Schmidt’s essential modesty is shown by his refusal to say ‘I told you so’ when he gets decisions right. Yet he’s consistently made the correct calls while flouting conventional wisdom.
JOE SCHMIDT changed everything for Irish rugby. The team he inherited five years ago had won three of its previous ten Six Nations games and dropped to a lowest ever ninth in the world rankings. The season finished with three Six Nations defeats on the trot, our worst run ever, including a 22-15 loss to an Italian team who finished above Ireland in the table.
That Ireland team which lost to Italy included eight players who featured in our recent win over the All Blacks as well as Conor Murray, Seán O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Brian O’Driscoll. Under Declan Kidney, Ireland had become rugby’s great underachievers.
The impression that this team was going nowhere seemed to be confirmed when, in Schmidt’s second match as manager, Ireland lost 32-15 to Australia and were flattered by the margin of defeat. A day earlier the Aviva had been the site of euphoria when Ireland’s new managerial dream team of Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane had presided over a 3-0 win against Latvia.
A new era had apparently dawned for the soccer team. Their rugby counterparts seemed to be facing a long climb back towards international respectability. Yet just eight days later Ireland roared into a 19-0 lead after 18 minutes against the All Blacks before losing 24-22 in heart-breaking fashion. It might have been a defeat but something different about the Irish performance announced that The Age of Schmidt had begun.
It has not always been plain sailing for the manager. Even when winning the Six Nations in 2014 and 2015, our first consecutive titles in 66 years, Ireland were criticised for their caution. The eight tries scored in 2015 was by some distance the smallest total ever by a Six Nations winner.
England dethroned Ireland in 2016 under the bullish new stewardship of Eddie Jones. When they sewed up the title with a round of games to spare the following year, they seemed poised to repeat the dominance of the Clive Woodward era.
Ireland’s meeting with England at the Aviva in last year’s Six Nations may be the pivotal game in Schmidt’s reign. The home side had already lost to Scotland and Wales and another loss would have cast enormous doubt over its direction. Instead, Ireland won 13-9 and have since grown in strength with England going into reverse.
That game, like the victory over the All Blacks a couple of weeks back, was founded on an inspirational performance by Peter O’Mahony, in many ways the emblematic player of the Schmidt era. Neither the flashiest nor most obviously gifted performer, O’Mahony’s great strengths are controlled ferocity, utter fearlessness and an enormous diligence about doing his job properly. Few players wring every last drop out of themselves in the same way. Schmidt displays the same qualities as manager.
This has been the greatest year in the history of Irish rugby, and perhaps the finest ever enjoyed by any team from this country. First came a third ever Grand Slam, more difficult than that of 1948 because there were more teams to be beaten and of 2009 because France and England needed to be beaten away.
The triumph in Australia was a first southern hemisphere Test series victory in 39 years. Such a result would have been unthinkable before Schmidt took charge. When Ireland beat South Africa in Cape Town two years ago, it was the first win over one of the Big Three by a touring Irish team since 1979. Ireland had gone 0-25 with the last of those defeats a 60-0 humiliation at the hands of the All Blacks in Wellington. That day the two teams seemed to belong to two entirely different rugby universes.
If you’d told Rob Kearney, Rory Best, Cian Healy and Seán Cronin, who all figured that day, that six years later they’d have played in two victories over the All Blacks they’d hardly have believed you. At times the change wrought by Schmidt can seem miraculous.
There was a slightly freakish feel about the first of those victories. The contention that the All Blacks had been caught on the hop in Chicago was lent weight by the ease of their victory in Dublin a fortnight later. Two weeks ago things were different. Ireland’s Grand Slam and victory in Australia had put us on the radar of an All Blacks side keen to impart a demoralising lesson before next year’s World Cup.
Yet the Irish victory did not require everything to go right for us or involve an enormous amount of desperate lastditch defending. The All Blacks never had a try-scoring opportunity as clear as the Irish one lost when the ball slipped away from Rob Kearney on the line. Ireland won without Conor Murray, Robbie Henshaw, Seán O’Brien and Dan Leavy. They seem a better team than the All Blacks right now.
