Ireland may not have the best talent in the Rugby World Cup but there is a belief that in Joe Schmidt, they have the best coach...
To appreciate just how far Ireland have come under Joe Schmidt, cast your mind to where the team were 30 months ago. Italy and Scotland had both beaten them. England had too, in the Aviva. Sure, Declan Kidney’s last Six Nations campaign had been plagued by injuries to key players. But then look at who his successor had to deal without for the second half of last week’s win against France.
No Brian O’Driscoll, or his usual partner in the centre, Gordon D’Arcy. No Jared Payne there either.
Paul O’Connell, the last of the golden O’ trinity of Gara, Driscoll and himself, had been carried off, as had O’Gara’s successor, Johnny Sexton.
And yet Ireland won, convincingly. And now Ireland are convinced that they will reach the World Cup semi- final and go possibly even further, even maybe all the way.
Why? Because as brutal as this sport and tournament has been, it’s nearly impossible to injure their coach. And it’s nearly impossible to top their coach.
Ireland may not have the best talent in the tournament but there’s a belief that in Joe Schmidt, they have the best coach in it.
It’s faith well placed. Quite simply, he’s world class. By any sporting standard. Rugby may still be a global minority sport, but in Schmidt, we have in our midst a coach who is as much a master of the discipline as multi-millionaire coaches that a mass sporting nation like America recognises and reveres: ‘Coach K’ Mike Krzyzewskiof Duke and USA basketball, Nick Saban of Alabama football, Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots. The same could be said of European football: Mourinho, Guardiola.
All they have over Schmidt at the moment is longevity and money and fame. Chances are they don’t know him the way he’d know them. But you can be sure they’d learn from him, the way he’s obviously learned from others.
But what are some of the subtleties and nuances that makes Schmidt such a master? The big thing that keeps coming up is his attention to detail. That’s before even getting to his technical and tactical expertise.
When he first came to Ireland all those years ago as a young teacher on a sabbatical in Mullingar, one of the things that struck his teammates at the local rugby club was that within a week he knew each and every one of their names, even though there were over 50 people training with the team. As a teacher, he knew the word that most resonated with people was their own name and so he could address them in that fashion.
He’d bring the same to Clermont when he was an assistant to Vern Cotter. He’d pour himself into studying French so he could converse fluently with everyone on the playing and coaching staff, something that wasn’t lost on the players, which was one of the reasons they took to him so readily.
Yet as person-centred as he is, he’s just as much task-centred. As Johnny Sexton would observe in his 2013 book Becoming A Lion, “Joe’s got more of an edge to him than his smile suggests.”
Bob McKillop, the old college coach of NBA MVP Steph Curry has a maxim: Sloppiness Is A Disease; according to the highly-respected Davidson College coach if you’re lax about what might seem like small things, you’re subconsciously giving yourself permission and allowing slippage in the biggest of things.
“Your desk, your appearance, the handwriting on the notes you send — neatness is contagious,” McKillop has said. “And I think it’s a sign of respect.”
Schmidt swears by the same philosophy. Even under the high and strict standards that Leinster had under Michael Cheika, players were allowed wear anything they liked travelling to the airport for away games as long as they had some Leinster top on. Once Schmidt took over, jeans were out. It was tracksuits if they were travelling and blazers after home games.
He’d bring the same mindset to Ireland. Rory Best and Paul O’Connell have told the story about at one of Schmidt’s first training camps, some player innocuously dropped their room key in the corridor of a hotel. Schmidt brought it into and up at the next team meeting. “Just to let you know, that sort of stuff won’t be tolerated. If we’re sloppy off the pitch, then we’ll be sloppy on it.” It was disrespecting the Irish jersey and the hotel staff for someone on the team to be almost littering in a hotel. That hinted you’d be willing to litter the field with mistakes too.
“I was sitting there,” says Best, “thinking ‘Oh my God!’” Discipline and on-field conduct and class is a huge thing for him. While winning the Fair Play Award and thus Uefa Cup qualification is something the Premier League football fraternity and especially its writers can scoff at, Schmidt doesn’t belittle such things. He’s spoken to secondary schools about the pride he’d take in Leinster winning the Celtic League’s fair play award in two of his three seasons at the club.
That’s not by accident. He often referees on the training ground and any backchat or complaint is met by immediate removal from the field and an order to start running laps of it.
But this is not a schoolteacher that operates by the fear of the stick. One of the reasons we so often see that killer smile is that he understands the value of levity and a laugh.
When Declan Kidney controversially took the Irish captaincy off Brian O’Driscoll and handed the armband instead to Jamie Heaslip, it was potentially an awkward moment for someone coaching the pair of them at provincial level. Instead, Schmidt paired the two of them together in a game of Partner Touch whereby they had to link arms and try to touch and chase the rest of their teammates as they ran back and forth between the 22 and the goalline, with any captive then joining their human chain. It wasn’t lost on their teammates that Schmidt had helped dissipate any tension that could have arisen between the pair.
As much as the players have been blown away by how much he knows, it’s been compounded and aided by the fact they know how much he cares. Isa Nacewa has spoken about that, revealing while Schmidt wouldn’t be the kind to go out socially with the players, he’d be willing to babysit for them, an offer Nacewa, being a fellow Kiwi new to Ireland, would readily accept and appreciate.
When Johnny Sexton both considered and then decided to leave Leinster in 2013, Schmidt was someone he confided in at the time, even though he was then the province’s coach. Both before and after the decision, Schmidt was hugely player-first. “Johnny,” he’d text after the decision, “hope things are okay.
