Over the past few years, one man has challenged the way rugby is seen by the general population in Ireland. A native of New Zealand, it appears that Joe Schmidt might even begin to challenge the world famous Saint Patrick as the most celebrated non-national in the country’s long history. While the former was brought to the Emerald Isle in bondage and chains, some might be hoping Schmidt can be kept under lock and key to prevent him from leaving, such is the reverence most of the country has for him.
Schmidt has transformed the Irish team from a bunch of players with talent to an outfit many believe to be the best in the world. In the years prior to Schmidt’s appointment as boss, the Irish could put it up to anyone on their day but often capitulated when it mattered most. Under the Kiwi, they are a well-oiled, green machine that expects to win and have created a contagious habit of success.
Having brought Irish province Leinster to the forefront of European club rugby, Schmidt was the coach many saw as the right man to take the national team forward. In over 5 years, there have been ups and downs but there is little doubt in the world of rugby that Ireland has never been stronger. Heading into the Rugby World Cup in Japan next year, the Irish are being heavily tipped to win the tournament for the first time.
When Schmidt announced that he would be retiring from the game, Irish fans were more confused than anything. While there were many hoping that he would stay on past the World Cup next year, most had expected Schmidt to take over the helm as the boss of New Zealand, his home country. Instead, Schmidt will walk away from the game he loves and give up on a job many believed to be his greatest ambition.
There is no question that Joe Schmidt is leaving the Irish rugby team in one hell of a better state than the one he inherited. 2018 has been, without question, the greatest year for the “Men in Green” in history. A Six Nations Grand Slam, a first test series win in the Southern Hemisphere for 39 years, a first victory over the All Blacks ever at home and as close to the first spot in the IRB World Rankings that they have ever been proves this.
A major reason for making Ireland the formidable force they are this year is Schmidt’s incredible coaching, undoubtedly. However, the pool of players in Ireland has never been deeper and this is something that Schmidt certainly needs to be praised for. Ireland has traditionally struggled with strength in depth, which is one of the reasons for their underwhelming blitzing at the hands of Argentina at the World Cup in 2015.
In 2018, we saw the full extent of Ireland’s depth, time and time again. Against New Zealand in Dublin in November, this was probably best demonstrated when both Dan Leavy and Sean O’Brien – two of the strongest openside flankers in the world – were injured, only for Josh van der Flier to slot in and have a storming game. In most positions, Ireland are absolutely stacked with talent.
It should be no surprise that Ireland’s impressive depth does not apply to their two talismanic figures in Jonathon Sexton at 10 and Conor Murray at 9, however. Sexton, who was recently named World Rugby Player of the Year, is irreplaceable while Murray is simply the best scrumhalf in the world. However, when it is pointed out that Ireland beat New Zealand without Murray, things do not look so bleak.
Ireland’s impressive year on the field was certainly highlighted when the team cleaned up at the World Rugby Awards in Monaco, recently. Sexton claimed the Player of the Year, breaking New Zealand’s dominance in recent seasons, while Joe Schmidt took the Coach of the Year award. Ireland also won Team of the Year, given an impressive 12 months where they won every game apart from one (against Australia, where Sexton was rested).
There is little doubt that Schmidt presided over the very best year in Irish rugby in 2018. We saw the culmination of years of preparation and effort, post World Cup 2015, with defensive coach Andy Farrell also playing an instrumental part in the team’s success. It is perhaps no surprise that former England defensive coach Farrell will take over from Schmidt following the World Cup in Japan, next year.
Schmidt certainly leaves a legacy of success and a winning culture in Ireland. As previously mentioned, the New Zealand-native has presided over a successful campaign that has produced only a third Grand Slam for the Irishmen, a first home win against the All Blacks, and a first test series victory in the Southern Hemisphere for 39 years. 2018 is as good as it gets, for now.
Add that to the first-ever victory over New Zealand in Chicago in 2016, a first ever win in South Africa, two Six Nations titles, and we can see that Schmidt has been nothing but positive for the Irish since 2013. However, Schmidt’s incredible influence on Irish rugby goes back to his days as Leinster coach, having teamed up with the Dublin-based outfit in 2010.
In an unprecedented period of success, Leinster won back to back European Cups and dominated at domestic level. Aside from the wins and trophies, the now peerless Leinster academy system benefitted from Schmidt’s input. In 2018, Leinster regularly trounces other league teams with reserve sides. Players like James Ryan, Dan Leavy, Josh van der Flier, Joey Carberry, and Jordan Larmour have proven this consistent quality of output.
Backroom staff and other coaches have also bought into Schmidt’s vision and will be responsible for taking Ireland even further when he leaves the country. The IRFU, Ireland’s governing body for rugby, has one of the most respected and envied system in the world, which also instills confidence in all those associated with helping the game progress in the country. Still, Schmidt will undoubtedly be missed.
One of the most impressive features of Schmidt’s reign has been his famous attention to detail. Those who know the Kiwi understand his relentless attitude to preparation and execution. In order for Schmidt’s philosophy to work, every individual must adhere to the culture and play their part in the machine. Schmidt pours over every last detail, time and time again, to identify every role.
With such a peerless appetite for success, Schmidt has transformed the culture in Irish rugby. The foundations have been built for continued success, meaning that the future is very bright for the country’s place in rugby heading forward. From the provinces to the national squad, Joe Schmidt’s efforts can be felt. Still, it is a little bittersweet for Irish fans that he must leave the country at all.
If there is anything to take from Schmidt’s decision, it is that it would not have been made without that trademark attention to detail. This is not something that would have been influenced by anything other than the bigger picture.
