The Team That Joe Built

'I would consider it an absolute privilege. I've never come across anybody like Joe'

Mick Kearney was an integral part of Joe Schmidt’s management team for three years.


MICK KEARNEY LAUGHS when asked how he felt in the minutes leading up to Ireland’s November Test against Samoa six years ago now. As team manager, he had been there and seen it all before on matchday. But this was different.

Not only was it the eagerly-anticipated first game of Joe Schmidt’s tenure in charge of the national team, but a new boss meant a new role for Kearney, who was now wired up to the coach’s box and tasked with managing Ireland’s bench. 

The job description suggests it’s a relatively straightforward responsibility. You’re the link between the box upstairs and the touchline, essentially overseeing the substitutions the coach wants to make at various points throughout the 80 minutes.

But knowing Schmidt as he did from his dealings with him from his Leinster years, Kearney knew he had to get every detail of his job absolutely spot on, from communication with the head coach, players and officials, to the exact timing of the substitutions.

“I hadn’t had any experience of it until Joe’s first game,” Kearney explains to The42.

“It sounds like a small thing but it was quite a stressful part of the job. It certainly was a challenge because Joe was so focused in the coaching box that if he gives an instruction down to the sideline, it’s very difficult to go back to him and ask him to repeat it. You’ve got to be very, very clued in.

“I was pretty nervous, yeah. Because when Joe wants to make a change, he wants to make a change and you don’t want to miss that break in play when it’s happening. The night before the match I’d be studying who would come off and who would come on in that particular position so you’re really prepared as soon as Joe says go.

You’re not kind of messing around with paperwork or anything like that, because there wouldn’t be a very high tolerance level from the box in a highly-pressurised Test match.”

Kearney survived his first afternoon on the touchline and would go on to fulfil the same role for next 38 Test matches under Schmidt until he stepped down from the position of Ireland team manager after the 2016 November series. 

In his three seasons on Schmidt’s backroom team, Kearney built a remarkably strong relationship with the Kiwi, and was an invaluable member of the set-up during those early days and then the good days, of which there were many.

Often operating in the background — except, he jokes, on matchday — Kearney became one of Schmidt’s most trusted lieutenants, and one of his abiding memories from a career in rugby was the moment shared with Schmidt in the middle of Soldier Field, Chicago, on the afternoon of 5 November 2016. 

A matter of weeks before he passed on the baton to current team manager Paul Dean, Kearney was on hand to witness arguably one of the greatest days of Schmidt’s reign, and it was a fitting send-off for a man who had been an integral part of the winning environment the coach had cultivated.

Joe Schmidt and Mick Kearney celebrate winning Schmidt and Kearney at Soldier Field. Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Commenting on Kearney’s retirement, Schmidt praised the Meath native’s ‘experience, reasoning and people skills’ and it was perhaps those attributes and strengths that helped the pair’s working relationship blossom and become so much more.

They weren’t always operating off the same page, however. As team manager under Declan Kidney, Kearney met with Schmidt — the then Leinster head coach — regularly throughout the season to discuss a wide range of issues, but mainly when the national team required one of Schmidt’s players as a late injury call-up.

“I was with Declan from the beginning of 2012 to the end of the Six Nations in 2013,” Kearney recalls. “I had two Six Nations with him and during that time, I had quite a bit of interaction with Joe. 

“Obviously, Leinster were going very well and Joe had his own, I suppose, strong opinions on how things were done. He was incredibly focused on his own job and didn’t make it easy in terms of calling up players and there was some disagreement.

“He was very focused on his job with Leinster and would have made my job, not difficult, but challenging.

“While we had some extremely robust exchanges while he was with Leinster, there was always a very high degree of respect there as well. In fairness to Joe, I could understand a lot of where he was coming from in terms of player call-ups and the reasons behind calling player A ahead of player B.

In fairness to Joe, he’s an incredibly well-argued and logical thinker. When I look back on it, he always had a reasonable point.

From those first dealings with Schmidt, and the back-and-forth conversations over player call-ups and other national team issues, Kearney’s relationship with 53-year-old changed irrevocably when he succeeded Kidney in 2013.

It helped that the pair — two strong personalities and both excellent operators in their own right — had built a level of respect and trust on either side, even if they had their disagreements in Schmidt’s former life with Leinster.

Having battled out of each other’s corners initially, now Kearney and Schmidt were working in unison for the same cause and from the off, they clicked. 

“While we had some strong, robust conversations during Joe’s time at Leinster, we never had any sort of situation where we were falling out,” Kearney continues. “He knew me reasonably well and I knew him reasonably well.”

A word Kearney uses regularly to describe Schmidt is challenging, and not in a bad way.

His demands, his attention to detail, his expectations. The former school teacher, as has been well-documented at this stage, radically overhauled, and challenged, everything that happened inside the four walls of Carton House, even if it had been successful under the previous regime.

He would have challenged everything. And I mean everything. From video analysis, to logistics, to travel, to hotels, to everything that went on the pitch, everything that went off the pitch.

“He certainly created an environment whereby people had to get comfortable being uncomfortable. It was part of the success, to be honest. It needed it at that particular time. The detail he brought into the role and environment was extraordinary. It wasn’t just the detail he brought in, but the detail he demanded that others brought in as well.