“Disappointed for Leinster but generally happy for you and Laura heading to Paris.” As Shane Horgan has observed, “He’s compassionate, and he knows that performance in rugby is one thing, and that there are other elements in life.”
Communication is something he excels at. His capacity to give feedback, when and how to criticise and challenge and when and how to praise. “He can be ruthlessly honest when he needs to be,” Brian O’Driscoll would write in his autobiography The Test.
“He rarely shouts but his words can be lethal. He can cut you down in an instant and the pitch of his voice doesn’t need to rise or fall.”
Leinster teammates of O’Driscoll’s clearly remember the day they found no star player was untouchable in Schmidt’s eyes. Only weeks into Schmidt’s tenure, there was a video session in which a sloppy pass had been hurled towards O’Driscoll which the Irish captain had fumbled. Schmidt pulled up the player who’d thrown the supposed pass. Then, just before he moved on to the next clip, he threw a question at O’Driscoll.
“But Brian, was it a pass a world-class centre should still have caught?” The whole room privately gasped — and smiled. How beautifully-crafted was that criticism, acknowledging how good the player was and yet how he could and should have done so much better.
It wasn’t lost on another international: Brad Thorn, a member of the 2011 All Blacks. “Joe has high standards,” he’d observe, “but is able to tell people what they need to know without making it feel like a personal attack. When some coaches critique you, it sounds like they’re putting the boot in and you leave the room hating them as a person.” As Johnny Sexton has noticed, Schmidt is out to educate, not humiliate.
The big thing he’ll criticise is more a lack of effort than a mistake, as much as he insists on execution. A lack of effort is inexcusable. The SuperBowl-winning coach Pete Carroll has a theme for the day after every match: Tell The Truth Monday, and a similar approach is rolled out by Schmidt.
“You can’t hide,” Isa Nacewa has said. “You can’t be lazy, you can’t be hiding on the pitch because he’ll put it up there for everyone to see on a Monday morning.” Sexton recalls a time when a couple of teammates had switched off, not anticipating a Sexton cross-kick pass for Nacewa, and suddenly had to race to get to the ruck on the touchline. He identified one back in particular. “Look, you’re in the lead.” Then his tone changed. “Oh, but you’ve just been passed out. By a front rower. Is he a quicker runner than you?” Why roar or use profanity when you can make your point as coldly as that? And yet, as much as he’s a player’s number one critic, it’s not lost on them that he can be their number one fan. Sexton has noticed how invariably the same video session will show a clip of the same criticised player making a positive play more like his real self. The players look forward to the Monday sessions because he’ll catch them doing right, especially the unheralded, unglamorous, unseen plays — that is unseen by everyone other than himself and those in that room.
“He’s a player’s coach [that way],” O’Driscoll would write in his book, “because he notices what you do. If you do something seven phases before a try is scored that no one is giving you credit for, he gives you credit.” And towards the end of the week, he’s almost entirely positive. He’s a bit like Vince Lombardi that way; bring them back down to earth early in the week, then build them up towards the end of it. Leo Cullen recalls before key games with Leinster, a video would be shown featuring five clips of each individual player highlighting their signature strengths.
But again, on the training ground, he has that positive yet highly demanding approach.
“I wouldn’t say fear is what governs you playing for Joe but you’re very mindful that you need to know your stuff before you ever go onto the pitch,” Conor Murray would tell this writer this time last year.
“We were down to have a walk through in the sports centre in Leixlip about how we’re going to play against South Africa and from the moment we met up in Carton [House] a few hours earlier, all eight laptops were occupied. There was literally a scramble to get onto them so fellas could refresh themselves on our plays and what we’d worked on in the last camp.
“We went down to Leixlip and if someone was in a ruck when they shouldn’t have been, there was no tap on the shoulder, ‘Em, should you have been there?’ It’s ‘Out! Next team in! NEXT!’ “It puts pressure on you not to let your team down. It’s such a team game and if you get your role wrong when the other 14 lads have all studied it and nailed it, he lets you know it’s your fault that it’s broken down and that you’ve let them down, that you’re not giving them or yourself the best chance to win. Joe’s brought a lot more than that but it’s certainly one of his big things which we’ve all bought into.” The players have come to love that. It’s what they now expect, it’s what they’d been previously missing. In Sexton’s book, a journal of the 2013 season, he was struck by the difference between a Schmidt-led Leinster session and a Kidney-supervised Irish one. There wasn’t the same clarity of information.
“At Leinster, Joe is our point of reference for all things to do with attack and there are no grey areas. If there’s the tiniest detail out of place on an attacking move, he’ll pull us up on it: ‘Why are you here when you’re supposed to be there? You should know that. Do it again till we have it spot on.’ With Ireland [under Kidney], there have been times when the move has worked in training, but not perfectly, and it would be accepted. There isn’t the same rigorous attention to detail.”
That trait especially extends to his analysis and knowledge of the opposition. A veteran like Leo Cullen was struck that even before Schmidt’s first Heineken Cup game with Leinster, he’d established a routine of putting up posters of all the opposing players on the walls in the training camp in Riverview.
Outlined underneath the photo of each opponent was five of that individual’s strengths and five of his weaknesses to be exploited. He’s brought the same methodology to Ireland, which was why he was able to namecheck so many obscure Romanian players ahead of last month’s group game.
He’ll have similar posters but a different game plan for the battle against Argentina tomorrow. There was against France last week.
“Just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions,” the old Chinese general Sun Tzu would wisely note 2,500 years ago in The Art of War.
“He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.” It’s one of many reasons that Ireland have a heaven-born coach.
Ireland may not have the best talent in the Rugby World Cup but there is a belief that in Joe Schmidt, they have the best coach
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