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'His impact here is still spoken about': Schmidt's Clermont years

Former second row Jamie Cudmore and team manager Neil McIlroy on Joe Schmidt’s influence on the Clermont Auvergne dressing room.

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THE LEGEND OF Joe Schmidt existed within the ASM Clermont Auvergne dressing room before the Kiwi school teacher had even arrived on French shores.

Vern Cotter had been head coach of the Top 14 outfit for a season before he managed to convince his right-hand man to leave the Blues, up sticks and relocate his young family to Europe, after the pair had formed an inimitable working dynamic back home in New Zealand.

At the Bay of Plenty, it took Cotter and Schmidt a year to turn the club from nearly men to history makers as they stunned Auckland to win the Ranfurly Shield — New Zealand’s oldest competition — in 2004, after almost 100 years of trying. 

The pair would go their separate ways for three seasons, but it was clear from early in Cotter’s reign at Clermont that there was only one man he wanted on his coaching ticket, as he looked to guide Les Jaunards to their first Top 14 title.

“We had a part-time French coach who was a stop-gap at the time,” Neil McIlroy, Clermont’s long-serving manager, explains to The42. “Before Vern, we hadn’t known anything other than French coaches.

“But Vern knew who he wanted and, from day one with us, he had always backed Joe as being the guy who could come over and successfully do a job for us. He was his right-hand man from the Bay and made it clear Joe could help us get to the next level.”

Jamie Cudmore, Clermont’s totemic Canadian international second row, says the players had heard talk about this coach from New Zealand before he joined Cotter’s coaching ticket in 2007.

“They were the perfect match really,” he laughs. “Vern was the aggressor, Joe was the nice guy. Everyone was rubbing their hands together thinking it was going to be a very successful partnership for the club and it was.”

It didn’t take long for Schmidt — appointed attack coach — to unlock the potential at the Marcel Michelin, as Clermont reached the Top 14 final twice in his first two years in central France, before the Bouclier de Brennus trophy made its way into the trophy cabinet in 2010.

Aside from Schmidt’s unparalleled expertise on the training paddock with the three-quarters, he brought a wide array of qualities to the position, with man-management being one of the strongest.

Having influenced the careers of Nacewa, Howlett, McAlister and Rokocoko at the Blues, Schmidt now had Aurélien Rougerie, Morgan Parra and Wesley Fofana under his wing.

Joe Schmidt with Vern Cotter Cotter and Schmidt enjoyed huge success working together. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Vern was confident that Joe, given his qualities, would be the perfect fit here,” McIlroy continues. “We had some quality backs at the time and Joe was up to speed relatively quickly with the language, so was up and running straight away.

“Not only did he work with the backs, but he complemented Vern’s works with the forwards. Everyone says it was a good cop, bad cop relationship but if Joe needed to bang on the table or kick a few arses he did so. 

“Joe was obviously very big on his detail, big on his preparation and we realised that from early on, not only with the three-quarters for whom he had responsibility, but with the team in general.”

Cudmore, who made over 200 appearances for Clermont, recalls one obvious change Schmidt brought to the environment.

“I remember we had changed our training to more of a high-speed, high-intensity Thursday session in the season we won the Top 14,” the former lock explains.

“Thursdays and Fridays were normally very light sessions in match week but Joe brought in high-speed and high-intensity training and a bit of contact on those days. We had never done that and it was foreign to a lot of the French guys.

But it made the difference. With that speed came precision, and if guys didn’t figure it out straight away, Joe would definitely raise the tone and pull people up. Tell you once, show you twice, and the third time the hammer would come down. He was such a nice guy and comes across as the nice teacher, but he had that side to him too.

“For me, that was something that was huge for us because before we maybe didn’t have as much attention detail as we should have before Joe came in. That’s where he had the biggest influence on the changing room.”

After falling at the final hurdle in 2008 and 2009, it was third time lucky for the Cotter-Schmidt partnership as Clermont beat Perpignan in Paris to deliver the holy grail to the Michelin-sponsored city. 

“We realised we had a luxury other clubs didn’t have,” McIlroy says. “We had two head coaches working together. Joe knew when Vern had to have the last word and that was evident from the beginning. We really had a luxury from the moment Joe got off the plane in having two guys of head coach ability working hand-in-hand to drive us towards our first title.

“Joe had brought certain members of our backline to a new level in a short space of time but, overall, he had brought the club to a new level with his work-ethic and detail.”

Joe Schmidt Schmidt made a big impact at Clermont. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

It was only a matter of time before a first head coach role would lure Schmidt away from Clermont, and as the story goes, that famous phone call with Nacewa was the start of his move into Irish rugby.

“We knew we were on borrowed time with Joe anyway,” McIlroy recalls. “Given the qualities he had, we had the privilege of having him with us, but we could never stand in the way of his own ambitions. We were obviously keen to retain him, so it was sad to see Joe go.

“Coaches have come and gone since but Joe was the standout one who we knew would go very far in a short space of time. The funny thing was our paths crossed quite rapidly after he left for Leinster. There were some classic Clermont-Leinster European games in the years that followed his departure and that’s when he realised the qualities of Joe as a person.

The fantastic technician and tactician that has been seen with Clermont, Leinster and Ireland, I think all that is often put before his human qualities because I think Joe’s human qualities are what make him the great man he is.

“His impact on Clermont is still spoken about, he’s highly respected here and we’re very proud of him having a bit of Clermont blood in his body.”

Cudmore adds: “We saw his quality first-hand and his knowledge, coupled with how hard he worked, meant we all knew he would be a great international coach and it has proven to be the case. I’m delighted for him, it has been great to see Joe doing so well with you in Ireland.” 

Wherever Joe Schmidt has gone, he has made a difference.  

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Ryan Bailey

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