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.


NZ Rugby World - - Contents -

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.

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