Sky’s Tony Johnson believes that it would make sense for NZR to be talking to Irish coach Joe Schmidt now about his future plans.
TONY JOHNSON IS A COMMENTATOR AND PRESENTER FOR SKY TV’S RUGBY COVERAGE IN NEW ZEALAND.
EVER SINCE EDDIE JONES stepped into the role of England coach we’ve been fed a steady diet of how the next match between the All Blacks and England will be the biggest of all time.
Now instead of the match of the century, the clash on November 10 will just be the biggest match of that particular week, and it’s the Ireland test the following week that looms as the biggest of the year, the decade etc.
We don’t know yet whether it will be between the champions of the two hemispheres, because that’s a path the All Blacks have yet to navigate, but regardless, this will be seen as a massive pointer to next year’s World Cup.
And it will bring into sharp focus two coaches who are going to be central figures in a rugby equivalent to Game of Thrones.
Steve Hansen still wears the crown as coach of the best team in the world, but Ireland have built a strong challenging force under their Kiwi mentor Joe Schmidt, and with those dastardly, scheming Aussies Michael Cheika and Eddie Jones in the mix, well, you have quite a plot brewing ahead of next year’s showpiece.
Schmidt has taken a lead role, his team rising to number two in the ratings for only the second time, and should the All Blacks by some remote chance fall into some sort of deep, dark hole this winter, Ireland could even go into the November 17 clash as number one. Win it, and it could light a fire.
For those of us who prefer to wait and see how things unfold, then let us take some time to give Ireland credit for what they have achieved in the last few years.
Many anticipated their stocks would fall as outstanding figures like O’Connell, O’Driscoll, D’arcy, Heaslip and Wallace slipped out of the game.
I remember an Irish colleague nearly in tears after his team’s quarter final exit at RWC 2011, as he bemoaned an era of great players coming to an end with Ireland having missed their big chance.
Perhaps their problem wasn’t player strength, but the ability of coaches to get the best out of their undoubted talent.
Warren Gatland made changes and laid foundations before being shafted for Eddie O’Sullivan, who rode Gatland’s work to moderate success before being forced to resign, replaced by Munster boss Declan Kidney, who won a Grand Slam in 2009 before his team folded badly and he, too, got punted.
What Schmidt has been able to do since then is remarkable.
He has overseen three Six Nations titles, a 72 per cent winning record, wins against every major playing nation, including an historic first against the All Blacks, and now just their third Grand Slam.
His coaching methods are precise, intelligent and effective, although behind an affable exterior is an edge, a willingness to needle his troops, although not quite to the extent of his England counterpart with his fabled early morning texting blitzes.
He is arguably right now the most talked about coach in international rugby, and inevitably the subject of speculation about a return to New Zealand and the job he would surely like the most.
There is a presumption of the sort that often has New Zealanders accused of arrogance, that Schmidt would be prepared to just drop everything and fly home in a flash to coach the All Blacks, no matter what the terms, no matter how much or little money. It is, of course, nowhere near that simple. For starters the All Blacks are still in very capable hands, and have been for some time, but it would be wrong of New Zealand Rugby not to have Schmidt in their thinking and to open up dialogue with him. Who knows, they may have already. Right now the options seem to be: a] Steve Hansen continues in the job, b] that Hansen steps down and Ian Foster steps up under what has been a very effective policy of succession planning, or c] they open the job up to consider the likes of Schmidt or Vern Cotter. You could chuck in names like Gatland and Rennie, although both have had edgy relations with NZR.
It had almost been assumed that after 16 years with the team and a legacy of not just great success, but a key role in the creation of the most functional and effective rugby model ever, Hansen would call it quits after Japan.
And yet while he has hinted at it, he has never been definite, and there is talk he might want to continue. If the All Blacks were to win again in 2019, even make the top three, there could be no question that he has earned the right to stay right where he is.
If not, there have been murmurings of a new role to be created amidst the current restructuring at HQ. The position of director of coaching has been a contentious one in other countries, always seen as a sword hanging over the national coach.
While people have held something akin to that position in the past in NZ, it has never been the high profile role it would become should Hansen occupy it.
Should he move in that direction, could we assume that it would make his current 2IC Ian Foster the hot favourite to step into his shoes with the All Blacks?
It’s hard to argue Foster’s performance since 2012, and by all accounts he has grown considerably as a coach, but it’s still not completely certain that he wants the top job.
NZR have a formula and are unlikely to deviate, but as the ranks of the original “dream team” staff thin out, it is possible they might consider a new direction. If so, it could get very tricky. Ireland will no doubt make every effort to keep Schmidt, and will doubtless offer a lucrative extension to his contract well before next year’s World Cup.
It would also be dangerous to assume that England will wait until Japan 2019 before making any moves, given their team’s suddenly shaky form and the broad hints that nerves are starting to fray. If they enter the bidding, the price will go through the roof.
There are risks for everyone, in particular over the timing of an approach or a decision, and that goes for Schmidt as he comes under enormous pressure to make a commitment sooner rather than later.
It’s only one game, but that match in Dublin on November 17, one that up to a month or so ago was hardly getting a mention, will not only be important for the ranking points and pre-World Cup momentum at stake, it’s also going to fuel a fascinating scenario about the future of the best rugby coach in the game, and the one many are starting to see as his challenger.
IRISH SHOWDOWN The last time the All Blacks played in Dublin it was an epic encounter as it will be later this year.