georgia for the emerging group.

And all the time bubbling away in the background is the make-up of his support staff. The union handed him a set-piece on the medical and fitness fronts, and told him he had a free hand to pick his coaching staff. The good news for treasurer Tom Grace is that Schmidt is unlikely to go mad on recruitment.

"I think there's a danger in clutter in a coaching group," he says. "Some teams, if you study them, too many chefs spoil the broth. You want to have a good tight group who are complementary and have different strengths. And so you want to try to get that group up and running. It might be three or four full-time people and maybe depending on those full-time people maybe one or two people who come in in the actual playing windows."

If you were to lob a few bob on the runners and riders for that group, then Schmidt as head/attack coach and Les Kiss on defence would be your starters. The likelihood is that the forwards' coach will be a new face, and if he could coach the scrum at the same time then all the better. That would leave a skills/kicking coach to add – and given the straitened times we live in, unless this man is having an input across the country when the international window is closed, then it's not a full-time gig.

Expect Schmidt to put as much time and effort into the search as his predecessor did. And when they are all selected and on the same page it will be a clear message. He says the height of the crossbar won't be the target.

"I'm just not a good bar-setter. There are some KPIs (key performance indicators) that I know will be challenging and they will be outcome-related. I'm very much process-driven. If you don't get the process right . . . if you're looking at the result and you don't get the middle bit right, which is the process to achieve the result, you can't influence the result. You can't guarantee the result. Your influence on it is purely in the processes that you can deliver on the field. So for me, the bar will be set at first of all trying to have a really tight group that are cohesive. That you can have a group that actually enjoy each other's company, that have a real willingness to play for each other.

"One of the challenges I did set for Leinster is to challenge them not to play and promote themselves but to play to promote the players either side of them. If they play well, the players either side of them look good. That's a great measure of how well they're doing. A lot of the hidden work that maybe isn't quite so visible to people – that's the sort of process stuff that if we can get a really strong collective, if we can get people wanting to play for each other and wanting to actually promote each other. It's idealistic, I know, but you want that really competitive co-operation."

First he will need that spirit of co-operation from his employers. When asked if he thought the IRFU's new performance director needed to have a background in rugby – they haven't found him yet – Schmidt started out by saying yes, and then, wondering how it would look in print, hedged his bets by saying that he could live with an alternative. But if his vision for the coaching team is a small, tight-knit group with heaps of rugby experience then you know he's relying on the IRFU delivering the same at their end.

Schmidt admits to being obsessed with being as good as he can possibly be, and that his players are all crystal clear on what they are doing. So does he think the current Ireland set-up allows him to achieve that?

"Look, I'm hopeful that it does," he says. "Again, there's no perfect set-up. I know there are flaws in any set-up. Certainly having coached in the New Zealand set-up and the French set-up they have got some issues at the moment."

You wonder how well he will cope with going from 31-35 games a season down to 10. Imbued with energy, that's a lot of time off, even for a man who appreciates that the gap will allow him bear more of the load with looking out for his son, who suffers from epilepsy.

It suggests that when the squad do come together, every second will count. And in those moments he will reinforce his message on what keeps the show on the road.

"The emotional attachment is what competitive sport lives and dies by," he says. "And you get an emotional attachment because of the effort you see, because of the excitement that's created, because of the tension that exists. All those things go together to create an emotional attachment.

"History creates an emotional attachment. My dad took me to Ranfurly Shield games when I was a kid and when I played in a Ranfurly Shield game I thought, 'wow, this is great'. Except the result. And then when coaching and we won the Ranfurly Shield that was a massive emotional attachment for me. We had people who, for 105 years had been trying to win the Ranfurly Shield and when we finally won it people had a very visible emotional attachment to it.

"It was the same with the Top 14, the Bouclier de Brennus. Unbelievable stories about people who travelled, the fact that there was a reading on the earthquake-measuring equipment because 65,000 people in the Place de Jaude were jumping up and down saying in French 'he who does not jump is not from Auvergne'. There is a massive emotional attachment and I had seen nothing like Clermont until I came up here. Even in the good days with Bay of Plenty and exciting days with the Blues, there was nothing like that emotional attachment that they had until I came here to Leinster."

Recreating that with Ireland is what Joe Schmidt is about now, or at least it will be when he leaves Leinster for Lansdowne Road. He was being self-deprecating when he claimed he didn't know what he had got himself into.

Having had a close look for the last three seasons, the picture is clear enough. All that remains is whether or not in three years he'll be dragged from the scene, Cagneyeseque, kicking and screaming, or if he'll be settling in for a longer haul.

Irish Independent

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