Monday 21 October 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Schmidt has changed the way rugby people in Ireland see themselves'

His shy and affable manner away from the training ground belies an intense obsession that is at the heart of his success. Vincent Hogan profiles the enigmatic head coach who leads Ireland into the World Cup

Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt in Ireland dressing-room
Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt with his players on the pitch ahead of the team’s World Cup warm-up game against England at Twickenham
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

He is two people really, two strangers it can be a struggle to reconcile. Out of a tracksuit, Joe Schmidt emits the bashfulness of a scout being lauded for a perfect reef knot. Chat-show compliments disarm him. He blows his cheeks out, his eyebrows arch. He looks to the world like a man faintly startled by his own body of accomplishments.

But, in uniform, that personality stiffens. He becomes intense, instinctively controlling. At times, he can seem as pre-occupied as a scholar bent over sacred texts. Schmidt's genius communicates itself at two starkly different settings then. He can be Huckleberry Finn. He can be Rommel. Either way, he makes things work.

There is an exchange in Tom English's book 'No Borders - Playing Rugby for Ireland' that captures the efficacy of Schmidt's authority. It relates to a training camp at Carton House and the coach's response to one of his players unwittingly dropping his key-card in a hotel corridor.

Rory Best recalls: "Joe found it and brought it into the team-meeting. He says, 'Just to let you know that somebody on their way to their room dropped their key and holder on the floor and that sort of stuff won't be tolerated. If we're sloppy off the pitch, then we'll be sloppy on it.' I was sitting there thinking 'Oh my God!'"

Paul O'Connell recounts how Schmidt likened the lost key-card to "littering in a hotel".

The tone with which the players' speak of their national coach transmits a quiet understanding that standards set are not negotiable. In the same book, Andrew Trimble talks of one of Schmidt's earliest Ireland squad gatherings and how, when the coach entered the team-room, he noticed one particular Leinster player suddenly sit "bolt upright".

As Trimble puts it, "It was like the head teacher had walked into the room."

Schmidt may just be the best coach in world rugby today but, with the tang of autumn in the air, he has begun to hear quiet scrapings of scepticism from the press box. The World Cup looms like a gigantic, onrushing machine and it would scarcely have been his plan to meet it on the back of consecutive warm-up defeats.

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Those close to him have little doubt he will have been stung by some of the more caustic, egocentric commentary on the apparent unravelling of momentum for the back-to-back Six Nations champions. Has his intensity simply worn them down? Or is this a giant poker table at which he is sitting with a second deck?

There were discreet dressing-room grumbles after last year's summer tour to Argentina that a scarcity of "downtime" had siphoned much of the humour from the group. That the schedule became a wearying marathon of practice and incessant review.

But the coach's record brooks no serious quarrel given his story is distinguished by a stockpile of trophies. He figures teams out, he wins things. He has, as Tommy Bowe puts it, "eyes in the back of his head".

In smart dressing-rooms, Joe Schmidt invariably gets heard.

HE COMES FROM A BIG FAMILY in a little town on the North Island of New Zealand. Woodville is a relatively nondescript dot on the Atlas just 25 minutes from the "bright lights" of Palmerston North. Go Google it and the first mention of Schmidt references him as a player in the National Basketball League.

When Dave Syms, head teacher at Palmerston North Boys' High School, hired him as an English teacher, he did so on the proviso that he helped out on the sport side. Schmidt immediately volunteered to take on the school basketball team, Syms dismissing the idea out of hand.

"No mate, you're taking over our first fifteen!" he said. "I guess I bullied him into it".

Ground staff at Palmerston sometimes confused the young Schmidt with his pupils, so much so that he was once even refused entry to the school hall. Yet, he was meticulous in everything he did, a whiteboard coach from his first day there. The unforgiving Monday morning video debriefs now considered so fundamental to his coaching style actually started in that High School.

"He was a very clever young man and a fanatic for detail," according to Syms. "Some people have all the wisdom in the world but can't communicate it. Joe had an ability to get up close to people, to motivate them, to coach them."

As a player himself, Schmidt was a lightning-fast winger whose most memorable game was probably a somewhat brutal contest in the colours of Manawatu against a traveling France team at The Showgrounds Oval in Palmerston North 26 years ago. In it he scored a try, his blistering pace enabling him knife past French wing, Jean-Baptiste Lafond, onto a Glynn Champion cross-kick to tie the game at 16-16.

