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Joe Schmidt interview: planning to live without a plan... for now

Murray Kinsella sits down with the former Ireland head coach to reflect on the Rugby World Cup, his new book and much more.

joe Joe Schmidt with his son Luke, pictured before the Rugby World Cup. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

ONE OF THE most interesting entries in the 2019 World Cup diary section of Joe Schmidt’s new book comes on 19 July, with Ireland in pre-season camp in Limerick as they build towards their trip to Japan.

“This job has been such a big part of my life for the past six years that it’s difficult to think about stepping away,” writes Schmidt, “although at the same time I look forward to being free of the pressures of the role.”

When The42 sat down with the now ex-Ireland head coach yesterday, it was noticeable how much healthier he looked than had been the case during the World Cup and at several other times during his tenure.

On edge, visibly sleep-deprived, wan – we have seen Schmidt in that state very often since he took over in 2013. 

He’s clearly been catching up on some sleep in the past five-and-a-half weeks since Ireland’s quarter-final exit at the hands of his native New Zealand, but Schmidt is not quite free just yet.

Our chat takes place in between slots with radio shows, while he has appeared on the Late Late Show and done several other interviews to promote his book, Ordinary Joe, in recent days. With live events to come, Schmidt remains in the spotlight.

“I still feel that I’m a little bit embedded in it because I would never be out involved and so visible in a period of time that’s not during our playing schedule,” explained Schmidt. “I don’t feel super comfortable doing interviews because you feel under a bit of pressure.

“I feel most comfortable coaching on the pitch, most comfortable even trying to analyse or develop a strategy because those things are probably what I perceive to be more my strengths, rather than having to be in the public eye.”

It makes one wonder why Schmidt has done a book, which he wrote himself, given that it would only extend the exposure after his final campaign with Ireland, a World Cup that did not go well and has damaged his legacy in the eyes of some people.

Schmidt led Ireland to a Grand Slam, two further Six Nations titles, two wins over the All Blacks, a series success against Australia, and a first-ever win over the Springboks on South African soil but the recency of the World Cup disappointment means it is acute.

It would be wrong to write off Schmidt’s ground-breaking achievements with Ireland but he is aware that his final year, with the World Cup – in which Ireland suffered a shock defeat to hosts Japan and were hammered by New Zealand – and the 2019 Six Nations, where they never truly got going, was not good enough.

Schmidt puts his hand up for how Ireland went from a glorious 2018 – in which they won their Grand Slam, had that series success Down Under, and beat the All Blacks – to their underwhelming 2019 displays.

joe-schmidt-ahead-of-the-game 'I feel most comfortable coaching on the pitch.' Source: Craig Mercer/INPHO

He believes his biggest error was to go away from the week-by-week and day-by-day focus that had made Ireland successful in order to chase a longer-term goal of breaking the glass ceiling by finally reaching a World Cup semi-final.

“That was probably my biggest disappointment about how we set the World Cup up,” said Schmidt in Dublin yesterday. “I went away from what we’d normally do just because it was the only thing that we hadn’t done.

“We’d beaten every other country and we’d got the Grand Slam ticked off, therefore we aimed up at trying to go for that one other thing. In retrospect, that was something that I didn’t get right. We should have been hugely focused on the Six Nations and trying to keep our rhythm.

“To a degree, you get distracted by the weight of emphasis people put on the World Cup. I think the World Cup is so fickle. There have been nine World Cups and I think the All Blacks have probably been favourites for all nine of them, and they’ve won three of them and one of those, in 2011, was… tenuous.

“The one previous to that, they were incredibly unlucky in that quarter-final. There are ebbs and flows in the whole tournament.”

In a rather drastic change from their previous habits, Ireland used a training camp in December 2018 to look towards the World Cup, rather than the upcoming Six Nations and even during that championship, Schmidt’s men were planning ahead for Japan.

“We did a little bit and in the back of our mind, we had a couple of plays that we walked through and were investing in a little bit so that people understood their roles, which we were never going to use in the Six Nations,” he explained.

“We’d never do that normally and we’d never do plays even for a team two weeks ahead or three weeks ahead, we’d always try to stay in that week.”

