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Meet the new boss: the rise and rise of Ireland coach Joe Schmidt

A new era in Irish rugby starts here.

Joe Schmidt and Felix the Cat in good form back in 2010.
Joe Schmidt and Felix the Cat in good form back in 2010.
Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

JOE SCHMIDT’S IRELAND love affair started long before the Heineken Cup took up its semi-permanent residence in Dublin 4.

A young teacher from the Manawatu region in New Zealand, Schmidt landed in 1991. It happened almost by accident, a last-minute change in his plans to spend a year working abroad, and rather than the bright lights and big city of a Dublin or a Cork, or even a rugby stronghold like Limerick, it was Mullingar that became “home”. For a man who showed a tremendous passion and flair for rugby, it was no surprise when he ended up pitching in as an assistant to the town’s senior squad.

Off-the-field matters quickly became his forté. His career on the pitch was short and dogged by injury; on the pitch he was a back, unspectacular but good enough to play for Manwatu at representative level.  By his own admission when he started coaching, first with Bay of Plenty and then with Super Rugby franchise Auckland Blues, he still considered himself small fry alongside the All Black stars he was expected to guide and direct every day.

But those who know him from his brief stop in County Westmeath say that his calling cards of his time at Leinster, the flowing backline moves and the pernickety attention to detail which brought the province back-to-back Heineken Cups, were evident even then.

Still he was a relative unknown — “Vern Cotter’s assistant at Clermont Auvergne” – when Leinster announced in 2009 that they were bringing him in to replace the outgoing Michael Cheika. The doubters found plenty of meat in the word “assistant”, one which marked every phase of Schmidt’s rise to that point. After four seasons with the New Zealand Schools squad, he moved to Bay of Plenty to become Cotter’s backs guru. On their watch the Steamers won the prestigious Ranfurly Shield for the first, and still the only, time in their history.

Schmidt and Cotter discuss Clermont tactics before his departure in 2009 (PAUL THOMAS/AP/Press Association Images)

Schmidt’s “technical knowledge” and “innovative approach” was enough to catch the eye and impress the Blues’ hiring squad. Cotter would later move on to bigger and better things himself, first as an assistant coach with the Canterbury Crusaders and then on to build one of European rugby’s dominant forces at Clermont.

The two were reunited in 2007, getting the old Bay of Plenty band back together in France after Schmidt called time on his three years in Auckland. A semi-final was the closest the Blues came to a fourth Super Rugby title during his time there and when he landed in Europe — again as an assistant coach — it seemed that he was destined to be haunted by a succession of near misses.

Cotter had already shaped his side but they were still seeking a first Top 14 title in the club’s history when Schmidt arrived and had near misses during his first two seasons in France, finishing as runners-up in 2008 and again in 2009. When Leinster confirmed in December 2009 that he was the man to replace Cheika, Clermont were in contention again. This time they didn’t let the opportunity slip and Schmidt left for Ballsbridge with his CV enhanced by a win, the 19-6 triumph against reigning champions Perpignan.

Schmidt, Jono Gibbes and Greg Feek celebrate Leinster’s Heineken Cup win over Northampton in 2011 (©INPHO/Dan Sheridan)

As he stepped into a squad brimming with some of Ireland’s top talent, Schmidt faced his toughest task yet: ensuring that Leinster’s own “golden generation” did not suffer the same fate at provincial level as they had with the national team. Not only did they dodge the ignominy of being labelled European one-hit wonders, but with their remarkable comeback against Northampton in 2011 and their equally thrilling evisceration of Ulster in 2012, Schmidt established his side as undisputed continental kingpins.

Now after playing his way into the hearts of the Irish rugby public with his entertaining and effective style, as well as his warm personal demeanour, he faces the biggest challenge of his coaching career to date. The Schmidt era starts here.

Joe Schmidt named as new Ireland head coach

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Niall Kelly

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