Ir­ish rugby owes Joe a huge debt of grat­i­tude

The Argus - - SPORT -

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.

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