Ea­monn Sweeney

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - EA­MONN SWEENEY

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

Photo: Matt Browne

‘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’.

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