"Joseph Schmidt, the speedster on the left side always had the measure of Lafond... " is how the TV commentator proudly calls it. The setting is of a typical New Zealand winter, jerseys caked in mud and the terraces a grim canopy of umbrellas. Only a last-minute try under the posts denies Manawatu a famous victory.

Soon after that game, Schmidt (24) and his young wife, Kellie, decided to take a year out and move to Europe. The plan was that they would find something in the UK, but they ended up persuaded by a friend, Mark Ronaldson, to try their luck in Mullingar, Co. Westmeath.

"I remember being picked up at the airport and being brought through a load of back roads to Con Gilsenan's pub," he recalled some years ago. "The roads were as bad as you could get!"

That pub on Dominick Street represented a virtual operations centre for the local rugby club and, to begin with, Schmidt felt a need to challenge the predominantly social culture that signified. He set behavioural standards that flew beyond the norm for Towns Cup preparation.

Under the guidance of their new player-coach, Mullingar did well in the without ever quite setting any midland ditches on fire.

But he was also persuaded by the late Joe Weafer to help out with Multyfarnham (Wilson's Hospital School) in section 'A' of the Leinster Schools Cup. The two men gelled instantly, leading the school to a first ever title. During the final against St. Conleths in Donnybrook, Multyfarnham played attacking, multi-dimensional rugby, their back three running amok.

A quarter of a century later, Schmidt can still recite the try-scorers. "We threw the ball around," he reflected a couple of years back. "We scored five tries, Nico Drion and Raymond Bell got two each, Liam Plunkett scored the other!" That clarity of recall has become something of a calling-card.

Soon after returning to New Zealand, Schmidt's playing career was effectively ended by an Achilles tendon injury.

And so his coaching CV slowly gathered status with jobs back at Palmerston North, then Napier Boys' and, finally, Tauranga Boys' College, where he also worked as assistant principal. By 2000, he was assistant coach to a New Zealand Schools side that included Joe Rokocoko and, when an invitation then came from Vern Cotter to become his assistant at Bay of Plenty, Schmidt decided to go coaching full-time.

And one of the great, modern rugby minds now had a professional canvas.

JOE SCHMIDT, IT'S FAIR TO SAY, never really wanted to be centre-stage, never actively sought the intrusion of klieg lights into his life.

After Bay of Plenty, he took another assistant's job with Auckland Blues before moving to France, where he was re-united with Cotter at Clermont Auvergne. The rest reads like a magic carpet ride, albeit that is not exactly what he seems to have intended.

"I was pretty comfortable and enjoyed keeping a low profile," he said of his time at Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin. "I wasn't looking to become a head coach."

It was actually whilst trying to talk Isa Nacewa into moving to Montferrand that the idea of taking over from Michael Cheika at Leinster was first mooted. Schmidt and Leinster would become an exhilarating marriage, delivering the Heineken Cup in each of his first two seasons and the Amlin Challenge Cup in his third.

To follow that with successive Six Nations titles (a first for this country since '49) in his first two seasons with Ireland has led to speculation that Schmidt might be approached to lead the next Lions tour to his home country in 2017. To do that would require the IRFU agreeing to an early-release clause or, better still, getting Schmidt to sign a contract extenstion beyond 2017 with a sabattical. Neither would be a surprise. Get Ireland to the semi-finals or beyond of this World Cup and Schmidt's status here will be that of a secular saint.

His wisdom is such high currency now, a multiple of teams from other sports seek the benefit of Schmidt's wisdom.

Last year, the then Dublin hurling manager - Anthony Daly - was granted an early morning meeting with him at Lansdowne Road. In his autobiography, 'Dalo', Daly recalls Schmidt noting that he had listed ten key points in his folder for a recent National League game against Tipperary.

"'Did your manager, Ger Loughnane, use notes like that?'" he asked.

"No," I said. "And I wouldn't have that on him. I wouldn't be able to make points off my head like Ger."

"'Did he make ten points?'"

"I don't really know, I can't remember."

