Johnny Sexton: ‘Schmidt is the one who made us believe that we could beat the All Blacks’

Irish captain has three wins and a draw in his career against New Zealand so far

Joe Schmidt has been the talk of the town, and no doubt elsewhere too, after he answered an SOS to attend All Blacks’ training sessions on Tuesday and Thursday this week due to the outbreak of Covid in their coaching ranks. But, it seems, he hasn’t become public enemy number one in the Irish squad. Indeed, it hasn’t prevented the former Irish coach from renewing old acquaintances in his home city of Auckland this week at the Irish team hotel.

“He came in to have coffee with a few of us on Wednesday morning,” revealed Irish captain Johnny Sexton, who was perhaps Schmidt’s biggest disciple and coaching conduit on the pitch during nearly a decade of unprecedented success for both Leinster and Ireland.

“He told us that he’s not all over them, he’s just in there helping out,” said Sexton, by way of reassurance that the coach with the most forensic insider knowledge of this Irish team has had limited influence on the All Blacks this week.

And Sexton believed him?

“No I don’t believe him, no! I don’t believe a word he says,” said Sexton with a laugh.

“No, look, ultimately we’ve got to get our performance right. When it comes to the middle of the game, it’s not the coach that has an impact, it’s how well you’ve prepared as a squad and how alert you are in those key moments.”

No less than Andy Farrell on the same subject, a strikingly relaxed Sexton appeared sanguine about Schmidt, who has seemingly had a transformative effect on the Blues this year, being involved to some capacity with the All Blacks this week. As with Farrell, the captain argued there was only so much Schmidt could influence.

“Obviously he hasn’t been part of the coaching staff so he’s not going to go in and tear up the playbook. I think Ian Foster would have put the game plan together for the weekend and obviously he’ll be doing stuff on Skye or whatever, and taking the meetings there.

“I’m sure Joe will be giving his opinion on a couple of things but I don’t think he’s going to go in and say: ‘This is how we have to play against Ireland’. I think he’ll definitely learn from it and if he goes into the set-up, as he was due to go in on whatever it was, the first of August, I’m sure he’ll take some good learnings from it. But we’ll see.”

Indeed, the way Sexton argues it, not only does it require a longer time for a coach to have a profound effect on a team, but nothing highlights that better than Ireland’s record against the All Blacks under Schmidt with Sexton at outhalf — two wins in five attempts.

“He’s the one who made us believe that we could beat them. I think the biggest thing he did was he showed us the standards that are required, day in and day out. You don’t come together, turn up on a Monday and suddenly beat the All Blacks at the weekend. It takes a couple of years. He had an impact on Leinster for three years and then a near miss at his first attempt,” said Sexton of Ireland’ heartbreaking late defeat in the Aviva in 2013, just Schmidt’s third game in charge.

“That first time we nearly beat them but those habits weren’t formed of high standards in training day in, day out. To catch up with New Zealand, that’s what you need to do. You need that throughout your whole organisation and the IRFU has done that brilliantly over the last while and that’s why we’ve done it. But Joe has been instrumental in that evolution of Irish rugby.

“I said to the TV guys,” added Sexton of his interview with Alan Quinlan on Sky Sports, “the biggest legacy that someone can have is that they’re gone 10 years and you still talk about them. That’s what it is with Joe in Leinster.

“We still talk about some of the things that he brought in 10 years ago and it’s still true to this day. That’s when a legacy is proper. There’s only a handful of people that we still speak about in Leinster — Joe, (and) Isa (Nacewa) would be another one,” added Sexton of the incomparable Aucklander.

Arguably nothing illustrates the rise of Irish rugby in the pro era and the last decade or so especially than the transformation wrought in the rivalry with New Zealand, the leading rugby nation on the planet. Ireland’s thrilling 29-20 win last November was their third in the last five meetings, a statistic which would have been the stuff of fantasy for the previous 111 years.

Sexton started all five games, and add in the second and third Tests of the Lions tour in 2017, has three wins and a draw along with that painful World Cup quarter-final defeat in Tokyo in his last five starts against the All Blacks.

Listening to Sexton’s predecessor as World Player of the Year, Beauden Barrett, lauding Ireland as “a great side” yesterday is all the more remarkable considering he made his debut in the 60-0 win in Hamilton a decade ago but has been on the losing side in three of his five starts against Ireland.

“The guys that have been a part of that are very proud to do that. But you don’t want to let that go. You want them to respect us even more now. We often said that the only way to get them to fully respect you is to beat them. The plucky losers tag is not enough to earn their respect. You’ve got to beat them.

“To do it down here would be very, very special, especially in Eden Park when it’s what, close to 30 years?” said Sexton in reference to the All Blacks’ 28-year unbeaten record in their Auckland fortress.

“It’s an amazing record. We pride ourselves on our record in the Aviva but it’s nowhere close to that. So an incredible record.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times