The big question many have regarding Schmidt’s departure next year is based around his next step in the game. Even though the 53-year-old has confirmed that he will leave the sport when he leaves Ireland, there are some who cannot bring themselves to believe that a man like Schmidt – who lives, eats, and breathes rugby – can simply walk away from what defines him.
It is difficult for Irish fans to face the prospect of losing Schmidt, but it certainly is a curious one. The coach confirmed in November that he would be retiring from coaching following Ireland’s conclusion at the 2019 World Cup, which was surprising. Many had expected one of two scenarios for Schmidt’s future: he would stay with Ireland beyond 2019 or would take over from Steve Hansen as coach of New Zealand.
Andy Farrell, Schmidt’s successor, was one of the names that many savvy rugby fans would have had in mind when it was announced that the Kiwi would leave. Farrell is a cross-code rugby legend in England, having represented his country in both league and union, as well as acting as their defensive coach before losing his job following the disastrous World Cup campaign in 2015. For Schmidt, he has his own reasons for stepping away from the game.
It is no secret that Ireland’s coach is one of the most ferocious planners and plotters in rugby. His much-lauded attention to detail is almost always accompanied by his self-professed ‘workaholic’ nature when he is brought up by fans and pundits alike. For the New Zealander, family has to come first sometime, and Schmidt clearly believes that time is now.
“I have decided to finish coaching and will prioritise family commitments after the Rugby World Cup in 2019,” reads Schmidt’s statement confirming his future, as circulated by the IRFU. “I feel that Irish rugby is in good hands. The management and players have been incredible to work with and the tremendous support we have had, particularly at home in the Aviva, but wherever we have travelled, has been uplifting.”
Schmidt’s son, Luke, has battled health issues over the years and this appears to have been instrumental in the Kawakawa-born coach’s decision to step away from the sport. With such a relentless work rate often comes a tunnel vision mentality that makes it difficult to really feel as though one can satisfy every commitment and obligation. The Kiwi appears to want more time with his family and this has to be respected.
Schmidt’s family life has not been easy. In 2015, fresh from winning that years Six Nations title in Murrayfield, Schmidt announced that he would be “parking rugby for a while,” to ensure that his son, Luke, was looked after. Luke suffered from a brain tumor at just four and has struggled with epilepsy throughout his life. Schmidt still managed to stay with Ireland during this time, maintaining a balancing act which would have been incredibly difficult to do for anyone.
Schmidt’s commitment to improving his son’s health saw him take Luke overseas for treatment, having been cared for by the Irish health system since his youth. The New Zealander consulted several specialists and ensured that Luke got nothing but the best treatment available to him during that time.
When it all comes down to it, Schmidt appears to desire a life without such intense work and effort. Who can deny the greatest coach in the world a chance to be with his family? As rugby fans, regardless of national allegiances, this is something that any of us would encourage, even if it means that we get to lose one of the most admirable minds and pioneering coaches to have ever featured in the sport.
Not everyone is buying into the idea that Schmidt is done with coaching forever. Even though most will undoubtedly expect Schmidt to stick to his words and step down from coaching, there are suspicions that the allure of doing what he does best outside of his duties as a father and husband will be too much. Yes, Schmidt will be gone but the question is, for how long?
It appeared nailed on that Schmidt would take over the reins as the boss of New Zealand once Hansen has moved on. With recent developments, this looks incredibly unlikely. If Schmidt returned home to the “Land of the Long White Cloud” – and his son’s health and his family’s situation was better than ever – would there be scope for him to coach a Super Rugby team in New Zealand?
Even though Joe Schmidt would have been the favorite to take over from Steve Hansen at the All Blacks, there is still time for him to one day take that job. With another candidate looking more likely to replace Hansen (think Crusaders’ Scott Robertson or Wales’ Warren Gatland), Schmidt is still young enough to replace them in another four or even eight years down the line.
It is very likely that Schmidt will return to his homeland and this could be the telling factor. However, the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 2021 could also be somewhere that Schmidt could return to the coaching set-up (if he wishes to, that is).
The man loves rugby, everyone gets that. If there is anything that can tempt Schmidt back to the sport, it would be rugby itself. Given that the Kiwi has been operating as a head coach in one of the best rugby nations on the planet – with five of those years as the national team head coach – it is likely that he has earned a solid wage. Depending on how Ireland fare at the World Cup in 2019, he might even win the greatest prize in rugby.
It is also fair to say that Schmidt’s stock would go up even higher if he can take Ireland to the highest level in the world, and win the World Cup. Would astronomical wages be enough to convince him to take a role somewhere else? What we have learned from Joe Schmidt over the years is that he is true to his word. If he says something, it gets done. As such, we can expect Schmidt to step away, at least for a while.
More than anything, if New Zealand offers Schmidt the role of head coach, this has to be the one thing that can tempt him back into rugby. Schmidt is a Kiwi, through and through, and would undoubtedly like to test himself in the most high-pressure role in world rugby. There is no bigger challenge in the world, after all, and a man who thrives on delivering for those closest to his heart – and working hard to make sure it happens – could prove too tempting.
Irish fans will be tearful when Joe Schmidt steps down from his role as the country’s head coach. From his days at Leinster to his successful tenure as boss of the Men in Green, Irish fans have been enthralled with the gentle nature of the world’s most ruthless coach. He has delivered, time and time again, and deserves time to enjoy his life with his family.
With the World Cup in Japan set to go down next year, Schmidt’s status on the island of Ireland could be promoted from legend to saint. Ireland are genuine contenders for the trophy and are considered as the in-form team heading into the tournament. They have the players, the gameplan, the offense, defense, and the guidance of a truly exceptional coach. If Schmidt can pull it off, there will be a number of suitors who will aim to do their best to change his mind in order to secure his services.
For now, Schmidt will look forward to some well-earned time with his beloved family. That is the least he deserves.
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