"I doubt he did." said Schmidt. "'Maybe he did over the course of a week, but I'm sure it was two or three clear messages.'"

"He went down through my clip-chart. 'This is super stuff, but when did you deliver this?'

"In the hotel, before we left for Thurles."

"'Right, mate. Two-hour bus journey to Thurles? Warm-up another half an hour? So you're talking about three and a half hours before the game? Would you remember it?'

"Probably not."

The sense of a hungry student devouring every syllable of a professor's wisdom is palpable in Daly's recall of the meeting. Yet, this was the Clare man's sixth season as Dublin senior manager, a time-span in which he had led them to historic National League and Leinster title victories. He was no breathless innocent in the business of elite team-management, yet Schmidt seemed to read innocence at every level.

He told Daly bluntly that his voracious note-taking was motivated, essentially, by "you covering your arse". And he talked of how his way was to delegate jobs in an Irish dressing-room. When Daly mentioned the balancing act he found himself having to do with certain players prone to indiscipline, Schmidt re-iterated the importance of having a "smart-edge" even when playing with abandon.

"You can still have that edge, but you have to be smart," he told Daly. "The guys who aren't, I call them the outlaws."

This summer, Schmidt agreed to a similar meeting with Waterford hurling manager, Derek McGrath. In such circumstances, he is open and innately helpful. And people instinctively like him because, for all the accumulation of silverware, there is still an essential humility in how he chooses to communicate.

Within minutes of Ireland dramatically securing this year's Six Nations title, Schmidt sat on the dais in a marquee next to Murrayfield Stadium, declaring himself "on dad duty".

His 11-year-old boy, Luke, suffers from epilepsy as a result of an operation on a cancerous tumour some years back and, away from rugby, Schmidt is committed to improving his son's quality of life. He and Kellie have travelled extensively with Luke, to meet specialists who might help refine his treatment.

In February, he fronted Epilepsy Ireland's Seizure Aware TV ad and he has spoken widely on the need for people to understand the condition and know how best to respond to a seizure.

Recently made a Citizen of Ireland, he says he sees similarities between the people here and New Zealanders that he did not encounter in Montferrand, describing French people as "a bit more closed and formal".

Yet he admits, too, to a restlessness in his work and a general paranoia about how it is interpreted. He can be devastatingly critical if he feels the need and startled onlookers during an open training session at Newforge outside Belfast in his first year as Irish coach by barking a reminder to Dave Kearney that "We don't watch, we work here!"

And his response to Matt O'Connor's ill-advised lament about Leinster being denied some marquee names for a Pro 12 game in Wales last December because of restrictions placed upon him by the IRFU's player-management system would prove utterly ruthless.

Schmidt and IRFU Performance Director, David Nucifora, called a press conference at which O'Connor's complaints were systematically (and statistically) torn apart.

That intensity allied to his attention to detail gives Schmidt a presence and authority in the Irish camp today that, according to O'Connell, puts him "at a different level".

Yet, that endless pursuit of improvement can sometimes feel a tyrranny too. As Schmidt himself puts it: "I don't think anyone ever gives me comfort. I'm paranoid; I often deal in worst-case scenarios."

WITH THE ALMOST INTEMPERATE EXPECTATION now following Ireland into this World Cup tournament, every press-conference has the feel of a prize-fighter's workout.

This is Irish rugby's Magic Mountain. The draw seems kind, the final Group game against France on October 11 looks a likely shoot-out for the golden ticket of a quarter-final that does not involve giant, square-shouldered men in black.

Already, Schmidt has tried dampening down the madness, describing Ireland's opening game against Canada as, potentially, an "incredible banana-skin".

Yet, it's probably fair to say that nobody is listening. The days of uncomplicated hope do not exist for Ireland now. Joe Schmidt hasn't just changed the record books, he has changed the way rugby people here now see themselves.

The media would probably prefer more lyricism, more openness, the players themselves might welcome a little more fun, but Schmidt's way simply defies intelligent challenge.

"At times, it's almost like he's a voice in my head," is how Jonathan Sexton synopsises the influence of the Irish coach today. "When I'm analysing my own game and I spot myself doing something wrong, I can hear him pointing it out to me."

That's Joe Schmidt's gift to the game here. He makes things work.

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