This is where Joe Schmidt has put Ireland. Now he’s leaving. Despite many optimistic declarations about the coaching genius of Andy Farrell, we don’t know what kind of a manager Schmidt’s successor will be as he’s never been a manager before. The figure of the backroom genius who wilts when thrust into a leading role is practically proverbial. Farrell may do well, but people like Joe Schmidt do not come along often. The feeling of loss pervading Irish sport at the moment is not wholly due to sentimentality.
That’s because Schmidt seems not just an exceptional coach, but an exceptional character. In the film Steve Jobs, the titular character’s old buddy Steve Wozniak finishes an argument between the pair by shouting, “It’s not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time.” Steve
Jobs is a great movie, but its writer Aaron Sorkin seems to favour Jobs’ contention that in order to excel it helps to occasionally act the asshole.
This fallacy is even more pervasive in sport than it is in business. Joe Schmidt’s opposite number in England certainly seems to have fallen for it. Yet Schmidt is Exhibit A in the case against.
There is no higher achiever in Irish sport or international rugby yet the man seems entirely devoid of ego or the desire for self-aggrandisement. In defeat he is decent and dignified, in victory lacking in triumphalism or bombast. His dealings with media and public are distinguished by a plain-speaking courtesy. Spin does not rear its head nor mean-spiritedness either.
In showing you can maintain the highest standards in your professional life while treating people with respect, Schmidt is an important figure. His behaviour is one of the most impressive things about him. It says everything about his standing that when he said he was quitting coaching to spend time with his family everyone believed this meant he was quitting coaching to spend time with his family.
Schmidt’s essential modesty is shown by his refusal to say ‘I told you so’ when he gets decisions right. Yet he’s consistently made the correct calls while flouting conventional wisdom. This time last year Rob Kearney seemed to be in decline and when he opened the Six Nations unconvincingly it seemed Schmidt’s loyalty to an old warrior had gone too far.
Yet as the tournament went on Kearney didn’t just recover his form but rose to new heights in the Irish jersey. When Schmidt selected James Ryan for the opening Six Nations match in Paris, it looked a big ask for a youngster who still hadn’t played for Leinster. The rest is history.
Jacob Stockdale also looked a bit raw for the game in Paris and was exposed defensively in that game. But Schmidt kept faith and has been rewarded by the Ulsterman’s emergence as the world’s most dangerous winger
This year Rory Best was the player Schmidt seemed to be persisting with for too long. But against the All Blacks not only did Best have a splendid game, his hit on Brodie Retallick embodying Ireland’s obduracy, but his replacement Seán Cronin’s struggles throwing in to the lineout showed why the Ireland manager has resisted the clamour to promote the Leinster hooker.
Schmidt’s loyalty to Devin Toner, apparently ripe to be superseded by more dynamic second-rows, has been rewarded by a renaissance which will probably make the lineout specialist an automatic World Cup first choice. Watching Ireland under Schmidt is to experience the rare comfort which goes with knowing a team is in the hands of someone who knows what he’s at. The players exude the relaxed and confident air which goes with total belief. One of the most remarkable things about Stockdale’s try against the All Blacks was that it began with a chip over the head of an opponent only a couple of minutes after a similar kick had almost given away a try. To gamble like this a second time a player must know the manager will not make a show of him if things go wrong. Stockdale knew Joe Schmidt has his back. All the Irish players do.
Now Joe Schmidt enters perhaps the most difficult period of his reign. Ireland are top of the heap now, there to be shot at with all the pressures that brings. Yet you’d prefer to be in our position than anyone else’s.
Joe Schmidt’s legacy is secure. He is the greatest Irish team manager of all-time. But the best is yet to come.
Such a result would have been unthinkable before Schmidt
‘There is no higher achiever in Irish sport or international rugby yet Joe Schmidt seems entirely devoid of ego or the desire for self-aggrandisement’.