Joe Schmidt’s journey from the floodlit back pitches of high school rugby to the upper echelons of the professional game has been more than 20 years in the making.
Schmidt was born and bred in the small village of Woodville in Palmerston North, a city of approximately 80,000 people situated on New Zealand’s central North Island.
It is a proud rugby region that has produced the likes of Christian Cullen and current All Blacks Aaron Cruden and Sam Whitelock.
Schmidt first dipped his toes into the coaching game when he took up a job as an English teacher at Palmerston North High School in the early 90s.
Schmidt was recruited by then principal Dave Syms and immediately took over coaching the first team at the school. They were runner’s up twice at the national championships under his watch but Syms saw plenty of potential in this young coach.
“From the time he was coaching high school rugby you knew he was special,” he explained.
“I liken Joe to Graham Henry. I thought at a school when Graham was teaching and he was the same sort of guy; so committed, so intense with his teams and yet so personable.
“The knowledge they brought to their coaching through all their extra work that they did off the field is a great strength, and then they had that personal skill in terms of how you deliver it.”
Syms believes it was Schmidt’s years in the classroom that helped shape his coaching philosophy based on organisation and communication.
“Being a teacher helps,” he reasoned. “As a teacher you’ve got to deliver, you can’t deliver the same style all the time because people stop listening to you, so you have to vary your delivery and he used those techniques in his rugby coaching.”
Before he was masterminding backline moves and coaching strategy, Schmidt played representative rugby on the wing for the Manawatu club in the Palmerston North region and even scored a try against the touring French during their tour of New Zealand in 1989.
“He was a bloody good footballer,” recalled Syms.
“I think there was probably less of him than there is now and there’s bugger all of him now … he used to get treated like a rag doll. He was just fired from pillar to post by the big lads, but he’d bounce back up.
“He was a real ‘will-o’-the-wisp’ sort of winger. You’d push him over and he’d bounce back again.”
The pair have remained close friends to this very day and it was Syms who Schmidt turned to for advice when he was offered the assistant coach’s role at the French juggernaut Clermont back in 2007.
“I remember standing with him on the field here at Eden Park (in Auckland) and he said to me ‘what do you think’ (about the Clermont job), I said ‘you’d be a bloody idiot if you didn’t go’. The rest is history.”
Gerry Aktin also worked with Schmidt at Palmerston North High School and is now the institution’s deputy principal. He remembers Schmidt, first and foremost, as an outstanding teacher who brought the same approach to his coaching.
“He was so successful because he was able to form those really positive relationships with the students he taught,” he said.
“His coaching style was exactly the same. He had players’ respect and he could exert his authority when needed, but he got on with things in a sort of a quiet, calm and measured way.
“As a teacher he was very organised and his coaching was exactly the same so when he went to a training session or preparing for a game, he knew exactly what he was doing.
“He didn’t need to have that ‘ranting and raving’ style to get his message across. His organisation and the relationships he had meant he was effective in his own way.”
Schmidt has spoken in recent weeks of the enormous workload involved with running a professional rugby club and Atkin believes the early days of running schoolboys teams held the Kiwi in good stead.
“It’s a huge time commitment,” said Atkin. “There’s a hell of a lot of travel involved, overnight trips and that type of thing.”
The two-time Heineken Cup winning coach had a stint at Napier Boys High School before taking up the role of deputy principal at Tauranga Boys College. There, he had a profound effect on a young teacher by the name of Neil Howard who was immediately impressed by Schmidt’s rugby brain.
“He brought the coaching here to the next level,” Howard stated emphatically.
“He introduced a lot of new philosophies, there was a lot more information written down for the boys.
“I’m assistant principal here now at the school, and he’s the reason I’m in the position I’m in. I’ve never worked for somebody who inspired me to get out of bed as much because the next day was going to be exciting.”
Schmidt’s positive impact on the school’s game was not going unnoticed. The former Manawatu winger served four years as assistant coach for the New Zealand schools nurturing future talents such as Joe Rokocoko and Luke McAllister.
Schmidt’s rise has been exponential ever since, teaming up with Vern Cotter at the Bay of Plenty of Steamers in 2003 before a three-year stint with the Auckland Blues before his move to Clermont alongside Cotter in 2007. Soon, Leinster would come calling for this modest Kiwis expertise.
“I think maybe some of the reasons why he’s so good at what he does is because he comes from a big family himself,” Howard concluded.
“It was a modest upbringing by most standards, I think the value of communication was a skill he learned at that time, and took it into his teaching, and then into his coaching.”