Joe Schmidt ticks all the right boxes for Ireland head coach position
The Leinster coach would also provide a good face for Irish rugby
In the 14 games between Leinster and Munster since their first Heineken Cup semi-final in 2006, the total number of paying spectators at those encounters has amounted to 577,103. Even allowing for how these numbers might have been inflated slightly by the RaboDirect Pro12’s official policy of including non-attending season ticket holders, this can safely be more than offset by the restrictions of ground capacity.
To have an average attendance of 41,000-plus constitutes a remarkable evolution from a couple of thousand for interpros. There’s never been a rivalry remotely on this scale in the history of Irish rugby. Of course, it’s been predated by many a meaningful interprovincial encounter, not to mention the history of rivalries between clubs from those rival provinces, which the AIL intensified, but it has gone to an entirely more elevated, meaningful level.
Time was, even in the pro era, when Leinster-Munster games were diluted by being placed in windows when the frontline international players were unavailable, say end of August, even in the aftermath of the inaugural Celtic League final of December 2001 when 30,000 attended Lansdowne Road.
The benefits of the heightened rivalry have been enormous, not least the increased finances that have come with those near 600,000 paying spectators for the last 14 meetings. Four times they’ve earned fixtures surplus to the season’s itinerary for the respective treasurers and chief executives. More often than not, the fixture has been a means of fast-tracking the preparations of both squads for imminent European action. More often than not too, they’ve also been cracking games.
The rivalry has been likened to brothers fighting, as brothers do, for in the course of those cracking contests there have always been players overstepping the mark and either doing or saying things to opponents who would be mates as well as Irish team-mates. That is the nature of full-on derbies.
We want them to be on full-on games, the respective fans would have little time for players who didn’t give their all and rugby is an ultra-physical game. In the course of these games, as in virtually all rugby games, accidents and injuries do happen.
One could argue the sport has become excessively focused on collisions of car crash velocity, and that there’s a dreadful accident waiting to happen at he breakdown, but that is a separate issue to the most vexed issue emerging from last Saturday’s game.
To their credit, the teams shake hands and quickly put any bitterness behind them. The rivalry has been hugely healthy for Irish rugby and for the Irish team, providing coaches, players and fans alike with at least two fixtures per season which all protagonists agree is of Heineken Cup standards of intensity.
There can be little doubt Paul O’Connell did not deliberately or maliciously kick a prostrate Dave Kearney in the head as he sought to kick the ball last Saturday. It was assuredly accidental. But there was a case for believing it to be reckless, and it’s hard to argue that O’Connell should at the very least have been cited by the match citing commissioner.
Leaving as it is, O’Connell can be considered lucky. The incident was potentially very dangerous and there is an obligation on the powers that be that players at least think twice in such situations.
Because it happened in a Munster-Leinster match, the debate has become quite polarised and tribal, and one ventures had the incident been the other way around, many of the arguments would have been flipped, but, not for the first time, the league’s disciplinary procedures have not been displayed in the best of lights.
Unfortunately, the tribalism occasionally infuses other debates, such as the previous head coach of the Irish team, and the next head coach. By rights, of course, it should be a case of the best man for the job, be it a coach employed from abroad or from within.
That candidate is undoubtedly Joe Schmidt, and part of the rationale has to be that he has worked within the system and has an in-depth knowledge of the players and the Irish game. If Ireland is to sacrifice the corporate knowledge built up by Declan Kidney and others during a period of transition compounded by a freakish bout of injuries this season especially, why compound that by bringing in someone with little or no knowledge of the players and the Irish system?
And not only does Schmidt have an insider’s knowledge, he has shown himself to be an excellent coach, building on the foundations established by Michael Cheika to guide Leinster to back-to-back Heineken Cups – only the second team to do so in the history of the tournament and the first team to win three Cups in a four-year period.
Toulouse may be the tournament’s outstanding club, but Leinster are arguably the outstanding team.
Many of those players, current or former, maintain Schmidt is the best coach they have played for, that the training is such there is hardly a dull day, his attention to detail, work ethic, improving players one on one and technical knowledge of the game is superb.
Schmidt has also built up an extensive CV at provincial level in New Zealand and France as well as Ireland. He would provide a fresh approach and fresh ideas and, as an aside that isn’t without importance, Schmidt would provide a good face for Irish rugby. As widely admired for his persona as much as his coaching, at a difficult time of austerity, Schmidt might well attract brands to the IRFU and the Irish game.
If he needs more persuading than others to leave Leinster, who would hate to lose him but would be unlikely to stand in his way, and to work within some outmoded union structures, so be it. He would be worth persuading.