On the back foot 

And so Ireland began the Six Nations with a damaging defeat to England in Dublin and never appeared to recover their rhythm, saving perhaps their worst performance for last away to Wales as Warren Gatland’s men wrapped up their Grand Slam.

The hope of regathering momentum took another dent with a 57-15 hammering at the hands of England in one of their World Cup warm-up games in August.

Again, the new mentality of looking further ahead to the World Cup appeared damaging, with Ireland having had a heavy week of training in a warm-weather camp in Portugal before facing England.

The fatigue seemed to combine with the existing dented confidence, resulting in a heavy defeat, and Schmidt again concedes that he and Ireland may have got their planning wrong.

The Ireland head coach also says that he wasn’t as sharp as he needed to be, having only recently returned home to New Zealand for a flying visit due to his mother sadly passing away.

“That [defeat] was probably exacerbated by the first game of the Six Nations, the fact that we were under par there even though with less than a quarter of that game, the score was 17-13 in that first game. Everyone has talked it up as us being well beaten but in the final quarter we tried to chase the game.

“After 28 minutes of the [World Cup warm-up] game, we’re 10-8 ahead but the longer the game went on, the most damaging score was the one after half-time where Maro Itoje literally walked through from a lost lineout. We lost six lineouts in a game where we’d never normally lose that many platforms.

“Fatigue… it was definitely part of it and I’d probably quite like to change that.

“I know I was fatigued because I’d been to New Zealand and back and I wasn’t as energised as I’d normally be anyway, so I kind of felt I wasn’t as good as I needed to be that week.”

Eastern promise

While Ireland appeared to have found some of their mojo again in an impressive opening win over Scotland at the World Cup, they collapsed against Japan in the second fixture after taking an early 12-3 lead. Wins over Russia and Samoa followed but Ireland were very poor against New Zealand as they exited.

Among the theories that were floated in the immediate wake of the World Cup was a sense that Stuart Lancaster’s impact in Leinster in recent years affected Schmidt’s Ireland.

Isa Nacewa, a long-time Schmidt disciple, suggested that Ireland had attempted to bring in some of Leinster’s “unstructured” focus during 2018 but then backed away from it, while Brian O’Driscoll – who also played under Schmidt – suggested that Leinster’s success with a different approach meant some Ireland players might have questioned Schmidt’s methods for the first time.

Schmidt dismisses this line of thinking out of hand.

“I think if you speak to any of the Leinster players and I’d speak to Stuart Lancaster… there’s a lot more similarities than there are differences between Leinster and Ireland, definitely,” said Schmidt.

“It’s funny because I got a text from Isa straight afterwards and he said he could have phrased things a little bit differently. He felt it didn’t come across quite the way he meant it. I’d still be pretty close to Isa and be in contact with him fairly regularly.

“I hadn’t caught up with Drico for a while before he surprised me on the Late Late [last Friday night] but I’d catch up with him for a coffee every so often.”

The issue of Schmidt’s team selections in 2019 has been pondered very often in recent weeks too but when asked if he would change anything in that regard, the 54-year-old shakes his head.

“Not really, not really.”

isa-nacewa-and-brian-odriscoll-celebrate Isa Nacewa and Brian O'Driscoll were key parts of Schmidt's high-flying Leinster side. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Many supporters were frustrated by Schmidt’s loyalty to players who had earned his trust, with some questioning why Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray started every game in the Six Nations when they weren’t at their best.

Leaving them on until very late in the Wales game, with the fixture already lost, was particularly jarring, but Schmidt’s sense was that he needed to play his halfbacks into form, rather than dropping them in the hope of getting a response.

“You’ve got the World Player of the Year and a guy who is world-class but he’s coming back from injury. We wanted to try and give them as much time as we could.”

As for the quarter-final of the World Cup, the form of the likes of Jordan Larmour and Andrew Conway had impressed many but Schmidt opted for his most tried-and-trusted team. Again, he said he doesn’t have regrets about the team he picked. 

“I reckon it’s one of those things that if we’d won the game, it wouldn’t be a topic of discussion.

