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‘Joe Schmidt is the one who made us believe we could beat the All Blacks’

Ireland captain Johnny Sexton is wary of the influence his former coach will have on the All Blacks as they prepare to face Ireland tomorrow.

Double act: Sexton and Schmidt.
Double act: Sexton and Schmidt.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

IN AUCKLAND’S CAFÉS and bars the conversations gravitate towards tomorrow’s series opener. Ireland fans have become more noticeable around town as the week has gone on, their numbers swelling as we close in on kick off.

With sold-out signs outside Eden Park, it was interesting to hear that one of the most famous spectators in New Zealand’s national stadium tomorrow will be Joe Schmidt.

The former Ireland coach is used to having the best seat in the house – normally in a coach’s box, overlooking the half-way line. But he won’t be there tomorrow – despite being catapulted into the All Black set-up as an emergency aid earlier in the week when head coach Ian Foster and some of his backroom staff got covid.

Given his history with Ireland, and deep knowledge of the players’ strengths and weaknesses, it’s clear the All Blacks’ initial crisis has turned into an opportunity.

Johnny Sexton should know. No player is more closely associated with Schmidt than him given their shared history of success: three Six Nations titles, two wins over New Zealand, two Heineken Cups; one Challenge Cup.

jonathan-sexton Sexton brings the Triple Crown home with him in 2018. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Now the guide has jumped the fence and is working on the other side, is Sexton worried? Initially the Ireland captain tried to claim he wasn’t, saying: “Obviously he hasn’t been part of the coaching staff so he’s not going to go in and tear up the playbook.

“Ian Foster would have put the game plan together for the weekend and obviously he’ll be doing stuff on Skype or whatever, and taking the meetings there. I’m sure Joe will be giving his opinion on a couple of things but I don’t think he’s going to go in and say: ‘This is how we have to play against Ireland’.

“So, I’m not really that concerned. He came in to have coffee with a few of us on Wednesday morning. He told us that he’s not all over them, he’s just in there helping out.”

Asked if he believed Schmidt, Sexton replied, laughing: “No I don’t, no! I don’t believe a word he says.

“No, look, ultimately we’ve got to get our performance right. When it comes to the middle of the game, it’s not the coach that has an impact; it’s how well you’ve prepared as a squad and how alert you are in those key moments.”

Except the coach does have an impact. In the season prior to his arrival, Ireland were losing to Italy and Scotland in the Six Nations but by the end of his first month in charge, they were seconds away from defeating New Zealand at home. Three years later, they did beat them, the first of three Irish wins out of five in this rivalry.

“Joe gave us some great insights on New Zealand,” Sexton said. “He’s the one who made us believe that we could beat them. The biggest thing he did was he showed us the standards that are required day in, day out.

joe-schmidt-celebrates-winning-with-donnacha-ryan Schmidt celebrates the 2016 win in Chicago. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

“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 first time in 2013, we nearly beat them but those habits weren’t formed of high standards in training day in, day out. To catch up with New Zealand, that’s what you need to do. You need that throughout your whole organisation and the IRFU has done that brilliantly over the last while and that’s why we’ve done it.

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“But Joe has been instrumental in that evolution of Irish rugby. The biggest legacy that someone can have is that they’re gone 10 years and you still talk about them. That’s what it is with Joe in Leinster. We still talk about some of the things that he brought in 10 years ago and it’s still true to this day.”

The thing he really brought in was a winning culture. Prior to Schmidt, Leinster had won three major trophies since the dawn of professionalism. They have since won 10 in 12 years.

Ireland too are considerably more resilient and consistent than they used to be. A measure of that respect was visible on the front page of today’s New Zealand Herald where an ad for a local betting column pointed out that Sexton’s side have won three of the last five games between these sides.

Respect as well as matches has been won.

“Yeah, and we’re very proud of that,” Sexton said. “The guys that have been a part of that are very proud to do that. But you don’t want to let that go. You want them to respect us even more now.

“We often said that the only way to get them to fully respect you is to beat them. The plucky losers tag is not enough to earn their respect. You’ve got to beat them. To do it down here would be very, very special, especially in Eden Park.”

- Originally published at 5.28

About the author:

Garry Doyle  / reports from Auckland

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