The beautifully appointed Plaine de Gerland at 403 Avenue Jean Jaurès sits adjacent to the Matmut stadium, formerly known as the Stade de Gerland, home to Lyon rugby club. Behind a sizeable hedge and fencing with a canvas tarpaulin to keep out prying eyes or camera lenses, there are the unmistakable sounds of a training session; grunts, shouts and orders being barked.
The first clue as to the identity of the team in situ can be gleaned on exiting the Metro just down the road. Normally, the station goes under the name Stade de Gerland but for the Rugby World Cup it has been renamed Stade de New Zealand; they’ve changed the signage on both platforms.
A second hint, well it’s the number of television cameras and crews that are assembled around a grassy knoll that splits the driveway in two, the smattering of French, Italian and English conversations discernible as the group waits for the promised vision access at midday.
Eight minutes after the appointed time, a section of fencing is dragged back, and media are permitted to film or observe what will be the last 20 minutes of a training session. The kickers stay on as do one or two others, hookers throwing side on to the goalposts.
Joe Schmidt, once of Leinster and Ireland, but now ensconced in the New Zealand set-up is taking a pared-down version of the attacking structure with a cross-section of backs supplemented by backrows ahead of Friday night’s clash with Italy at the OL soccer stadium, situated on the outskirts of the city some 21km from today’s training venue.
The timbre of the tone hasn’t changed, so too that attention to detail, small wrinkles that he is quick to address, at one point exhorting the players to “tighten our shape a little bit, we want to be nice and square”. On another occasion, he encouraged flanker Dalton Papali’i to change the point of attack “if you see them [the Italians] shutting the door”.
He ushers and chivvies by turn, squarely in the thicket of activity. On another rotation, he does his best to try and distract Cam Roigard by hitting him with swimming noodles or jostling him with a tackle shield as the hugely promising 22-year-old scrumhalf whips the ball away from an imaginary breakdown.
Schmidt is animated, alive, you can see how much he’s enjoying a hands-on role, and there are little flecks of humour in some of the repartee but only in a lull, never during a drill. The other coaches all have their stations, head honcho Ian Foster, adopting more of a watching brief during the allotted media time.
When training ends, Schmidt as he always did, busied himself in picking up the flotsam and jetsam of a rugby session and putting them away before grabbing a slice of watermelon. A short walk to the Matmut stadium which is currently undergoing significant refurbishment in some of the buildings, one of which houses the press conference.
Dalton Papali’i and wing Mark Telea, who was outstanding in an attacking capacity in the defeat to France, are up in front of the media. Telea, by invitation, is asked to speak about Schmidt and what he has done for him as a player.
The winger smiled: “Joe has put in a lot of work for us, our backs and our forwards, he helps us a lot with our ball carries, our contestables, all those little details that other teams or players miss. I’d say Joe knows more than other coaches; he knows the names of [other] players and when he talks about information, he knows a lot of information! If you have a conversation with him, he’ll probably know more about you than you. He could probably even ref the game if he wanted to.”
Sitting alongside, Papali’i is next to offer a eulogy. “He’s the Goat, one of the Goats in the coaching world. He has a lot of knowledge of the game and especially for me and Mark, when he came into our [Blues] Super [Rugby] team last year, he was a real difference maker, and he did wonders for us.
“Coming into this environment, he’s added his flavour and all the boys can feel it. You can’t really explain it. He’s awesome.”
The teak tough young flanker spoke glowingly about watching Ireland defeat South Africa. “That’s what fans love to watch, two great teams going at it, and also there were some moments in that game where you’d hold your breath for longer than usual.
“Those are the games where even as players, we try to watch it as a player and get some detail, see what they’re doing, but it’s hard to not turn to a spectator and actually be on the edge of your seat, because that’s how rugby should be played.
“How the game flowed so well, there’s no calls around head-highs [tackles] or shoulder to heads or anything, it was clean contact, and it was fast ball as well. Those are the games I love watching, and I think everyone can agree on that.”
As Dalton finishes up, looking out the window the All Blacks whizz past on scooters, often with a driver and pillion; it’s a miracle of modern engineering that they have the capacity to take a couple of frontrow forwards. No sign of Joe though.