The unlikely master: the story of Joe Schmidt’s meteoric rise

By Charlie Richardson

“To put 40 points on an All Black team…I’m blown away, I’m blown away by the effort they made, by the determination they showed.” In architecting Ireland’s maiden victory against New Zealand, Joe Schmidt has now cemented his place as the leading tactical coach in world rugby; the mastermind’s mastermind.

The former Manawatu wing, from the most innocuous beginnings, has risen through the international coaching ranks quite sensationally, but it’s the discrete, humble nature of this ascendency that has ironically ignited such fascination. His unparalled, rapid rise to success – his first ever top-flight coaching post was only ten years before he was given full control of the Irish national side – has been emphatically endorsed by almost every player who’s had the privilege of being exposed to the analytical, dissecting nature of his craftsmanship. He has achieved something for which every coach yearns – the wholehearted respect of their squad.

Just six years ago he was assistant coach to another acclaimed Kiwi – Vern Cotter –during a period when their Clermont Auvergne team was playing some of the most aesthetically pleasing rugby that Europe had ever seen. Their demons overwhelmed them then, but that did not stop Schmidt. His instinctive rugby brain was bigger and better than Clermont’s demons.

And Schmidt was keen to return to a country that had reaped him great rewards when his coaching was raw and undeveloped.  In the early 1990’s he completed a year’s exchange with Wilson’s Hospital School, a small establishment just west of Dublin with only 400 pupils. Here he coached the school’s rugby team to remarkable success, winning a cup final in the process. The friends and colleagues made in this brief stint were undoubtedly a factor in his decision to accept Leinster’s Head Coach offer.

This move would set up Schmidt’s most successful period of coaching to date. With him at the helm, Leinster won 77 out of a possible 99 matches including two Heineken Cups and a Pro12 title. This foray into the domestic trophy cabinet clearly captured the eye of the Irish Rugby Union who signed Schmidt on an initial three-year deal from 2013, which has since been renewed.

“He has a photographic memory about rugby”, said Brian O’Driscoll. But when Schmidt was first XV coach at Palmerston North Boys High School in New Zealand during the early 1990’s, only in his wildest dreams would he have expected to receive such praise from one of the sport’s meteors. His beginnings were hardly blockbuster, anything but. Yet, if his Ireland side manage to do the gargantuan and become the first home nation to record back-to-back wins against New Zealand since Wales’ victory in 1953, he may even surpass O’Driscoll as Irish rugby’s prodigal son. The New Zealand rugby union have stated publically that the door is open for Schmidt to replace Steve Hansen after the 2019 World Cup. But after being granted Irish citizenship in 2015 and his proven Irish track record, why would he?

It was reported this week that Schmidt will play no part in the British & Irish Lions tour to his homeland next year. Head Coach Warren Gatland has spoken of his desire to enlist the services of his fellow countryman Schmidt. To not have included him in the support staff for the previous tour to Australia was an error that in the end proved insignificant, but ignoring him for the Lions’ greatest ever challenge in 2017 would be verging on sheer lunacy. In the past week, Schmidt has ruled himself out, stating that his loyalties lie with Ireland’s upcoming tour to the USA and Japan. His loyalty is admirable and seldom seen at the highest level, but if Gatland wishes to triumph then it is imperative to unclasp Schmidt from his loyal clamps and get him on board, giving him the chance to pick apart the All Black defence once again. In this regard, the result this weekend is irrelevant. Win or lose, Schmidt’s fastidious approach to coaching is palpable from his Clermont and Leinster days. Ireland’s win in Chicago was no flash in the pan, and Gatland must surely know that every man has his price.

Back in Palmerston North he masqueraded as a part-time English teacher when his boots weren’t fastened and his trousers were dry. “There was no doubt about it: if you wanted to succeed you had to go away. You could do nothing in Dublin”, a line from Joyce’s Dubliners that Schmidt may well have taught alongside devising his effective breakdown clear-outs and aggressive defensive line speed. Has an enigmatic rugby philosopher from New Zealand dispelled the writings of the great Joyce?

You bet.

Photograph: Wikipedia

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