Joe Schmidt arrives for the game with Mick Kearney Kearney served as Ireland team manager for five years. Donall Farmer / INPHO Donall Farmer / INPHO / INPHO

“What he changed, in particular, was how people went about their business on a day-to-day basis and what he demanded of them. He was, and is, very demanding but in a good way. It was hugely important and relevant to the success that came along in the subsequent years.”

While other members of Schmidt’s coaching staff came and went, Kearney remained his right-hand man. Through work, and the endless hours spent in each other’s company, they formed a good friendship. It was one of the reasons why it worked. 

Having been heavily involved in Lansdowne FC and then held the role of Ireland U20s team manager, Kearney not only brought administration and organisation experience to the table but a sharp business acumen.

It was these qualities and more — his capacity to act as peace-keeper and become a voice of reason has been cited more than once — that meant Kearney was the perfect foil to Schmidt’s personality and coaching style within the team environment. 

“I always found that if I was going to have a discussion with Joe or disagree with something, I’d want to have my argument and my points very well thought out in advance or else you’d be fairly quick to lose the argument,” he smiles.

“That was challenging as well, but it was challenging in a good way because it made you think very deeply about why you were thinking the way you’re thinking. It was a very positive environment as well.

“If you think of the coaches Joe has brought in and worked with, I think he generally would like people working with him that he could direct and they would actually take direction, but at the same time not be afraid to give their opinion on certain things.

“The type of person who Joe would work best with would be people who not be overly confrontational but work very well within the system Joe designed.” 

In camp, Kearney and Schmidt would spend endless hours in the meeting rooms of Carton House planning and mapping out the week ahead, often weeks and months in advance. He had a checklist of over 100 items at the start of every Test week to get through, ensuring that every last detail — however small — was taken care of. That all came from Schmidt.

Kearney says with absolute conviction that Schmidt’s attention to detail — ‘his legendary attention to detail’ — and work-ethic is greater than anyone he has crossed paths with in his 40 years in business and sport. To see it first-hand on a daily basis was, he admits, a privilege. 

“I know one of the earlier meetings Joe had, he got the players together and they came up with a term they felt encompassed what they actually wanted to be and what they wanted to come,” Kearney remembers. “That was ‘basic excellence, everyone, every time,’ and that sums it up quite well.

“To watch him at first hand and witness his work at first hand, I would consider it an absolute privilege. I’ve never come across anybody like him, in either sport or business, in terms of his work ethic, his detail, his extremely high intelligence, his way of communicating and reading of the opposition. Just his overall preparation, it’s quite extraordinary and you can talk about it, but to actually witness it first hand over a long period of time, genuinely was incredible.

“But it wasn’t just him. Joe demanded it from everyone. I remember one player said to me his heart-rate used to go up when he crossed the grid coming into Carton House because he knew he had to be on his game. The amount of study the players now do before they go out to train. If there is a gameplan and players are going out to train on Monday and Tuesday, then there is an expectation that they understand exactly what their role is.

“Traditionally for us there would have been maybe five or six players picked out of the opposition for video analysis before a game and maybe a three or four-minute video done on them, but when Joe came in he insisted on not only the starting XV of the opposition be monitored but also the bench and any players who might come into the team over the course of the year. It was incredible.”

Mick Kearney, John Plumtree, Joe Schmidt and Les Kiss with the trophy Kearney, John Plumtree, Schmidt and Les Kiss after the 2014 Six Nations win. Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

That pursuit of perfection meant Kearney’s job, which was essentially to ensure nothing went wrong in camp or on the day of a game, became highly-pressurised. He was the man who made the team function and had to be at his very best every day, as if he was the one pulling on the jersey and running out to play. 

He continues: “I always used to describe my role as being responsible for nothing and responsible for everything. If there was an issue with anything off the pitch, I would have felt a certain degree of responsibility and that could have been anything to do with travel or hotels or food or media or commercial.

“All of those different areas and one of the reasons for having that checklist was to make sure everybody was on the same page at the start of the week. The job really was not to deal with problems, the job was to avoid problems. Because I always felt if you were dealing with problems, well then you have a problem.

“You tried everything in your power to avoid anything happening that might upset the apple cart in any shape or form so you can create that environment where all the players and coaches just had to get on with their job and not worry about anything else.”

Among Kearney’s standout memories is the 2014 Six Nations championship win in Paris and that indelible day in Chicago, but above all, having been at the heart of the good and bad, the friendships he has taken from his time on Schmidt’s backroom team are the most cherished takeaways.

Kearney’s admiration and respect for Schmidt permeates the conversation and, although there were disagreements and arguments down through the years, there were more good days than bad, and he could not speak more highly of Ireland’s head coach. 

“I think in any working relationship, it does take time to bed in and to settle down,” Kearney adds.

As time went on, myself and Joe became very good friends and would still be very good friends to this day. I’d see him a lot during the year and we’d touch base quite a bit.

“I would consider Joe a good friend at this stage, which is probably a very good testament to the relationship over the course of the five years. Sometimes you can work with people and one person leaves and that’s the end of it and there’s never any communication, whereas with Joe I’ve seen a huge amount of him and our wives would be friendly.

“I would consider that to be a very positive thing to come out of the environment and the five years I worked for him. I have a huge amount of respect for Joe, for what he brought and what he’s done.”

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