If things had worked out a little differently, John Plumtree might possibly still be Ireland’s forwards coach, and still accompanying Joe Schmidt on unscheduled detours on the way home from Ulster matches.
One of the abiding memories of his short but productive spell in Schmidt’s coaching set-up is being driven by the head coach from Dublin to Belfast for a Friday night game at Ravenhill and unexpectedly veering off course on the way home. It is a tale he recalls with fondness now he is back in his native New Zealand, and plotting the downfall of the British & Irish Lions as forwards coach of this morning’s opponents the Hurricanes at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium.
“We had a lot of fun,” Plumtree said of those road trips with Schmidt during his 2013-14 campaign in Ireland. “The first one we went on we went up to Belfast and of course, you know Joe chats away and I thought he knew how to get back down to Dublin but we missed the turn-off.
“We ended up going inland and it was late, it was half past 10, 11 because Ulster had just finished playing and Joe is going through these little towns and country roads and we’re shitting ourselves.
“We only got home about one in the morning having gone the long route; of course, he blamed me! I was supposed to be on the phone (navigating). So, we still laugh about that.
“All those trips were great with Joe. He’s such a good bugger to talk to, it wasn’t just all about rugby it was other things as well. I miss Joe, he’s a good man.
“He’s serious about his business, but he’s got another side to him that’s bloody witty and that’s why he’s so popular. He doesn’t take it too seriously all the time, you know? When it’s time for rugby, he does but the other side of it he’s bloody good. He’s funny.”
Plumtree, 51, joined the Ireland set-up in the summer of 2013 having been sacked as head coach of the Sharks in Durban, South Africa. Schmidt offered an escape route on his appointment by the IRFU to succeed Declan Kidney. It was a call he remains grateful to have received.
“The year in Ireland for me, after being six or seven years in South Africa, the Irish management and the way Joe went about his business, and Les (Kiss, then defence coach), really stimulated my thinking around how you could take your coaching to another level.
“I was in Durban for a fair while and got a bit stagnated around it and going there to Ireland I learned different things with Joe and Les that helped me here. So that was the big thing I got out of it.”
His job as the forwards coach was not meant to end so quickly, after just one season which saw the Irish win the 2014 Six Nations Championship. But the siren call of his native New Zealand from Hurricanes boss Chris Boyd proved too strong to ignore for a man who left for the Sharks after coaching the Wellington Lions ITM Cup side.
Since his return, spurred as much by a desire to bring his family home as to further his career, things have gone spectacularly well, the Hurricanes reaching the Super Rugby final in his first season and landing the title for the first time last summer.
“I got my timing right,” Plumtree said.
“I thought I would stay in Ireland for three years at least, maybe who knows where it might have gone from there, but I always had my eye on doing the Hurricanes at some stage of my career. And I guess with Chris phoning me up and saying ‘hey listen, there’s a job coming up’ the temptation was there for me.
“Then getting my kids back into New Zealand rugby, because they’re promising young players too, so the temptation was there for that as well. There were tough decisions.”
Plumtree believes he is a better coach for his Irish experience and exposure to Schmidt’s methods. “Just around his preparation and the detail he goes into. When I got back here (to New Zealand) I saw more of that as well from the other coaches so that was great for me. So I learned from them and brought back what I knew I guess.
“Now we’re finding ways to get our messages across and put plans in place to hopefully get better results. So, yeah, it’s been bloody good. It’s just lucky, working with good people, you learn good things from them. That was a big thing I got out of Ireland.
“There was still, you know, settling the family back in here, all the same stuff I had to do in Ireland. It was quite a tough two years for us. My family’s not from here, they’re from Taranaki. I knew quite a few people here so the transition here was easier but there was still settling the kids into school and having to go through all of that again, it was a pretty tough year.
“So it was only really at the end of 2015 that we really settled down and it felt like I was at home again. Joe will go through the same thing when he comes back.”
The assumption, there, of course, was that sooner or later, Schmidt will also leave Ireland and return home to a Super Rugby job and then perhaps on to the All Blacks. It is a familiar path for New Zealand’s overseas contingent of coaches but Ireland have their man at least until the end of the 2019 World Cup.
“I don’t know what’s happening with Joe,” Plumtree added, “he had a big choice to make (last summer) whether he was going to extend his contract out until the next World Cup, didn’t he?
“There was a lot of talk that he was leaving and he’s done that now, he’s staying until the World Cup and that’ll come around very quickly and it will be what will happen next.
“Him and Warren Gatland, Vern Cotter — the Kiwi coaches overseas, they’re all talked about coming back here and playing roles in New Zealand rugby again, I’m sure that’ll happen. It’s just whether Joe ever leaves Ireland, I don’t know, maybe he’s too Irish now. It will be interesting to see.”
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