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Meet New Zealand Rugby’s best kept secret and potential saviour – a man called Joe Schmidt

It might be hard to believe but Schmidt’s profile is way higher in Ireland than it is in his native country.

Joe hometown Source: Sportsfile/Brendan Moran / INPHO

IAN FOSTER AND SAM Cane sat on a makeshift stage in the Press room, staring from a height at people who metaphorically were actually looking down on them.

It was an uncomfortable moment, in particular to see Foster, a proud man, a World Cup winning assistant, asked not once, not twice, but three times, about his future.

There’s a reason why. As All Blacks coach he has overseen a run of four defeats from five games, New Zealand’s worst run of results since 1998. And in a country where winning is the only thing, those are the kind of statistics that leave you vulnerable.

“Do you believe you can make this team better?” Foster was asked moments before last night’s Press conference in Wellington ended.

He paused, fidgeted with his fingers, all the while retaining his glare at the doubter. “Yes,” he finally said.

He – and we in Ireland – know why. The under-pressure Foster has someone ready to come on board and that someone is no ordinary Joe. A few weeks from now, assuming the New Zealand Union don’t bow to public pressure and dismiss their coach – Foster will be joined on his staff by an old friend: Joe Schmidt.

The pair go way back, meaning Foster knows everything about Schmidt, his attention to detail, his high intellect, his visionary plays, his perfect grammar, the rhythm, pace and structure to his sentences, the rhythm, pace and structure to his training.

In Ireland Schmidt is something of a national treasure, the coach who broke the mould, winning three Six Nations titles in six years, getting those breakthrough wins away to South Africa, in Chicago against the All Blacks, on the 2018 tour of Australia.

But what sort of status does he hold in his own country? There was only one way to find out.

**

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You all know Woodville or at least a place like it, a little town with a church, school, coffee shop and railway crossing.

Think of a town called Woodville and you can imagine being on holiday or coming home. That’s rural life. So many places may appear indistinguishable, even picturesque spots like this, where the darkening clouds fail to discolour the beauty of a town encircled by greenery.

If you are willing to look, you’ll swiftly discover a town’s depth and character.

But some people just don’t want to see. When we hired a car in New Zealand’s capital, questions followed. “What do you want to go to Woodville for?” the salesman asked, a little perplexed.

It’s a common trap urbanites fall into, failing to appreciate how the farming communities in these little places are the providers of the milk you put on your cornflakes, the meat and veg you eat for dinner.

The journey there felt like a trek through the heart of a nation, the initial crawl out of the city taking you past warehouses and factories before two lanes narrowed into one and you found yourself on a mountain road with a snakelike ascent. It was like leaving the Long Mile Road and arriving ten minutes later at the Ring of Kerry.

“Yerra, but you won’t get as many All-Ireland medals around these parts, like,” noted Brendan, a Tralee man, my companion for the day.

By the time we got down the other side of the mountain, a necklace of villages awaited us, some with fabulous names, Kiriwhapapa and Mikimki, others with a slightly different identity.

new-zealand-views The Ring of Kerry - transported to New Zealand. Source: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

A place called Graytown was far from grey; vibrantly lit with Christmas lights, yes Christmas lights in July; some of its buildings reminding you of a film-set from a spaghetti western, others of an English cricket pavilion.

To the right, rolling hills like you see when the credits roll in Telletubbies. All that was missing were giant versions of Dipsy, Po and Laa-Laa. Then there was a rugby pitch packed with a herd of cattle.

On one level it was the high point of this tour; on another a sad reminder of how hard these communities have to work to keep ticking along. You speak to a charming lady in a local museum, who tells you how history repeats itself, where parents rear their children and then see them move away.

new-zealand-views Source: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

And that’s when it strikes you that the story of Woodville is no different to the story of so many parishes and villages in rural Ireland where goodbyes get said, and children grow up to be educated or employed in bigger towns that governments spend more attention and money on.

Woodville, the place that moulded Joe Schmidt, had its first recorded game in 1887. One hundred and thirty one years later, a son of that town was voted World Rugby coach of the year. However, in the local museum, there’s an article titled ‘Rugby in Woodville’ nailed to a wall. The last line is haunting. “Sadly today Woodville has no rugby team of its own.”

This is Ian Smith, famed broadcaster with SENZ, a New Zealand radio station: “The issue for rugby here in this country is what we call community rugby. I know it from my local area, Hawke’s Bay, which is a very strong province, with three or four current All Blacks. But they’re struggling for numbers at club level and that’s a big problem that stems from the fact that kids are doing other things either at school level or when they leave school, not just moving automatically to the rugby system.”

**

It is 3.30 on a Wednesday afternoon. A rainbow has come out. It is dry overhead but the pavements are damp from a recent shower. A dad and his daughter make their way to a car. Earlier we’d seen a young boy walk to a café in his bare feet which is a New Zealand thing apparently, Warren Gatland and Schmidt telling stories of idyllic childhoods where kids played their rugby immune to underfoot conditions.

