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The All Blacks have always loomed large for Kiwi native Joe Schmidt

The Ireland head coach and Steve Hansen have had some great battles since 2013.

Updated Oct 18th 2019, 8:46 AM

FROM THE AGE of four, when he first ran around playing barefoot rugby in the tiny town of Te Aroha in New Zealand’s Waikato region, Joe Schmidt’s life in the sport has been heavily shaped by the All Blacks.

For any young fella in New Zealand, wearing the black jersey was the ultimate dream. Schmidt made it to provincial level with Manawatu but never had the opportunity to win international caps as a player.

irelands-head-coach-joe-schmidt-during-the-training Schmidt at Ireland training in Tokyo yesterday.

Even as he developed into one of the greatest coaches in the game, the All Blacks continued to be a heavy influence on Schmidt.

When he was with the Blues in Super Rugby, he recalls learning from Graham Henry – the man who led the Kiwis to World Cup glory in 2011 – and there is little doubt that the All Blacks have helped to shape Schmidt’s ideas around the game.

Even as Ireland coach, the All Blacks have had a huge bearing on Schmidt. The four games against the Kiwis have been among the major highlights of his time in charge of Ireland, including as they do those famous first two wins, and tomorrow’s World Cup quarter-final will define what has been a riveting rivalry.

While Schmidt admits to the All Blacks having had a big influence on him through the years, he also insists that his own rugby philosophy is not a clearly defined one.

“The game changes,” said Schmidt yesterday. “There are subtle rule changes or there are different ways other teams play, so you have got to adjust your philosophy all the time.

“Then you’ve got players who have strengths in particular areas and are not so strong in others, so you adapt.

“I think as soon as you think as a coach that, ‘This is the philosophy. This is the way we do it,’ it’s a really dangerous position to assume because the game is fluid, the way it’s played is different.

“Players now, they need to be multifaceted, no matter what position they play. So, all those things meld into a philosophy.

“I’ll be frank, I don’t have a specific philosophy. We have an opponent this week and we adapt to what we think is going to best suit us and best combat them. There might be subtle changes week to week, but there are changes.”

Clearly, Schmidt feels he’s learned to adapt and there may have been some influence in that from the man in the opposite corner tomorrow: Steve Hansen.

steve-hansen-congratulates-joe-schmidt-after-the-game Hansen and Schmidt after Ireland's win in Chicago in 2016. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The fairly major alterations to this All Blacks team since last November’s defeat to Ireland underline that Hansen, six years Schmidt’s senior at the age of 60, is not afraid of change.

Ireland assistant coach Greg Feek played under Hansen at Canterbury for a couple of seasons around 2000 and got a taster of the things that would help Hansen go on to become one a World Cup winner.

“He had a certain way, that dry sense of humour, a great way to approach things around your game,” said Feek.

“He was always generally pretty positive about you as a player, but then would suddenly start drip-feeding the work-ons into it.

“He’s always conscious of the group and getting the best out of you, and when I do see him there’s always a good catch-up, we always have a good chat and I always enjoy that time.

“Now he’s a bit of a legend of the game, so back then he was kind of just kicking into the Super Rugby and NPC, and it’s good to see the success and how well he’s gone. I just hope it doesn’t continue this week!”

Hansen, involved in the All Blacks’ back-to-back World Cup successes, has every right to claim to be the master in this head-to-head but Schmidt’s achievements with Ireland should not be underestimated. 

The Kiwi head coach has taken Ireland to the next level since 2013, winning virtually everything and hitting many new milestones. All that remains is guiding Ireland beyond the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time ever before he departs.

The All Blacks won’t relinquish their grip on the William Webb Ellis trophy without a ferocious fight. But after all is said and done, the coaches hope to share a beer.

“One team is probably thinking it’s their turn to win one but that doesn’t guarantee it, does it?” said Hansen yesterday. “With that comes pressure but both teams are in the same situation. Come the final whistle, one will go right and one will go left.

all-blacks-head-coach-steve-hansen-during-the-training Steve Hansen at All Blacks training in Japan. Source: INPHO/Billy Stickland

“I caught up with Andy Farrell yesterday and had a bit of a yarn to him. In that conversation, that was brought up – one of us will be going home. That’s just the cold, hard fact of the World Cup.

“Now, we’ve experienced it ourselves in ’07. There are no guarantees we won’t experience it again. Ireland are in the situation where they haven’t gone past the quarter-final. They know what it’s like to go home, so they’ll be doing their darnedest not to and we’ll be the same.

“You just hope that it will be a good game of rugby that excites the tournament, that it’s not affected by cards and at the end of it, no one’s got any excuses. You then have to take your fate on the chin.”

Schmidt underlined his “huge respect” for Hansen yesterday, as well as his assistant coaches Ian Foster, Mike Cron, and defence specialist Scott MacLeod – who “spent three days in our camp many moons ago, so he’ll be very aware of how we function. 

“They’re good guys to have a drink with afterwards – I don’t really enjoy the rivalry because it’s difficult,” continued Schmidt. “It’s a bit of double jeopardy to be honest. They’re smart coaches and so you’re trying to think about what they’re going to bring, how they’re going to try to manipulate us.

“At the same time, you’re trying to devise strategies based on what you’ve seen of them and, knowing them personally, how you think you can try to manipulate them.

Asked to highlight the All Blacks’ single key strength, Schmidt pointed to their “speed to transition from defence to attack,” which could be decisive in this game if Ireland make inviting errors.

Hansen, however, said Ireland are “tenacious,” while also highlighting that “they’re not a team that give you a lot of opportunities through mistakes.”

All in all, this is a fascinating clash between Schmidt and Hansen’s teams. In their fifth meeting since Schmidt took over as Ireland boss and with two wins apiece so far, this game will conclusively decide who has come out on the right side of the rivalry.

The All Blacks have always defined Schmidt, in part at least.

“As a coach, coming from New Zealand, seeing those guys at the top of the tree, it’s pretty awesome to be in the mix coaching against them, to be honest.”

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About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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