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Joe Schmidt helped Ireland topple the All Blacks, and now he’s helping to build them back up

Former Ireland head coach and now New Zealand’s assistant/attack coach is tasked with undoing the damage to the All Blacks’ psyche

There he was at the end of the All Blacks’ training session on Tuesday – or rather wasn’t. Their session had been protected from prying eyes, and by the time the media pack were allowed inside and escorted to the far side of the pitch, Joe Schmidt couldn’t have been further away from the cameras if he’d tried. It was no doubt deliberate and, also, fitting.

The contrast between Schmidt’s profile as the All Blacks’ assistant/attack coach in New Zealand and his previous role when presiding over a golden time for Leinster and Ireland could hardly be more stark.

Yet arguably, no individual in history did more to transform the All Blacks-Ireland rivalry into one of the best in the world in recent times.

Not that it was ever much of a rivalry. In the first 111 years of the fixture, they met 28 times, with Ireland managing one draw as against 27 defeats, often by huge margins.


The dramatic turnaround in many ways started with a defeat. In the third game of Schmidt’s tenure, in November 2013, Ireland roared into a 19-0 lead with a breathless display of Schmidt-esque, high-tempo rugby, only to lose 24-22 to a retaken Aaron Cruden conversion after a try in overtime by Ryan Crotty.

But that fuelled a belief that they could, as well as a desire to atone, and three years later in Chicago they finally beat the All Blacks for the first time, by 40-29. Although the All Blacks would exact a brutal revenge a fortnight later in Dublin, Ireland beat them again at the Aviva in November 2018.

Although the All Blacks ruthlessly filleted Schmidt’s misfiring team in the quarter-finals four years ago in Tokyo, under Andy Farrell, Ireland have won three out of four in this last World Cup cycle, including that series win last year. So, from a record of no wins in 28 meetings, Ireland have five of the last eight, and according to New Zealand pundit Scotty Stevenson, the belief this turnaround has imbued in Irish rugby is matched by the damage it has done in his country.

“I think New Zealand became very reactive to Ireland post-2016 and that first-up loss, and subsequently 2018 and the tour [last year] to New Zealand,” Stevenson said on the Second Captains podcast this week.

“I think the strength of the All Blacks is that they always believed – rightly or wrongly, but mainly rightly – that they were the innovators of the game, that what they put they put on the field was going to be too much for most opposition teams.

“But Ireland did something to New Zealand’s psyche and I know this for a fact, if you asked a New Zealand fan right now, none would be surprised to see Ireland win this quarter-final. None. There would not be a single All Black fan who would think that’s out of the blue and a massive upset.”

More than breaking the spell, says Stevenson, “they created doubt in what has ostensibly been the most successful rugby team in the world”.

“Why is it that the All Blacks went after Joe Schmidt? On the basis that he led a team to victory against them. It’s a patently ridiculous position for a country like New Zealand with a century of success behind it to suddenly get, essentially, the yips because they lost a game to a team they hadn’t lost to in 100 years, and that changed foundationally the way New Zealand approached its rugby.”

Becoming too focused on other teams, the All Blacks began to question itself, says Stevenson, adding: “This team has lived in a twilight zone of doubt since 2016. It seems to me that the belief has been eaten away, and predominantly by Ireland.

“Ireland has stung All Blacks’ rugby in the most profound way,” says Stevenson, albeit he believes this All Blacks team have rediscovered momentum for a game that he believes is too close to call, and warns: “There’ll be some heat this weekend for sure. There’ll be some [All Blacks] players looking to put right to wrong in terms of their opinion of where All Blacks rugby sits.”

Meanwhile, though adopted and adored in Ireland, back in his home country the enigmatic Schmidt remains a relatively obscure figure.

In the 14 months since becoming a full-time assistant, Schmidt has made only two appearances in front of the media: one was over Zoom and the other was when the All Blacks named their Rugby Championship squad in June this year, partly because a French journalist had travelled to New Zealand.

This low profile has clearly been cultivated by Schmidt and you can’t help but wonder if the way his final year in Irish rugby turned a little sour has contributed to this public reticence.

This week, Schmidt is tasked with trying to undo some of the damage to the All Blacks’ psyche which he helped to inflict. It may be overplayed, but at the very least Schmidt’s presence is a fascinating subplot. One thinks of those starter plays which led to the All Blacks’ two tries on opening night against France.

“I think you can see evidence of Joe’s coaching through the team,” agreed Johnny Sexton on Wednesday. “They’ve made big strides over the last 12 months and I know they’ve a different forwards coach as well from when we were there, and it’s very much a different team we’re playing. So, it’s a big challenge.

“Joe knows us well, we know him well, but Joe doesn’t get to make any tackles or run any lines at the weekend. So, we just have to worry about the players we’re playing against and not too much about him – but the legacy he left in Irish rugby is massive. His record is outstanding and so we’ll look forward to having a beer with him after the game.”

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times