“Sometimes I feel that because of the end result, people start trying to work out what the reason was and I can say that, in my belief, there were a number of reasons for it.”

In explaining those reasons, Schmidt very often delves into the details of the quarter-final, moments like Richie Mo’unga acrobatically keeping Sexton’s line kick in play in the 17th minute, when a five-metre lineout would have given Ireland a chance to reduce the 10-0 deficit.

He narrows in on Ireland’s missed chances when some fine build-up play saw them create openings out wide, only for errors to hand New Zealand chances.

Time has helped Schmidt to be more at peace with the 2015 World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina. Five of his key players were ruled out before that game and any nation in the world would struggle without their key playmaker [Sexton], captain [Paul O'Connell], defensive talisman [Jared Payne], prime ball-carrier [Sean O'Brien], and lineout specialist [Peter O'Mahony].

But this year’s shortcomings will surely linger on, particularly with Schmidt having never finished a previous job on a sour note. He moved on from the Blues, Clermont, and Leinster after positive seasons.

Events in Japan will leave some people questioning whether Schmidt was a success but his superb record with Ireland up until 2019 should not be forgotten.

Clearly, Schmidt possesses a unique rugby brain and there is little doubt that the actual coaching is what he dearly loved. Speaking with the Kawakawa native immediately after training sessions in the past six years has underlined that – he has always been visibly buzzing with enthusiasm and enjoyment.

Big rocks 

His love of the game is why the second part of his book, bearing the title ‘Ball in Play,’ will be the most interesting for many readers. After an opening part that outlines his upbringing, teaching career, and first forays into coaching in New Zealand, Ordinary Joe then turns into a coaching manual for 127 pages.

It was the part that appealed most to Schmidt, who wrote this book himself, as he designated individual chapters to subjects like mindset, leaders, and people.

“That was probably my motivation,” said Schmidt. “The first couple of chapters were definitely motivated by being involved with my mum. There’s a lot of things that aren’t in those chapters that we laughed about and I wanted to share that part with her.

“The ‘Ball in Play’ part was a big motivation for me to write the book because I felt I was trying to make sense of a lot of things that I’ve learned and trying to put them into some sort of order. I do think having that really positive mindset, that growth mindset, is incredibly important if you’re going to try to coach.”

A chapter called ‘The Game’ explores Schmidt’s rugby philosophy and details how his “Big Rocks” with both Leinster and Ireland have revolved around the breakdown, which he once heard former All Blacks boss Graham Henry describe as the “heart” of the game.

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A presentation at a coaching course in France during his time with Clermont revealed that retaining the ball “relied upon what the ball carrier did 60 per cent of the time, the next arriving player had a 20 per cent influence, and others who arrived after that or were involved after that had a 20 per cent influence.”

With his own sense of the central importance of the breakdown reinforced, the core of Schmidt’s focus with Leinster and then Ireland was the ball carrier and the next two closest players.

“Body/ball” became Schmidt’s phrase for demanding ball carriers to be strong through the contact before they fought hard on the ground to present the ball cleanly. The first two players arriving in support were termed the “barrels” as they would be like having two barrels of a gun loaded and accurately targeted as they cleared away any defenders.

Despite his success with Ireland, Schmidt’s possession-heavy style of play was often criticised, with the focus on the breakdown over offloading constantly critiqued but Schmidt feels his approach has been misunderstood. 

“It’s not the quantity of ball,” said Schmidt. “A lot of the time, people say, ‘They’ve had 75% possession,’ but for me that’s not the relevant statistic. It’s the speed of the ball, it’s where and when you get it, the quality of the ball – not the quantity.

“That’s where I believe New Zealand are so good because they can win without the ball. Not many teams can do that. Unfortunately, against us this time, they won with the ball. So when they’ve got it, you’re doubly in trouble.”

There is also a perception that Schmidt’s philosophy changed from his time at Leinster to coaching with Ireland, with many people feeling the Leinster attack featured more offloads and less structure. Schmidt disagrees.

