He may be on the All Blacks’ watchlist but if Joe Schmidt does decide to return to New Zealand when his contract expires 12 months from now, the Ireland head coach will likely do so for more personal reasons.
Schmidt, whose three seasons in charge since succeeding Declan Kidney in 2013 have seen Ireland win back-to-back Six Nations titles in his first two campaigns and this month record a first ever Test victory in South Africa, has told his IRFU employers he will decide this summer whether to take the team forward beyond his current deal to the 2019 World Cup.
That is also the point at which the All Blacks will be looking for a replacement for their head coach Steve Hansen with New Zealand Rugby Union chief executive Steve Tew name-checking exiled Kiwi coaches Schmidt, Wales boss Warren Gatland and Scotland’s Vern Cotter at the weekend among the potential successors.
If any of that trio wish to be considered NZRU policy is that they must spend at least a season within their coaching set-up or in Super Rugby, which would make defending champions the Highlanders an attractive option for Schmidt, their chief executive having already approached him regarding their head coaching vacancy for 2017.
Yet if Schmidt, an Irish citizen who became Leinster head coach in 2010 and won two Heineken Cups, a Pro12 title and the European Challenge Cup with the province before his promotion to Test rugby, does decide to return to country of his birth it will be a family decision.
For while he may be torn between Ireland and New Zealand, particularly following a hugely encouraging tour to South Africa when his injury-hit Irish side narrowly missed out on a first series win against the Springboks on Saturday night, Schmidt’s overriding concern is the treatment his 13-year-old son Luke receives as he deals with a well-documented severe epilepsy condition.
Asked from a rugby perspective how big a decision he faced in the coming weeks about his future following Tew’s statement and the potential shown by a young and inexperienced Ireland team following Saturday’s 19-13 defeat in Port Elizabeth, Schmidt gave an emotional response.
“Yeah, for all sorts of reasons. It’s not really my decision to be honest,” he said, before pausing. “I’ve got a young fella struggling at the moment. That’s just the way it is.”
Returning to rugby and the lure of staying on as Ireland head coach after a series in South Africa which saw his side lose out by an aggregate of just six points over three Tests, Schmidt said: “Look, you cannot fault the work ethic of these guys. It’s huge.
“I’d be lying if I said that we were suddenly world beaters. I’m not going to claim that we’re looking to aim up and take over the world of rugby. We’re just going to try and roll our sleeves up and try to profit from the investment that the last three weeks has been, and we’ll see what happens.”
Schmidt, missing a number of injured frontline stars who have been the mainstay of his Ireland teams for the past three seasons, handed Test debuts to Matt Healy, Tiernan O’Halloran, Sean Reidy and Quinn Roux on this tour.
Young and inexperienced internationals such as Paddy Jackson, Luke Marshall, Tadhg Furlong and Stuart Olding were all handed greater roles as they brought the curtain down on an arduous 17-Test, 52-week campaign that saw Ireland caught for a lack of experience both at telling moments in both last autumn’s World Cup and here in South Africa.
“It’s been tough, it’s been tough, because if you look at what we started the season with, if you count up the players that started that French Test, for example, when we were fully fit minus probably Jared Payne, and you look at the team that started today, you look at the four Test caps that were earned on this tour and a number of other guys, like Luke Marshall, Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Jordi Murphy who had a handful of Test caps and the fact that they’ve come back into the game, and kids like Ultan Dillane and Finlay Bealham, it’s great that they’ve had those opportunities, because if it happens in 2019 that I’m involved or whoever is involved, we don’t want to be in the same situation where we’re so reliant on our real feature players.
“Now I can tell you that any team is reliant on feature players. Have a look at the Australia team that beat England in England, take Matt Giteau and David Pocock and a few others out, it doesn’t take too much to tip the balance, because it is a fine balance.
“It’s a very touchy equilibrium between what can be best delivered and when you suddenly lose that experience and you become a little bit vulnerable.
“I didn’t think we showed too much vulnerability and I think that’s a credit to the players and what they’ve invested in the last three weeks, and hopefully that is something we can profit from in the future.”
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