Eyebrows raised over Schmidt’s intention to ‘finish coaching’

Kiwi to take indefinite break from game after World Cup as Farrell named as his successor

Ireland vice-captain Peter O'Mahony accepts the Coach of the Year award at the World Rugby Awards on behalf of Joe Schmidt, praising the New Zealander as a "super coach." Video: World Rugby

 

When the news was finally confirmed yesterday morning it was sad if inevitable. The day had to come eventually, and the man himself had prepared us for it.

But by far the most jarring aspect of Joe Schmidt’s decision to step down as Irish head coach after the 2019 World Cup was the heading under the IRFU press release which read: “Joe Schmidt decides to finish coaching after RWC19.”

As if to make this abundantly clear, these words were repeated in the opening sentence of the release: “Joe Schmidt will finish coaching following the Rugby World Cup in Japan next year.”

And, lest we were still in any doubt, the next sentence quoted Schmidt himself thus: “I have decided to finish coaching and will prioritise family commitments after the RWC in 2019.”

There’s no doubt that this statement would have been carefully worded. Schmidt himself would have signed off on it before its release, and it comes as no surprise that he is of a mind to take a break from coaching. We speculated as much in these pages last week.

He’d intimated since last February that he and Kellie would return to New Zealand and throughout the last month had consistently said this would be a family decision rather than a rugby decision, per se.

Even so, the words “finish coaching” seemed very stark, especially for one of the most highly rated and regarded coaches in the history of the game, and at the age of 53. Whether he ever coaches again remains to be seen, but he’s clearly of a mind to take an indefinite break from the game.

Perhaps, akin to Pep Guardiola, another enlightened and intensely devoted coach consumed by his profession, this self-confessed workaholic simply needs a break. He’s been a professional coach now for 15 years, and he’s never done it in half measures.

Whatever else, after nine seasons coaching in Ireland and a dozen in Europe, he and Kellie would like to return to New Zealand to be closer to their family roots, and specifically their respective mothers. He said virtually as much last February.

To that end, the choice of wording in yesterday’s statement may also serve to give him peace of mind, while ensuring he won’t be pestered with offers of other jobs, or rumours linking him with other posts.

His list of achievements with Clermont, Leinster and Ireland in the last decade border on ridiculous. But as well as extolling all the wins and trophies, it was striking how IRFU CEO Philip Browne also paid such a warm tribute to Schmidt the man and to his generosity.

Heavy heart

“I would like to thank Joe, and his family, on behalf of the IRFU union committee, all the staff of Irish Rugby and every rugby supporter, for everything he has done for the game in Ireland.

“Joe has travelled to clubs throughout the country, assisted with our sponsor programme and attended a huge number of charity events, helping to raise vital funding for those who need it most.”

Schmidt in turn will also leave with a heavy heart. The emotion in his voice as he let the cat out of the bag last week was proof of that. The Schmidts have given a huge amount to Ireland and Irish rugby, and the latter in turn to them.

“I feel that Irish rugby is in good hands,” he was quoted as saying in yesterday’s statement. “The management and players have been incredible to work with and the tremendous support we have had, particularly at home in the Aviva, but where ever we have travelled has been uplifting.

“Thank you to the IRFU for their support and patience and thanks also to so many people who have adopted my family and me, making us feel part of the community here in Ireland.

“There are some inspiring challenges over the next 11 months so there’s plenty of motivation for me to continue working hard, alongside the other management staff, so that the team can be as competitive as possible.”

Schmidt also revealed after last Saturday’s win over the USA that the Union had said to him “don’t be rash” on foot of him making his intentions known. That would suggest, as is almost certainly the case anyway, that the door will always be left ajar for him. No less than his leaving, it would be no great surprise if he resurfaced here one day.

Having worked within the system with Schmidt for three years, Andy Farrell is the obvious man to succeed Schmidt even if he’s never held the role of head coach before and, at 43, is a decade younger than Schmidt.

‘Plays old’

In a stellar rugby league playing career, Farrell became the youngest player to win a Challenge Cup Final in 1993 when at 17 years and 11 months he came on as a substitute against Widnes.

A full international by the age of 18, he scored a try in Wigan’s Challenge Cup final victory, and on the eve of the 1993 Challenge Cup final, the Wigan coach John Monie, when questioned on Sky News about playing a 17-year-old Farrell the year before and again at 18, said: “Farrell may be young, but he plays old”.

The quote has rang through his life right up to this day.

Under Schmidt, Ireland have a remarkable 75.4 per cent winning ratio, and it’s worth noting that since Farrell came aboard following the 2016 Six Nations, that ratio has risen to 80 per cent (24 wins in 30 matches). Ironically, as with Schmidt, Farrell and his wife Colleen (nee O’Loughlin) have Irish (specifically Dublin) ancestry going back three or four generations.

Schmidt’s departure will leave a huge void, particularly with regard to Ireland’s attacking game and, having worked with Farrell, Stuart Lancaster would seem the obvious choice. Whether he and Farrell would be of a mind to reverse their English roles remains to be seen. But in bringing aboard Felipe Contepomi in the close-season, Leinster may have read the tea leaves.

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