“There was no shift,” he insisted. “I do think that we can all be fooled a little bit by the end result. We work our way back and say, ‘This is different.’ The end result might be that we offload less but that might be because the ball was slow. If you’re playing off slow ball, even the All Blacks struggle to offload.”

Schmidt does, however, suggest that offloading comes more naturally to Kiwi players than Irish players.

“Because they play off quick ball and because they start in rugby so young, it is a bit more intuitive in their players than it is in ours,” said Schmidt.

“But we’re changing. We’re getting great numbers of kids out on Saturday and Sunday mornings, out in the blitzes.”

Perhaps the major trademark of Schmidt’s Ireland team has been the strike plays they have utilised very effectively from lineouts and scrums.

These played unfolded over one, two, three or even more phases from the set-piece, with every Irish player’s role designed and drilled in exacting detail to ensure they could exploit a potential opposition weakness.

Examples like CJ Stander’s try in the Grand Slam-clinching win over England and Jacob Stockdale’s score against New Zealand in November of last year stand out as stunning moments in massive games, but there have been countless examples of Schmidt’s ingenuity in this area.

Coming up with these plays is clearly something he enjoys hugely and he is energised as he explains an example from earlier this year.

“I always start with us,” said Schmidt. “What’s the best way to maximise the people we have? If you base too much on the opposition, then it becomes a little artificial for us.

“To make it real for us, you know that you’ve got a certain player who runs a certain line really well. 

“Say in the game against Scotland in the Six Nations where Jacob Stockdale goes through and scores. We felt that they were very conscious that if we hit the midfield, we might try to go to the edge because we had done that against them the previous year, to good effect.

“As soon as you gave it to a forward around the corner, like Pete [O'Mahony], who carried it, then they’re going to presume we’re going to go the same way or hit there. So the [defender] is going to try to come across and help a little bit harder than he otherwise would.

“Just to drop it back under to Johnny, the second guy coming across was Allan Dell and he just gets stood still and you know that Jacob has got that speed. He hit 10 metres per second when he got into space there, he’s very quick for a big man.”

Schmidt is an avid, relentless watcher of rugby. He has racked up unquantifiable hours watching Pro14, Top 14, Premiership, Super Rugby, Currie Cup, Test rugby, or virtually any game being screened on television, always with a notepad alongside him.

He enjoys rising at 6.30am to tune into the Mitre 10 Cup from New Zealand when it’s on, while he always tries to catch his former teams like Manawatu, Bay of Plenty, and Clermont. 

Schmidt has simply rarely switched off but his intensity has been another area that has been questioned during his time with Ireland. The man himself feels that the reputation of his infamous Monday reviews has been “exaggerated” but players will speak off the record about them or their team-mates having been cut apart for errors in games during those analysis sessions.

rory-best-and-joe-schmidt Skipper Rory Best and Schmidt facing the media in Japan. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Schmidt’s book does see him twice acknowledge his intensity and admit that he is “sometimes too reactive” and that he doesn’t “deliver feedback in the right way.”

We wonder if it has been a challenge for him controlling that intensity, given how much he cares about his work. 

“I care more about my people and I do believe that the players knew that I genuinely care,” said Schmidt.

“I do care about how we play and how we perform but I always care about the individual player and how they’re coping. That’s why I find selection incredibly tough, that’s always been the toughest part of me.

“And the fact that I make myself have the discussion on the phone, calling players who didn’t make the squad. I don’t think it shows any regard for the player to get an email or just see a team sheet.”

The term ‘control freak’ has been used to describe Schmidt and, again, players who have worked with him will speak about him having fingers in virtually every pie. Again, Schmidt argues that this perception of him is unfair.

“There are some people who believe that I have a need to control everything, but I know if you came into our environment, you would see how much other people contribute.

“We had a staff lunch last week to say thanks to the staff and they’re such a good group. People think that it’s humility but it’s just honesty – I didn’t have as big an impact at times as people think.”

Schmidt goes on to laud the coaching staff that worked with him in his final years with Ireland, stressing what each of them has added.

