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'I genuinely hear Joe's voice in my head at least once a day, maybe more'

We delve into the character that has made Joe Schmidt such a successful coach.

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THE FACT THAT Joe Schmidt has torn his hamstring several times during Ireland’s warm-ups before games says a lot about how much he cares for his team and their preparation.

While most head coaches stand and observe their players getting ready for matches, Schmidt – now 53 years of age – goes gung-ho as the starting backline run through plays, their boss slotting in as an opposition wing and giving it socks.

He might not have the pace of old – pace that helped him to play for Manawatu in his younger years – but Schmidt’s involvement can be genuinely motivating for his players. 

If he cares this much, I need to match that.’

It’s one sign of the ceaseless intensity and passion that Schmidt brings to his work, key characteristics that have helped him to major successes with Leinster and Ireland – Heineken Cups, a Grand Slam, Six Nations titles, beating the All Blacks, and more.

The man who hails from Kawakawa at the top of New Zealand’s North Island but grew up in the sleepy little town of Woodville tends to leave a lasting mark on the players he works with, even years on from their direct involvement.

“I still hear Joe’s voice in my head, probably every day,” says the now-retired Isa Nacewa, who famously played a key role in luring Schmidt to Leinster in the first place. 

“It’s really weird. Even when I’m not near rugby, I genuinely hear his voice in my head at least once a day, maybe more. 

“Even if I’m playing a game with my daughters and they throw me a ball, I’m thinking, ‘Good players take those.’ It’s Joe’s voice still in my head. Once you create really good habits, it’s hard to break them.”

Those strong habits are a huge part of Schmidt’s make-up. While his rugby intellect is a well-known and key strength, his work behind the scenes to instill good habits and create consistency in how his players prepare is just as important. Schmidt has utterly revolutionised Irish rugby in that sense.

BigJoeSchmidt The Ireland head coach is relentlessly intense. Source: The42

Standards now – for players, coaches, supporters, even the media – are simply different from what existed before. The way we discuss rugby in this country has been changed by Schmidt.

“He talks about, ‘We are what we do every day,’” explains Kevin McLaughlin, who was coached by Schmidt at Leinster and with Ireland.

“If you’re doing sloppy things like standing up at a ruck in training or going into a tackle without the extra couple of steps to get your shoulder close to contact, even when it’s non-contact in training, that’s going to transfer over to a missed tackle in a game or getting counter-rucked.”

McLaughlin is now director of sales and operations for Kitman Labs, and he has brought Schmidt traits – “being tough on myself, controlling things that are controllable, getting the details right” – into his new line of work.

Nacewa, who is a financial advisor with Money Empire back in New Zealand and will also work as a World Cup analyst for Spark Sport, echoes the sentiment that Schmidt leaves a lifelong imprint on the players he works with.

He goes back to simply catching the ball as an example of how Schmidt, a teacher by trade before moving into coaching full-time, builds habits.

“Drico at one time, Johnny [Sexton], myself – there might have been a pass that wasn’t a decent pass, whether it was dipping at your feet or way out in front of you. The reaction would have been, ‘That was a crap pass,’ but he’d look at you and say, ‘Good players take those,’” says Nacewa, who first worked with Schmidt at the Blues in New Zealand.

“I remember doing a warm-up with tennis balls just for fun and I dropped one of them and he walked past me and said, ‘Good players take those.’

“When you hear that daily, he knows how to create really good habits in his players and staff, that expectation that you don’t blame something else.”

Habits breed consistency and consistency breeds success in Schmidt’s world. 

Another element of his non-rugby-specific coaching focus is mental skills. The current Ireland squad regularly practice mindfulness as a group, with S&C coach Jason Cowman leading the sessions. 

Isa Nacewa, Joe Schmidt and Jonathan Sexton celebrate Nacewa and Schmidt with Johnny Sexton in 2013. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Schmidt pushes his players to go to the ‘mind gym,’ where they spend time sitting and working through moves and tactics mentally – ensuring they don’t have to always be on their feet on the pitch to better understand their roles.

Nacewa explains that Schmidt has always been rigorous in making sure he genuinely understands mental skills himself, rather than just bringing in an expert in order to tick that box. 

“I remember back in around 2006 with the Blues, even before I really grasped mental skills, there was someone due to come in and run a visualisation course,” says Nacewa.

“The guy pulled out last minute but Joe being Joe, he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take it.’

“Most of us didn’t really know what visualisation was but he had done the homework and ran us through the whole session. That was actually my first taste of mental skills.”

Schmidt also has an understanding of how he can use pressure and critical feedback to bring about better and more consistent training and game-day performances from his players.

