IRFU braced for the Joe Schmidt jolt

Joe Schmidt will today inform his employers at the Irish Rugby Football Union of his decision to stay or leave his role beyond next year’s World Cup and no-one will be more relieved to have made it than the man himself.

If the Ireland head coach does confirm Irish rugby’s worst fears that he will depart at the end of his current contract next November, he will be calling time on a six-and-a-half-year stint that has brought unprecedented success to the national team, none more so than in the last 12 months.

It will, though, have been a decision based on the needs of those closest to him and a family brunch yesterday was set to be the setting for final soundings before IRFU performance director David Nucifora and chief executive Philip Browne are informed.

After listening to the 53-year-old on Saturday night as he conducted his post-match press conference following the 12th victory in Ireland’s 13 Tests played during 2018, it is likely that Schmidt’s bosses know exactly what is coming.

“I’ve given them an indication and I just need to talk to people tomorrow and it’ll be made public,” Schmidt said following the 54-17 win over the USA. “It might be frustrating for you guys but it’s really wrecking my head. I just want it to be one or the other really.

“They (the IRFU) have said, ‘don’t be rash, if you change your mind we’d love to continue that conversation or if you change your mind, we don’t need to have a conversation, or if we just continue the way we are, that’s great’.”

After months of speculation surrounding Schmidt’s next move, which has only heightened since the head coach revealed he had given himself a deadline of the end of this month’s Guinness Series to deliver his decision, that constituted a pretty broad hint. He has decided to walk away after Japan 2019, almost certainly to return to New Zealand after 11 years in France and, since 2010 when he took over at Leinster, in Ireland.

That was what that quote implied and even the plus points he laid out for staying on as he later spoke to daily newspaper journalists sounded unlikely to persuade him otherwise, given the demands he has placed on himself since becoming head coach in 2013.

“The massive positive is the group of people I work with,” Schmidt said. “I couldn’t get a better support team behind the team. The team, they work incredibly hard from that perspective and I described it during the week that my Carton House family are incredible to work with and so that is a massive positive.

“You see the support that we get, even tonight for a game like the US. Last week (beating the All Blacks) was incredible, you could see how animated, how invested people were in the game and that alone, it encourages you to do your very, very best to help those players deliver the performance those people are looking for and the players certainly make their best efforts to do that so they are a couple of massive positives for me.

“And I guess I’m my own worst enemy when it comes to working. I tend to be a little bit of a workaholic and so if there’s a competitive advantage that I can find that I can help players attain then I’m going to be looking as hard as I possibly can.

“And that means that I’m out of the house a fair bit or even at home I’m plugging away, looking at things with a microscope. So that’s probably a character flaw. If you probably talk to some of the people on the staff, it’s one of many I have.

“Hopefully they don’t disclose all the other ones but I think it’s one of those things that I first talked to the family in the summer and I’ll be going backwards and forwards with the IRFU tomorrow. I gave myself the deadline of Monday morning to say this is it definitively.

“As I said at the press conference, it’s probably frustrating for you guys. It’s wrecking my head, so I can’t wait until I can say ‘right, this is it’.”

Anyone expecting Schmidt to ease off on those demands and that thirst for improvement for the final year of his contract should he decide to call it quits today were disabused of that notion as the workaholic head coach added: “Either way, the next 11 months is massive, whether it continues beyond that or whether that’s the end point.

“It’s massive. We’ve got the two biggest tournaments we play. We’ve got the Six Nations that we’re the defending champs and the World Cup where we’re certainly not the defending champs because we don’t get past the quarter-finals and we’d love to do that.”

With back-to-back Six Nations titles in 2013 and 14, a first Test win in South Africa in 2016, followed by that maiden victory over the All Blacks in Chicago later in the same year, Schmidt’s body of work with Ireland, on top of two Heineken Cups, a Challenge Cup and the PRO12 title with Leinster, had been none too shabby.

Yet this year has taken his legacy to another level. A Six Nations Grand Slam bookended by wins in Paris courtesy of Johnny Sexton’s late drop goal and Twickenham that lifted Ireland to second in the world rankings, a 2-1 series win in Australia and a first home victory over New Zealand just nine days ago have given Schmidt his most satisfying year in the job to date.

“It would be pretty hard to top 2018, really,” he said. “There’s been some monumental wins, that one in Paris if you go back to where the calendar year started, and you don’t get too much more special end-games than that.

“I think it got people enormously excited, including our squad.

“Then once you know you’ve done that, you don’t want to waste that. You want to make sure you capitalise and I was delighted with the way that the team did.”

“We got a few bonus-point wins that allowed us to be champions by the time the fourth round was over and we went and chased what we needed to do to get the Grand Slam.

“So that was special. Australia was special because we put ourselves behind the 8-ball being one down in the series and came back and won a couple of cliffhangers but both of them were in full stadia that was something that you hadn’t seen too often in Australia, even when they’re playing the All Blacks.

“So we’ve been able to get quite excited about who we’re playing in front of and no more so than when we play here. Three sold-out stadiums and three incredibly encouraging crowds but we were blown away by last week. That’s as special as I’ve heard it in my five-and-a-half year stint with the team.”

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