Experience has shown this is no ordinary Joe
Josef Schmidt (right), during his early coaching days with New Zealand Schools, who will assume his first head coaching position when he joins Leinster next season.
LEINSTER: NEW HEAD COACH: Gavin Cummiskeyprofiles Josef Schmidt, the amiable Kiwi who has the unenviable task of replacing Michael Cheika
"MR RUGBY" is a fairly heavy monicker for Josef Schmidt to be carrying into Leinster pre-season this summer.
Isa Nacewa is responsible for that comment, but Leinster’s own Mr Versatile is hardly of the loose-lipped variety. No, Nacewa firmly believes the development of his remarkable skills set is largely down to the influence of Schmidt (known simply as Joe).
Three seasons as Auckland Blues assistant coach to Peter Sloane, and then David Nucifora, led to a reunion with Vern Cotter – Starsky, to his Hutch – in central France. But after losing the last three Top-14 finals, Cotter and Schmidt will be happy enough to part company, for the second time, with the Bouclier de Brennus finally residing in the Clermont Auvergne trophy cabinet.
For all the excellent attacking rugby on display – granted, they have been in a few groups of death – European progress has stalled at the group stages.
But physically assaulting Paul O’Connell in Thomond Park is hardly the best way to progress now, is it? Clermont and Munster. The new Leinster coach will be familiar with the main rivals.
The promotion of Schmidt to his first head-coaching role, even of this magnitude, comes as no surprise to those who have worked with or even against him these past 10 years.
There are shades of Declan Kidney in his progress from school master and Napier Boys 1st XV coach, after life as a first-class winger with Manawatu (he was also a talented hoops player), to the Bay of Plenty 2004 campaign which brought the Cotter/Schmidt partnership to national prominence in the country where rugby means everything to so many people.
Bay of Plenty’s remarkable capture of the Ranfurly Shield saw the NZRFU quickly separate the natural talents of the pair, dropping them into the backrooms of Auckland and Canterbury.
Schmidt became the Blues’ backs coach, Cotter an assistant with the Crusaders. Switching to the Auckland Blues in 2004 meant coaching the likes of Nacewa, Munster’s adopted sons Doug Howlett and Rua Tipoki, along with Luke McAlister, Joe Rokocoko and even briefly the great Rupeni Caucaunibuca. Several more current All Blacks were guided by his hand as national schools coach or at the Blues.
And you can add Aurelin Rougerie, Julien Malzieu and Napolini Nalaga, among others, to that list of glittering strike-runners.
“He is the Mr Rugby, in my mind,” was Nacewa’s comment last October. “He taught me most of the stuff that I know about a backline in the three years I was with him at the Blues. He had a young mind into the game, and he really knows the game of rugby, the reasons why you do moves.”
Now 44, it is envisaged by Mick Dawson and the Leinster Branch that Schmidt will attain his peak as a coach over the coming three seasons.
He has significant shoes to fill.
Unless there is a dramatic collapse in the coming weeks, Michael Cheika’s five-year term in Dublin 4 will be deemed a resounding success. True, there was one particularly forgettable season, but in 2009 he shifted the balance of power from Thomond Park to the RDS Showgrounds, an unthinkable achievement after Munster swatted Leinster aside at Lansdowne Road en route to their first European crown in Cheika’s first year.
Speaking to people this week about the genial Joe Schmidt – who even sparked a decent Towns Cup run in Mullingar while on a typically nomadic Kiwi adventure during the 1990s – the consensus is Leinster have hired a man who can simplify this seemingly complex game.
Dawson and the Leinster “think tank” are certainly not concerned about taking a punt on an untested head coach considering the experience he has gained these past six years in the Super 14 and Top 14. It turns out the Auckland Blues head job was on the table last season, but family issues precluded a move home.
Still, the Schmidt/Cotter partnership is when most of the success has been garnered in his coaching career.
“Obviously, Vern was the driving force behind Joe coming over to Clermont,” says Clermont manager and Scot Neil McIlroy. “When Vern first came to us, Joe was unavailable, but Vern always wanted to bring his tried-and- trusted assistant over with him.
“So, when Joe came in here it was very much a good cop, bad cop sort of thing. Vern being the hard-nosed forwards coach, and farmer, etc, and Joe being the good cop backs coach. Obviously, he is an intelligent guy, school teacher by trade, and spends a lot of time on the analytical side of things and tactics; working on what we’re doing wrong and what the opposition are doing wrong.
“He is a good friend of mine and I’ll be sorry to see him go. They are a nice, well-balanced family that have settled well into Clermont life.”
The transition to Dublin life shouldn’t be too difficult for his wife, Kelly, and four children, especially considering the foundations already put in place by people like the Whitakers.
Outside of the unquestioned expertise on the training paddock with the three-quarters, man-management seems to be Schmidt’s strongest coaching trait, as McIlroy confirms.
“He has a very good reputation one-on-one with the players. He will often take a player to one side and have a chat with him. Or sit down with the video to show him what he is doing wrong.
“And remember, our squad has 10 different nationalities,” adds the former Borders prop. “Joe has been managing seasoned internationals, so the challenge of working with some of the high-profile players Leinster have got shouldn’t be a problem. He also manages to get his point across in French and English.”
The next conundrum for Leinster is the make-up of the backroom. Irish rugby has been guilty of foisting a coaching team onto a coach in the past. The English national team are still at it, and just look at their plight. Even those with a passing interest in the sport recognised the detrimental tension created by the Eddie O’Sullivan/Declan Kidney ticket in the national set-up and how the union almost lost Kidney to Wales with the offer of an undefined office job.
In less professional times Michael Bradley’s departure from Connacht could be neatly accommodated on the Schmidt coaching ticket.
But the Leinster chief executive is not going to put any barriers in front of the new appointment.
“In the next month we will be announcing a backroom team,” said Dawson, who added: “We will allow Joe to build up his own backroom team.”
Cheika is leaving, obviously, perhaps rugby for good; but he will surely reappear, maybe at the new Australian Super 15 franchise or even a French outfit. There must be plenty of offers.
Alan Gaffney let the cat out of the bag about this appointment in a recent TV3 interview a few weeks back, saying “Joe’s a backs coach in his own right” when he confirmed his own expertise would not be required next season. Gaffney’s future role with Ireland is still being discussed.
Kurt McQuilkin’s stock as a defensive coach has risen significantly after the brick walls Leinster erected at The Stoop and Croke Park. The former Lansdowne centre may be an Irish international and married to an Irish woman, but Kings County in New Zealand is home and may be his next port of call.
The future of forwards coach Jonno Gibbs looks the most interesting. Both New Zealand rugby men of high repute, Schmidt and Gibbs know each other so it would suit to keep on the former Waikato captain for continuity purposes at least.
Gibbs’ coaching reputation has also skyrocketed after last season, so contract negotiations continue.
So, the scene is set for the new Leinster era to maintain current standards after a successful recruitment process.
“Considering his technical and tactical knowledge, he is in his mid-forties and has worked at the top with European and New Zealand teams, it’s a good move for Leinster,” added McIlroy. “There is certainly no risk element in taking Joe.”
“There is always a leap of faith,” to quote a senior Leinster source, when opting for a new, young, foreign coach, but Cheika came with significantly less exposure to elite rugby in either hemisphere.
And that has worked out alright. The Leinster decision-makers have earned the public’s trust for the appointment of Mr Schmidt.