Joe Schmidt to quit Ireland: Lessons too valuable for sport alone

Most of us lucky enough to enjoy a good proportion of our allotted three score and ten come to understand, one way or another, that there is no such thing as a relationship that lasts forever. Even so, parting is, as Juliet assured Romeo, such sweet sorrow. Juliet was stoical, because she expected to meet Romeo again, but yesterday’s announcement that Ireland rugby coach Joe Schmidt will quit coaching after next year’s World Cup in Japan has a finality that an unknowing, still innocent Juliet had yet to imagine.

Thankfully, Schmidt’s parting will be on the very best of terms — how else could it be? His achievements, since he took the helm at Leinster just eight years ago and became Irish coach in 2013, are such that his impact has reached far beyond sport. It is not alickadoos’ bluster to suggest he has been one of the most inspiring figures in Irish life over most of the last decade. His achievements as a coach, manager, and standard setter, who has helped so many Irishmen realise potential, is unprecedented. In the context of international, professional sport, only the O’Briens of Coolmore can be considered in the same bracket. Anyone who doubts that need only consider the record. Under his leadership, Ireland won three Six Nations Championships and recorded their first-ever wins over his native New Zealand. Schmidt’s first head coaching role in Europe was with Leinster, beginning in 2010. He brought longed-for success, reaching six finals and winning four in three years. He was central in laying the foundation culture that has made Leinster the most successful Irish team of all time.

Further evidence came on Sunday night in Monte Carlo, when Schmidt’s on-field alter ego, Johnny Sexton, was named World Player of the Year. Ireland was named as Team of the Year and, to add the air of completeness that epitomises his teams, Schmidt was named Coach of The Year. Though he would say he is a passing figure in a continuum, the success achieved on his watch is not coincidental.

That success has been contrasted with the disappointment surrounding the Republic’s soccer team. As one reputation soars, another crashes. Even if that comparison is unavoidable, maybe it goes against Schmidt’s core lesson.

Schmidt has shown what can be achieved through the relentless, selfless pursuit of excellence. He has also shown that we are capable of far more than we might imagine. It may be a foible of the Irish character that it takes a foreigner to teach us that invaluable lesson, but he has. Maybe his legacy question is needlingly provocative, more challenging — if, with real effort, a small island on the edge of the world can achieve so much in an international, professional sport, why can’t we organise an efficient health service? Why can’t we organise an honest response to climate change? There are many such questions, all of which require no more than properly managed and focussed ambition, driven by honesty. If we could absorb those lessons, Schmidt’s rugby legacy would be secondary; his contribution is, indeed, that significant.

Thanks, Joe. Your work in Ireland and your leadership are far more appreciated than you will ever know.

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