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The 'kid from Manawatu' who shook up Mullingar in 1991

Joe Schmidt got a taste of Ireland long before Leinster recruited him from Clermont.

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“MULLINGAR SHAMROCKS DEFEATED Milltownpass 2-8 to 1-5 on the night,” read a piece on the Shamrocks’ website last summer.

“And it is recalled that Schmidt raced up and down the wing in a most impressive manner and scored at least one point in the process.”

The GAA club posted the recap of the 26-year-old junior league fixture under the headline, ‘We too have a Joe Schmidt story’.

The town’s rugby community could only be allowed exclusive rights for so long.

Joe Schmidt signs autographs for supporters Schmidt signs autographs at Mullingar RFC after an open training session in 2016. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Through the second half of the 20th century New Zealanders made the notion of travelling far from their relatively isolated Pacific home to live and work in Europe into something a rite of passage rather than an outlandish venture.

The ‘OE’, for many, was almost an unofficial post-grad qualification, tagged on after they completed studies and before they settled in to full-on adulthood. For most, it meant a stint in London before seeing sights elsewhere in Europe before ultimately deciding which hemisphere to set up shop for the long haul.

Even at the age of 24, Schmidt was hardly going to be ‘most people’ and under advice from Mark Donaldson he headed for Ireland to take up a role as player coach in the midlands. Rugby in Westmeath hasn’t been the same since.

“It was certainly an eye-opener to us,” says Willie Macken. Today the communications officer for Mullingar RFC, but in 1991 he played wing in the first team.

A lithe, energetic Kiwi with a bright shock of blonde hair was always going to stand out as memorable in a close-knit community in the early ’90s.

However, it was Schmidt’s methods and application that began leaving what is a lasting impression. Macken is wary of teasing tales out to grow any taller but recalls that Schmidt succeeded in swelling not only the number of players presenting for training, but between one session and the next he would raise the ball count from four between four teams to upwards of 50.

Mullingar were going to play.

“All of a sudden, from just running with a ball, as junior rugby was all about back then, we had to play with a ball. Which was a bit of a shocker.

“A lot of people felt ‘oh God, I’ll be found out now.’ But there is fun to it on the other side.

“That was the very first indication to us that this guy is a bit different.”

He was a stickler as well. Our sessions, you were on time, you finished on time. All the grids you’d have to do were all set up.”

This was new ground for Mullingar at the time. They were getting more than they bargained for. Schmidt had scored a try for Manawatu against a touring France in 1989, so some around the club might have been hoping they were bringing over a game-changing player in his athletic prime who would pitch in and help head coach Len Ethel.

Instead they got a visionary coach who would play across their back-line.

“As a 24-year-old he actually landed as a coach. Which was astonishing, because we were really looking for the player. ‘Great to get a Kiwi,’” Macken says with a laugh.

“He actually arrived with this coaching skill from Manawatu. Things were different and they’ve been different ever since with the relationship we have with Joe.”

Schmidt the player was initially perturbed to find selectors dictating what position he would play and that famous brow surely furrowed when he was handed a number 10 shirt.

The new import was keen on putting his skills to use from 13 or 15. His club were keen to keep their secret weapon a secret. Schmidt was told to keep schtum for as long as he could after the first whistle on his first appearance, lest any marauding midlands head-hunters be given the target they were after.

An ordinary Joe might have taken the advice, but Schmidt teams ever since have excelled through the direction he barks on the field.

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In an absorbing interview with the Independent’s David Kelly in his second season with Leinster, Schmidt speaks of a long rocky drive from the airport cross-country to Westmeath and to Con Gilsenan’s pub.

It would be wholly understandable if the young Kiwi couple had struggled to settle in Mullingar. True, it was a veritable metropolis compared to his home in Woodville, but his initial living arrangements were far from set in stone.

Before settling in a place to call his own in Mullingar, he was taken in by club president John Fagan after first taking up residence with front row Jim Gillespie in Multyfarnham.  Soon Schmidt’s connection to the village would grow as strong as the one with the town as he took up an offer from Joe Weafer to coach in Wilson’s Hospital.