“On the dust jacket of the book, which the publisher does for you, there’s a quote from Brian O’Driscoll which says, ‘There’s nothing he doesn’t know,’ but there is so much I’m still learning about people as much as about the game.”

The review into Ireland’s World Cup performance – which has involved an independent influence from outside the IRFU – is currently being wrapped up and performance director David Nucifora is due to discuss it with the media early next month.

The expectation is that Nucifora will indicate that the next focus for Irish rugby will be to focus more on the skill levels of young players, with the IRFU seemingly believing that the defeat to New Zealand showed up a gap in catching, passing, and decision-making skills.

joe-schmidt-walks-down-through-the-crowd-after-the-game The departing Ireland boss takes the acclaim of the travelling fans after the defeat to the All Blacks in Japan. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Part of it is popularising the game and I think the last 10 years have gone towards that,” said Schmidt.

“Going to some of the clubs now, there are swarms of kids running around and that’s what you want. The younger they start playing the game, the more intuitive it is for them.

“If you look at the numbers playing the game around the world, for us to have even got to number one – albeit briefly – is still pretty incredible.”

However, Schmidt urge cautions in the wake of events in Japan too. He sees a system that doesn’t require overhaul because of another poor World Cup.

“I would hate to think that we would try to revolutionize our current structure. I think so much of it is good. There is some fine-tuning that will always happen.

“So much is going really well. We had a poor World Cup and I definitely know we could have done better in the Six Nations. I think that will rectify itself to a large extent and we’ve already seen that the provinces are straight back being incredibly effective.

“We’ve also seen the fallout from Saracens whereby it wasn’t maybe a level playing field and it never is, but you’re not looking for a level playing field but to make your field as productive as possible. I think Irish Rugby are doing an incredible job.

“It would worry me that on the back of one perceived failure and I accept that, for us, it was failure because we needed to get beyond that quarter-final, but I’d hate to think that some transformation will happen. Fine-tuning, for sure, and that’s something that will come out of any review, which we’ve continually had anyway.

“Having a big lengthy written independent review, they did it after all the other World Cups. What you want to get out of the review is to keep the best of what we’ve got and have some practical ideas to improve upon what we’re doing.”

joe-schmidt-with-andy-farrell Case for defence: Schmidt with his successor Andy Farrell. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

And so, that’s it – the Schmidt era is over and Andy Farrell is now Ireland head coach.

Schmidt was the one who brought his successor on board as an assistant coach in 2016 and he believes the Englishman is a strong leader.

“Because Andy is intimidating himself, he can get in people’s faces and tell them they need to deliver, but he’s also very good at putting an arm around and saying, ‘Come on, I know you can do this,’ helping to build confidence at the right time.”

As for Schmidt himself, he insists that his future is undecided. He has already had offers from within rugby and outside the game, but said he is determined to live without a plan for the first time in years, for a little while at least. 

The old yearning to get coaching will return soon, no doubt, and he won’t be short of offers.

He remains close to influential figures in Clermont in France and one wonders whether he could make a return there, or perhaps even take on another gig in Ireland? 

“I don’t know if anyone would want me, I’ve kind of gone through the system in Ireland!” said Schmidt with a smile.

“Part of it depends on what happens at the end of this current year. My family are pretty settled here now. You tend to grow roots in places and after 10 years in a place, we’ve well and truly grown some roots.

“Intentionally, I’m telling myself not to even think about it. I’ve thought about so many things constantly for so many years, I’ve had a schedule, a playing programme, a daily itinerary. I’d love to get to the stage where I actually have a little bit of unplanned time.

“It’s been flattering to get contacts from different sports or commercial interests, things like that, but I really don’t know what I’m going to do next. All I know is I’m not a soccer coach, so I don’t have the sufficient reserves to stay permanently retired!

“My plan was probably to retire from professional rugby coaching, but after a while away… I do love doing the actual coaching, so I don’t know.

“I’m trying not to know.”

Ordinary Joe by Joe Schmidt is published by Penguin Ireland on the 21st November at €25.00. Joe will be in conversation with Joe Molloy in Dublin, Limerick and Belfast and tickets for the events are available here.

About the author:

Murray Kinsella

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