His demands for high standards simply never stop and the feedback for those who fall short can be ruthless, most famously at his squad review sessions in the days after games.

“He can be extremely cutting if you don’t deliver what he expects of you,” explains McLaughlin. “For me, that’s ok because it was clear what was expected and there was no confusion.

“We had immense clarity on what was expected of us and that means the feedback is fair. That’s good management.

“What really gets him peeved is someone forgetting to run around the corner on a dummy line.

“The actual play might be on the other side of the pitch but he’d pick out the tighthead prop who forgot to run around the corner on the other side of the ruck to hold one defender, as that’s going to stop the fold to allow us to get an overlap. That’s the kind of thing that really, really gets his goat. 

“On the other hand, if we did positive things based on what was expected of us, he was really quick to let us know that was good.”

Joe Schmidt and Jacob Stockdale Schmidt regularly joins in during warm-ups. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Schmidt’s reviews with individual players have always been as detailed but it’s something that is appreciated by those who are genuinely hungry to get better. More distance on a linekick, extra power in the pass, lower body height on clearouts – Schmidt always demands more and delivers action plans to help his players to improve.

Of course, Schmidt’s time with Ireland has not been all plain-sailing. The 2015 World Cup was a very difficult experience as Ireland lost five key players for the quarter-final defeat to Argentina.

But even without their most important men, it was a poor showing from Ireland and Schmidt has perhaps learned personal lessons from that tournament. It has been very notable that the current pre-season has been a far more relaxed affair than last time around, with Ireland mixing up their training locations and giving players intermittent time off.

For Schmidt, switching off from rugby is perhaps the greatest challenge.

“I’d say that’s one really hard thing for him to do,” says Nacewa. “I genuinely think he probably has to schedule those days that he can switch off into the year and weeks.

“He does a lot with Luke, his son, then a lot of charity work, and that might be the time he gets that balance to switch off. He gives talks at schools and clubs, and that might balance him so he can not think about rugby for a second.”

One thing that has always surprised journalists is how much time Schmidt invests in keeping up to date on what’s being said and written in the media – certainly not a controllable factor.

Obviously, the wider perception of Ireland and his work is important but it’s likely another of the key challenges for Schmidt as a coach – trying not to get worked up by opinions he doesn’t agree with.

But really the sheer intensity of his character is a strength. His incessant desire to be better prepared drives his Ireland team, and did so with Leinster before that.

“He’s a complete professor of the game and, to be honest, I had very few conversations with him that weren’t either directly about or related to rugby,” says McLaughlin. “I was totally ok with that, it was my job and I liked the intensity he brought.

Joe Schmidt talks to his players Schmidt is highly-demanding of his players. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“Most coaches are quite obsessed with rugby but he was the most I’ve ever seen. It’s pretty incredible – you’re talking to him and he remembers a specific moment you were involved in from the season before.

“You’re thinking, ‘Jeez, if he remembers that from a year ago, imagine what he remembers from the game I just played, I better get my shit together.’ It’s about making sure lads are always on their toes, never resting on their laurels.”

Nacewa and Schmidt have a closer relationship than most of his players would, given that they first worked together back in New Zealand and then the fact that Nacewa provided the link to Leinster, ensuring the Joe era actually got underway.

Nacewa knows the intense side of his former head coach, but also the personal touches.

“He works so hard, studies so hard and is meticulous in his planning of everything – whether that’s travel times, tactics, training – everyone knows his rugby mind and the amount of hours of footage he watches.

“But if you take him away from rugby for a bit, which is hard to do, he’s so down-to-earth. He will help out anyone who asks and if you’re lucky enough to get him away from rugby, he’s good to sit down with for a conversation as a mate. I cherish those conversations. 

“If you need help in any aspect of life, he’ll pick up the phone as soon as you walk away and make a few calls, help out, and he wouldn’t want any credit for it whatsoever.

“He’s a really genuine guy at the end of the day. That reflects through Kellie, his wife, and all of his family. They’re down-to-earth people with really good values.

“In my eyes, what he enjoys the most about his work is the players celebrating with partners and their families at the end of a win.

“Now, the real great champions don’t celebrate for long. You might celebrate for two, three, four, five days – depending on your age – but you’re straight back thinking about what’s next.

“Joe relaxes for hours rather than days but when he sees players with their kids and parents and families, he cherishes that the most.”

Whatever happens in the coming months in Japan, there is little doubt that Schmidt will leave a lasting mark on Irish rugby when he steps down to make way for Andy Farrell.

Schmidt will prioritise his family thereafter but most who have come across the man have a feeling that he won’t stay away from rugby for too long. If he does finish with this World Cup, the game will be worse off without him.

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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Murray Kinsella

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