JOE SCHMIDT savoured a major success in his first season as a head coach and hailed Heineken Cup final man of the match Jonny Sexton as one of the reasons he joined Leinster last summer.
The New Zealander left his role as backs coach with newly crowned French champions ASM Clermont Auvergne to replace the Stade Francais-bound Australian Michael Cheika, who had delivered Leinster their first Heineken Cup victory in 2009.
Cheika’s were big shoes to fill and Schmidt was far from convinced about stepping into them. That was until a meeting in the Burlington Hotel in early 2010 with Sexton and club captain Leo Cullen which went a long way to helping the Kiwi make his decision.
“I spoke to Jonny. To be honest, I didn’t talk to Michael (Cheika) a lot because in the transition period I was with Clermont and he was with Leinster and we were going to be playing each other in the quarter-final and once that happened the season kind of finishes quickly after that and also we were looking to focus on the Bouclier de Brennus,” Schmidt recalled.
“I’d enough on my plate without trying to keep a foot in both camps.
“My first impression was… Jonny was one of the reasons why I came. I met Jonny with Leo and I remember saying to him or he said to me ‘look I think you can bring something we want’.
“I said ‘look, you know, I’m not sure, I haven’t really done the job before, I’m not sure about driving the group forward’ and he goes ‘ah don’t worry about that, we’ll do that. You just give us the stuff we think we need and we’ll drive the boys forward, we’ll motivate them and keep them on the straight and narrow’.
“He struck me as an incredibly mature young man, an incredibly driven young man. I already knew he was a very good player, I’d seen enough of him.
“At the time I hadn’t decided. That was one of the things that helped me decide.”
Sexton’s two tries, four penalties and three conversions against Northampton landed the 25-year-old fly-half the man of the match award in Cardiff to follow similarly influential displays in the semi-final win over Toulouse and Ireland’s Six Nations triumph over England in March.
Yet Schmidt was reticent to heap too much praise on one of his star players when asked if Sexton could be mentioned in the same breath as All Blacks number ten Daniel Carter.
“I’ve never coached Dan to be honest,” the Leinster coach said.
“A lot of the guys in New Zealand I have coached but I’ve never had the luxury of coaching Dan Carter but I think what Jonny did for us tonight, I watched Dan play this morning for the Crusaders and direct them around the field.
“He was very good, I think Jonny is very good and if they’re both very good, I suppose that’s the same breath. I’m probably not the one to talk about Dan too much because I haven’t coached him.”
The way Schmidt’s career trajectory is taking him, that chance may yet come but for now, he was prepared to enjoy his finest hour as a coach.
“Just seeing the crowd today, just looking at them all and the photos that were going off, just phenomenal, phenomenal. I mean the Bouclier de Brennus last year, the Ranfurly Shield that we won for the first time ever in 100 years of playing with Bay of Plenty was fantastic. (But) I think this tops it. Particularly to come where we were on a massive stage like this.”
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