Irish rugby owes Joe a huge debt of gratitude
AS was widely expected Joe Schmidt announced last week that he would be stepping down as Irish rugby coach following next year’s World Cup in Japan. The affable Kiwi has presided over the greatest ever era of rugby in Ireland and his influence will be sorely missed.
Five years ago Schmidt inherited a team who had won just three of their previous ten Six Nations encounters. Our last Six Nations game prior to Schmidt taking over was a 22-15 defeat in Rome to the Italians.
Four years on from that magnificent 2009 Grand Slam winning game against the Welsh in Cardiff, Ireland had become rugby’s great underachievers.
Following a comprehensive Autumn International defeat in Dublin to the Australians in his second game in charge, there was nothing to suggest that Irelands fortunes were going to change anytime soon. A day earlier at the same venue, the country’s soccer fraternity were heralding the dawn of a new dynasty with the managerial ‘dream team’ of Martin O Neill and Roy Keane winning their first game in charge, a 3-0 victory over Latvia. Schmidt and Irish rugby looked to have a long road ahead of him.
However just one week later Ireland put in a superb performance against the mighty All Blacks, racing into a 19-0 before losing 24-22 in heart breaking circumstances.
Yes, it was another defeat but there was something about the team performance that day that made you believe things would be different under Schmidt.
What followed was two Six Nations championship in 2014 and 2015 our first consecutive titles in more than 60 years. The rugby wasn’t fantastic but we were now grinding out wins in tight games that in the recent past we would have lost.
There was a new mental toughness that our opponents found difficult to match. Schmidt was also building strength in depth that had never previously been witnessed in Irish rugby. Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t all plain sailing.
Eddie Jones took charge of England in November 2015 and the abrasive Tasmanian sparked an instant response from his new rampaging troops. We were dethroned in 2016 by the ‘old enemy’ as they secured the Grand Slam and they arrived unbeaten in Dublin the following season in the final game of the 2017 tournament.
This was another defining game of the Schmidt era as Ireland won 13-9 and denied our opponents a second Grand Slam in a row. Ireland kicked on from this game growing from strength to strength while Eddie Jones & Co have gone backwards.
Sandwiched between those two season was our first ever win over the All Blacks in Chicago.
2018 has been the greatest year in the history of Irish rugby. First there was the all conquering Grand Slam triumph, made special by away wins in Paris and Twickenham; then the Test series win in Australia and finally that magnificent victory over the All Blacks at the Aviva.
I’ll hold my hand up. I thought the All Blacks would be a step too far. They came to Dublin with real intent. They wanted to law down a marker in advance of next year’s World Cup. But it was Ireland who drew the line in the sand.
We didn’t beat them with last ditch try saving tackles. The was no huge slice of luck or any moment of great fortune that swung the game in our favour. No, it was hard nosed, tough aggressive rugby that put New Zealand on the back foot. We deserved our win and probably should have won the contest more comfortably.
The architect of this success has now announced he is leaving. New coach Andy Farrell has huge boots to fill. What impresses me most about the departing coach is the manner in which he has achieved all of this. Through it all he has remained a good guy. He adopts the highest standards in his dealing with players, opponents, officialdom and the media. He has shown you can maintain the highest standards while still treating people with dignity and respect. His modest behaviour and demeanour is equally decent in victory and defeat. He doesn’t do spin. He is calls it as it is. Irish rugby will miss Joe Schmidt. It remains to be seen if Schmidt’s legacy will be a lasting one. AND finally I was saddened to learn over the weekend of the sudden and tragic passing of former Louth and Dundalk Young Irelands player Michael McCabe. Mickey was a great servant to club and county winning a Senior Championship in 1979. He was a great support to me as a youngster coming into the Louth panel for the first time in 1985. He always had your back and showed me the ropes on how to survive. He was as tough as nails but an excellent footballer also. A win by Young Irelands next week in the Leinster Junior Final would be a fitting tribute. My deepest sympathies to his wife and family. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
Joe Schmidt will be sorely missed by Ireland when he calls it a dat after next year’s World Cup.