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Gordon D’Arcy: Joe Schmidt could revolutionise rugby in Australia

Former Ireland coach combines his attention to detail with Australian joie de vivre, making the 2025 Lions tour all the more intriguing

They say timing in life is everything. Sometimes you need to be at the right place at the right time so you can meet the right people, and it can be the difference between success and failure.

When I look back at my own career I see how important timing was for me. I started in the back three and it was fair to say I had a limited shelf life in that area of the field. I was average under the high ball, and while I was competitive in the confines of Leinster’s training facility I lacked the top-end speed required at the elite level.

That’s where timing came in. I moved to centre. Had it not been for Gary Ella, an injury to Brian O’Driscoll and maturity creeping in I don’t think it would have been a success. Worse, it may not have ever happened.

Sometimes with the benefit of hindsight we look at those intangible aspects that contributed to success or failure. I have been lucky to have played under a myriad of coaches, some successful and others not. Coaches such as Declan Kidney with Munster and Eddie O’Sullivan with Ireland in the early 2000s, both incredibly successful, were the right people at the right time for those teams. It can go the other way as well. Gary Ella’s time at Leinster was perhaps the right coach at the wrong time, and the same could possibly be said of Rob Penney in Munster.


Michael Cheika’s appointment in 2005 was transformative for Leinster, and helped build the foundations of the club long into the future. The Australian built a tight five to compete on the European stage, and through blood, sweat and tears (literally and metaphorically) developed a mentally resilient winning mindset. He spent as much time developing a culture within the wider club as he did creating a challenging environment for his players.

It was attritional and because of that perhaps unsustainable. Success was the aim and winning the European Cup in 2009 was the culmination of Cheika’s ideas. His influence also dovetailed perfectly with Joe Schmidt. The timing was spot on.

So the news last week about Schmidt taking over as coach of Australia – while initially a surprise considering how many eyebrows were raised when Steve Hansen, another Kiwi, took an advisory role in Australia – feels like the timing is right. I have no doubt his influence in Rugby Australia will reach further than the national team, and will have an input into the way rugby is structured.

While Australia have not realistically been a peer of New Zealand for over a decade, such has been the pace of their decline, the level of animus between the two nations is still apparent.

Schmidt would have held all the cards in those negotiations, his drive to be successful necessitating him to gain as much influence as possible. Don’t underestimate how much it takes to convince a Kiwi to take over Australian rugby reins. Just ask Robbie Deans.

As Ireland’s and Leinster’s most successful coach, I believe Schmidt now has the potential to revolutionise rugby in Australia. It’s largely what he did in Ireland, and while there is a danger some people look at the last nine months of his tenure and use that as the yardstick to judge him, I saw first hand how his approach evolved over the years, from the early days in Leinster where the immortal phrase “attention to detail” originated.

There was an established player base and Schmidt was about challenging them in a new way; could we be the best passing team in Europe or hold the biggest names in the dressingroom to the same standards as the newest academy recruit?

The gradual creep towards prescribed, multiphase set-plays to the rigidly-structured possession-based rugby culminated in that brutal victory against the All Blacks in November 2018.

There were consistencies as well with Schmidt. He had an unrivalled work ethic, never asked anyone to do anything he wasn’t willing to do himself, and possessed one of the sharpest rugby IQs out there.

However, there is one thing that is required as a player to be successful under Joe – you constantly need to challenge him on and off the field. As a player that means being confident enough in your ability to take a chance when the opportunity presents itself and not just stick to the play book. The way defences shift in real time very rarely reflects the training field, and having that ability to switch up is crucial to finding match-changing moments.

Arguably the current three most creative players in Ireland, Jamison Gibson-Park, James Lowe and Mack Hansen, did not come through our system. We don’t have too many players today that look comfortable going off script.

In the teams I played with a number of players could do something instinctive and you had to respond. Among those were O’Driscoll, Shane Jennings, Isa Nacewa, Luke Fitzgerald, Jamie Heaslip and Sean O’Brien. With Ireland also include Paul O’Connell, Tommy Bowe and Keith Earls. Players expressed themselves. By the very nature of doing so meant it didn’t always go to plan, and that created healthy tension between coaches and players.

The dynamic must be correct. Too much player influence and things go awry, as does too much control by the coaches. That balance looked a little off in Ireland’s build-up to the 2019 World Cup, where I believe the players had ceded too much control.

Eddie Jones was to be the panacea for Australian rugby. But the abject failure to perform during the World Cup clearly showed he never got the players on board. Australian rugby has talent, but to be successful at the top end it is about more than about creative set-plays or smart planning. It is about coaching the player and the person behind the player.

For me too many coaches have veered towards the safety of statistics. Coaching, just like playing, is about the feel of a game and a playing group.

I don’t believe that Joe is a coach that lives and dies by numbers. He will bring his unique style to Australian rugby. There will be structure and a strong attention to detail, and as long as the players retain their joie de vivre and keep pushing the boundaries this could be a very fruitful relationship.

Rugby Australia is on its knees. There are quality players there and maybe, just maybe, the timing is again right for a coach like Joe. The Lions tour in 2025 just got a whole lot more interesting.