Joe Schmidt has long been preparing for this year’s World Cup with the diligence and work ethic of a beaver building a dam but the Ireland head coach still rails against the very mention of the tournament itself, writes Brendan O'Brien.
The man was at it again at the Six Nations launch this week. Though, in fairness, the prospect of England coming to Dublin in eight days’ time was the perfect foil to any long-term posers.
Yet, try as he might, Schmidt couldn’t quite prevent the wave of queries as to his own future post-World Cup from breaching the barricades. His sharing of a quip, made by his wife, that he would find it tough to take 12 days off, let alone 12 months, was more than enough for tenuous links to be reattached between the Kiwi coach and the role of British and Irish Lions boss.
We’ve clicked our tongues here enough times about the endless fascination with events such as the Lions and the Ryder Cup. Intoxicating occasions though they are, there is an annoyance with the ease with which their tentacles tend to spread beyond their narrow confines in the calendar, but both have been difficult to ignore this month.
Pádraig Harrington’s ascension to the role of Ryder Cup captain recently has presented everyone here in Ireland with an extra layer or ten of pre-publicity before the next head-butting contest between Europe and the USA, in Wisconsin in 2020. The possibility, slim though it still may be, of Schmidt being involved with the Lions a year later can’t help but turn heads too.
Harrington and Schmidt aren’t just two of the most fascinating characters in Irish sport. They stand right up there with the most intriguing people to have ever struck a ball or commanded a dressing-room on these shores. And they are genuine global figures to boot. Men who share a similar work ethic, an almost unhealthy zealousness, that is always worth exploring.
You have to wonder how a man so devoted to the minutiae as Harrington will fare come Whistling Straits. This is a guy who once sat down with a group of reporters after Christmas, started off by stating he had taken the festive period off, and then detailed over 20 infinitesimal changes he had made to his golf shot in that same ‘rest’ period. He has already warned he won’t be the arm-around-the-shoulder type of skipper and stated that emotion will have to take a back seat when push comes to shove. “If I have a decision to be made emotionally and the stats say one thing, I would go with the stats,” he explained shortly after his unveiling at Wentworth.
We’ll have to see how that intensity fits in with the compressed madness of a Ryder Cup weekend and the same imponderable has long been attached to the hypothetical candidacy of Schmidt for a Lions job. But one wonders, how would Schmidt’s sergeant-major act go down in that tight window?
“Joe notices the smallest of things,” said Chris Henry during the last World Cup.
Schmidt’s ruthlessness and exacting standards are legion in Irish rugby now but Henry explained back then that, scary though he was, there was an enjoyment factor for players, a pleasure gained in working at that elevated level and achieving all they were. There is no reason to doubt that Schmidt couldn’t do the same in a limited time frame with the Lions.
It’s only fair that Gatland, with his track record with the Lions, should be offered first dibs and the Wales coach has already held talks with those powers-that-be for the South Africa tour in 2021. He has also intimated a grá for a job back in New Zealand, preferably at Super Rugby level. Clear as mud basically, but Schmidt’s long-term future as a coach is even hazier.
Harrington’s drive and purpose and devotion to his craft will transfer to the PGA Senior tour less than a year after his duties in Wisconsin end. Safe to say that he will continue to intrigue us for years yet.
The Lions isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but how great would it be if Schmidt was involved in some shape or form? If only to remind us what we will miss here when he’s gone.
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