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Ordinary Joe: Ireland rugby coach looks back on an extraordinary decade

Book review: Joe Schmidt’s autobiography reveals glimpses of the vulnerable human behind the manicured image

Ordinary Joe
Author: Joe Schmidt
ISBN-13: 978-1844884094
Publisher: Penguin Ireland
Guideline Price: €25

It’s a surprise to learn that Joe Schmidt was sent off during his playing career once and that, astonishingly, it was for verbal abuse.

As a weedy 10-year-old scrum-half in New Zealand, though not himself guilty of the assault, he expressed approval when his annoying opposite number was on the wrong end of a kick. “Serves you right!” Schmidt said, whereupon he was ordered off for breaching the “spirit of the game”. Appeals for clemency were useless, despite the referee being his father.

This must have been a keynote event in the future Ireland coach’s life, because he has rarely spoken out of turn since. His relentlessly inoffensive interviews have always been in contrast with those of rivals such as Warren Gatland and Eddie Jones, whose strategy often depends on insult.

There has never the remotest chance of anyone anywhere finding a video of Schmidt, even jokingly, making a comment like Jones’s one about the “scummy Irish”, which turned up by happy coincidence the week before the Grand Slam decider at Twickenham in 2018.

For the same reason, this autobiography has little of the controversy publishers of sports books normally find so helpful. Jones’s gaffe is dismissed as a meaningless distraction. Gatland’s jibes are brushed off.

Players who failed to meet Schmidt’s approval over the years, including the “slackers and disrupters”, are not named, having been quietly shipped out of whatever teams he was coaching, with financial losses always preferred to any lowering of standards.

Few journalists are named either and – with one (again anonymous) exception, who clearly riled him – the annoyances they sometimes caused are not dwelt on at any length.

Unusually, this newspaper’s occasional columnist Matt Williams – a regular critic of the Schmidt regime – does get a namecheck for a TV panel appearance in which, after the famous drop goal in Paris, he marvelled how Johnny Sexton had had the nerve to let the ball “bounce up [on a wet pitch] and then kick it”.

“We chuckled watching this,” writes Schmidt, “because a kicker striking a long-range drop goal would never allow the ball to ‘bounce up’. The foot strike is simultaneous with the ball hitting the ground. Ronan O’Gara was on the same panel and would have been far more able to explain the mechanics of the drop goal. Punditry seems to be more art than science!”

The ‘edge’

Ouch. By Schmidt’s standards, that’s the nearest his book gets to kicking the opposition scrum-half. But it’s a small example of the “edge” that he admits to having elsewhere in these pages, after Sexton had spoken of it publicly.

The cold steel in the New Zealander’s approach was unsheathed in an early and now notorious postmatch video review session at Leinster, when he replayed a pass that Gordon D’Arcy had thrown at Brian O’Driscoll’s shins, forcing a knock-on.

It had happened late in the game, on a wet day. But first D’Arcy was invited to comment – he promised to do better – and then O’Driscoll, who mistakenly took this as a cue to declare confidence in his team-mate’s ability to get it right next time.

Instead, Schmidt turned the spotlight on to the greatest Irish No 13 of recent history and said, “good players take those passes”. The comment was received initially in silence but has since entered the phrasebook of Irish rugby, quoted to humorous effect.

Behind Schmidt’s edge was a deep and obsessive thinker about sport and about the nature of success – defined in passing as “peace of mind” – in life generally. The book is littered with helpful quotations from writers, including Shakespeare, Joyce, Beckett and Heaney.

Psychiatrists Carl Jung and Viktor Frankl are referenced too, although the author ruins the effect slightly by also devoting a chapter heading to the mantra (“who we are is how we play”) of a little-known philosopher identified only as “Vodafone”.

Elsewhere he finds common ground with Michael O’Leary who, asked to define good leadership in one word, said “paranoia”. Schmidt prefers “vigilance”, although they may amount to the same thing. Similarly, at a conference somewhere, he hears a man from the New York Fire Department explaining how fatalities all too often arise from situations where “basics were overlooked”.

Attritional approach

In the less fatal realm of rugby, Schmidt’s teams usually got the basics right. For Ireland, this started with the “collisions”: coaching players to hit rucks with the right mixture of violence and precision, then fight like “mackerel” to retain and present the ball as cleanly as possible.

But along with that attritional approach, Schmidt’s Ireland success was also built on “moves”: carefully choreographed combinations that were thought, walked, and run through on the training ground until they could be reproduced automatically in the cauldron of games.

They didn’t always happen as planned. The one that finished off the All Blacks in Chicago had been meant for South Africa earlier that year. The one that cut England open at Twickenham in 2018 had been fluffed the first time, three years earlier, so that, like an unheard witticism at a party, it was put away for another occasion when the timing might be better.

On good days, the precision could be transferred straight from training session to game. The book recalls how, after a depressing loss to Wales in 2015, the first training session that followed was a shambles.

So all the players were encouraged to forget about rugby for 24 hours and just relax. When they met again, the planned 50-minute session was so much better that, after one high point, Schmidt called it off after just 37 minutes, leaving them fresh and full of confidence.

It was a fitting prelude to one of the most famous last days of a Six Nations ever, the orgy of thrills in statistics in which Wales set Ireland the target of a 20-point win in Edinburgh, then Ireland left England needing to beat France by 25, which they came horribly close to, before Schmidt’s team claimed back-to-back titles for the first time in 66 years.

Speaking of titles, the false modesty of this one, Ordinary Joe, will be forgiven of the greatest Ireland rugby coach of all time. It’s better than sincere arrogance, after all. And behind the manicured image, there are occasional glimpses here of the vulnerable human, buffeted by events he cannot control: including the serious illness of his son.

A recurring theme is gratitude for kindnesses showed by friends, family and employers in times of crisis. The book’s most touching moment is when, on the eve of the World Cup quarter-final against New Zealand, he is given a card his mother wrote before she died in August. She knew she wouldn’t be around to say it in person and wanted him to know how proud she was.

A very human denouement

That game, and the tournament as a whole, was a very human denouement to an extraordinary decade, as all of Schmidt’s calculations were helpless to stop his team unravelling. It also led to another rare verbal indiscretion – regretted here – when he revealed after the Japan defeat that World Rugby had admitted (in confidence) refereeing mistakes against Ireland.

By contrast, the book’s bloodless closing passage, sketchily written to meet the tight deadline, reads like something from an internal corporate review. But you know the way the World Cup ended will long haunt a man who had written earlier, of his spell with Clermont: “The worst time for me is when we lose our last game of a season. It tends to linger […].”