“We threw the ball around,” Schmidt fondly recalled in the same interview.

And the style brought a landmark success to the school as Schmidt was pulling the strings as the young charges went to Donnybrook for a Leinster Schools Section A final and defeated St Conleth’s in their own back yard.

”We scored five tries, Nico Drion and Raymond Bell got two each, Liam Plunkett scored the other.”

The names on the score-sheet were the back three. Schmidt had his sides playing exciting, expansive rugby.

JOE SCHOOLS Schmidt marks out a gameplan for Wilson's Hospital schoolboys on their way to Donnybrook. Source: RTE NEWS

It was a momentous victory for the school. For the club side there are far less tangible, but no less treasured, traces and memories of Schmidt’s influence. Energy, nous and know-how that even seasoned coaches were happily rowing behind and tapping in to.

“As a club he brought us along in many ways. We didn’t have that eureka moment where all of a sudden we’d won a Towns Cup. He brought new energy to our minis and youths and the benefit to the club was all the other coaches learning from Joe.”

The power of Schmidt’s personality was a major factor in making that work. The coach we have become familiar with when running drills with vicious efficiency is a different character to the person Mullingar warmed to in 1991.

The same man they know now.

“He’s such a personable individual that everyone bought into it, absolutely without question,” says Macken.

“What I would be fond of is post-match Joe Schmidt. Back then, bars were full. They were halcyon days for junior rugby, but Joe could make his way through our bar – one end to the other, week in week out – and not forget a name. Anyone attached in any way shape or form, his recall was incredible.

“That’s another thing about Joe and how he has advanced. it’s not just his rugby knowledge, it’s his personality, his way of greeting and meeting people as well.

“When he comes to Mullingar, the stories he comes out with…

If any of our group had to stand up and regale people about a particular year, you’d find it hard. It’s an astonishing memory. You’re going ‘how does he remember that?’

“Joe had a story about everyone.”

And many have a story about him, apocryphal or not.

As can so often happen when a town finds connection with a well-knwon figure, tales of past deeds can easily become exaggerated. Names, places and dates can be tweaked for dramatic re-tellings.  One man’s experience is told in a crowded room and it becomes another’s.

Then word gets around that Schmidt is due in town and the re-tellings get juicier.

“If he’s coming for the weekend, it would start on Friday and the stories get taller and taller,” Macken laughs, “guaranteed, everyone played with him. whether they’re five or 65, they’ll claim they’ve played on the same pitch as Joe, picked by Joe, dropped by Joe…

Joe Schmidt greets fans Schmidt heads out for an open training session in Mullingar in 2016. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“He’s held dearly in the hearts of anyone who is at all related to the rugby club.”

And the GAA club too.

The name on the newspaper cut-out from the Shamrocks’ win over Miltownpass has the left half-forward listed as Joe Smyth, but it was the future Ireland head coach alright.

“We were trying to scrape a team together,” Patsy Fagan, himself an exponent of both rugby and football, told Pundit Arena, “and Joe came down and I asked him would he play and he said he would. So, we gave him the jersey and he went out and played.”

“He ran around, got the ball, ran past the players and then passed it on again. He didn’t have much Gaelic skills himself, but I remember him saying to me that the skills were very helpful for rugby players and they carried over well.”

That was in the latter stages of Schmdt’s OE, however, and so the Shamrocks didn’t get the chance to elevate their pacy attacker out of the junior ranks before Joe and Kellie packed up and headed back to New Zealand.

But Schmidt made sure to return. He brought Leinster and Ireland to train at the clubhouse rooms he once worked like a presidential nominee. And those who knew him then and now relish the chance to meet him when he is not in town on official business.

“The most enjoyable visits from Joe are the ones we don’t have to attach to an official event,” adds Macken.

“(Back then) he was a kid from Manawatu, we were thrilled to have him.”

Read more from The Team That Joe Built series here>>

Murray joins Bernard and Gavan with all the latest from training camp in Portugal, including a concerning update on Joey Carbery’s fitness. Plus, BBC Scotland’s Tom English explains why the Scots have a negative perception of Joe Schmidt’s Ireland team.


Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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Sean Farrell

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