We pass the pitches where a young Schmidt would have played and are reminded of the fascinating interview he gave to The Sunday Independent’s Brendan Fanning a couple of years back where Fanning revealed how the seeds of Schmidt’s insatiable work ethic were sown in these fields and on these streets.

As a child, during school holidays, Schmidt worked in a tree nursery, later as a paper boy, then as a runner at the local racecourse.

“That was almost ingrained,” Schmidt told Fanning. “It was inherent. I wanted to have the opportunity to go on tour to Australia with our (school) first XV rugby team so I had to supply that money. When you’ve got eight kids mum and dad were working but they weren’t on flash money or anything. All the kids worked and did different things.”

That’s another misconception so many people have of rural life, wrongly believing nothing ever happens there when in reality, it’s just like everywhere else. Tragedy and triumph have a way of finding you but to taste that second experience, you first need to imagine it is possible.

Years ago, after guiding Ireland to a grand slam, Schmidt was asked to place the win in context. That was when he told a story about watching the tournament when he was a kid, besotted by the rugby and also the attendances.

“It’s hard to equate anything with this,” he said in a corridor outside Twickenham’s away dressing room. “When I was a kid I used to look at the Five Nations on TV and think these places were on a whole different planet with those massive crowds. It’s pretty hard [to picture] when you’re born in Kawakawa, 1,400 people and you’re shifted to the metropolis of Woodville – 1,600 people. So, this is huge. Huge.”

On the day we visit you don’t see next or near 1,600 people. It’s wet and it is wintry. When the father and daughter get in their car, Brendan and I are the only footfall on Woodville’s main street.

We’ve landed mid-afternoon. Most of the coffee shops have closed but the owner of one kindly opens her doors. “It’s been quiet,” she says.

She hears the unusual accents, figures we are from Ireland which triggers something in her mind. “Were you at the match last night?” she asks.

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The Maori All Blacks had played Ireland in Wellington the night before.

“Yeah, we thought we’d come down here today to see Joe Schmidt’s home town.”

There’s silence.

“Joe Schmidt … former Ireland coach.. he’s from here.”

“Oh really?” she says. “To be honest you’re talking the wrong person, I’ve never heard of him.”

**

new-zealand-views The recreation ground where Schmidt played as a kid. Source: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

**

Turns out the first four people we speak to hadn’t heard of Schmidt either. It doesn’t stay that way. The fifth person knew some of his family. Others – in nearby Pahiatua – were present when Schmidt gave a talk in the local rugby club. “He’s a legend, mate,” the chap tells us.

You can see why he’d think that way. The lad was a hooker, his pal a second five-eighths – or inside centre. Quickly a pattern was developing. If the person you talked to was a genuine rugby fan, Schmidt’s was a name they respected. But if rugby wasn’t really their thing, well, it was a different story. All in, we chatted to around 14 people. Half of them knew Schmidt; the other half hadn’t a clue.

“Joe Schmidt, aw yeah, I’ve heard of him,” said Kerry, an All Blacks fan, named after the county his grandmother emigrated from. “We didn’t mind losing to you in Chicago that time because it was to one of our own. Joe’s local; one of us.”

Yet Schmidt isn’t the name he is clamouring for to become All Blacks coach. Instead it’s Scott Robertson, the breakdancing, sharply dressed, charismatic, and most importantly of all, successful coach who has worked magic with the Crusaders.

If New Zealand Rugby were to think of appointing Robertson, though, they’d have to pay for the privilege. There’d probably be a new backroom team to employ which effectively means getting the chequebook out to pay off the incumbent coaches.

Either way, they need, as well as want, Schmidt. He’s coming in at Foster’s request to replace Grant Fox who is retiring as a selector.

Suddenly all that rugby IQ, gathered from a lifetime’s work, the kind of knowledge that helped Ireland win titles and All Black tussles, that’s there for Foster, or – if the button is ever pressed – for Robertson. Don’t rule out the idea of Schmidt one day being offered the top job, either.

“He’s the one who made us believe that we could beat New Zealand,” said Johnny Sexton last week. “I think the biggest thing he did was to show us the standards that are required day in, day out because you don’t come together, turn up on a Monday and suddenly beat the All Blacks at the weekend. It takes a couple of years.”

The Joe legacy could be seen on this tour, Ireland treating and beating the All Blacks like just another team. That’s partly down to Schmidt and the foundation work he did with Ireland and if we are being harsh, it is partly down to Foster and the underwhelming job he’s currently doing with New Zealand.

Getting Schmidt in as a hired help won’t hurt Foster, or New Zealand for that matter. The truth is they should never have let him leave their rugby system in the first place.

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About the author:

Garry Doyle  / reports from Wellington

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