Joe Schmidt has taken up an interesting position inside World Rugby. The Director of Rugby and High Performance title has been created for him. It is an office job that feeds into Joe's primary strength of motivating people to exceed their potential while working towards a common goal.
The goal is to make rugby a better spectacle.
Not a moment too soon, referees come under his protection. Having been coached by him for the last five years of my career, the only advice I would give match officials is to make sure you have your detail spot on before sitting down with Joe.
Otherwise, don’t ask any questions. Trust me, you will only regret it.
Schmidt does not suffer fools. He is effectively tasked with the streamlining of a sport that contradicts itself in the sense that the rigidity of the laws are essential to keep the game safe but, equally, the ref’s feel for a game is needed to make it watchable.
That’s why Wayne Barnes and Nigel Owens have excelled for so long. The same can be said of Romain Poite, even if he was perceived by Irish players as our mortal enemy for a very long time.
It’s the confidence of these men that makes them so effective.
The standard of refereeing in the Pro 14 has been disappointing. The lack of consistency remains a serious issue.
The current generation of young officials should not seek to be like Nigel or Wayne. They should exude slightly lower levels of confidence but an equally thick skin. Joe will keep their egos in check, have no doubt about that. Refereeing is not about being liked, it is about being respected and invisible whenever possible.
Above all else, it is how they communicate each decision during a match.
There are still teething problems but the poacher is rewarded for presenting a clear picture of release from the tackle and arched body over ball
Schmidt will challenge the refs like he previously did players. To reach the elite level in any aspect of life a person must be able to handle their performance being examined under a microscope. They should seek this out as that’s how they get better.
A conversation with Joe about rugby is exhausting even if you have your preparation done. Andy Dunne said a while ago that one meeting – the Old Belvedere head coach sitting with the Ireland head coach – convinced him to take a different career path. The amount of detail he expects you to memorise and then put into practice can be intimidating. You really have to want to be the best at what you do to survive the intensity.
If you can stay the course the journey’s end makes it all worthwhile.
That’s how he was with players so, presumably, the same will be expected of officials. He has already tutored them on how to adhere to the letter of existing laws around the breakdown. There are still teething problems but the poacher is rewarded for presenting a clear picture of release from the tackle and arched body over ball.
The penalties are coming within three seconds (before the player’s neck can be targeted). This has a chain reaction for how games are playing out because it forces ball carriers to be fully aware how and where they enter contact. It forces them to work as a team, rather than an individual who will be relieved of possession if they fail to show enough intelligence under pressure.
Joe makes the top six inches as relevant as the number of kgs a prop can bench.
All his Leinster and Ireland players can tell you that he will provide officials with the tools to control matches, be it a Pro 14 trip to Treviso or stomach-churning Test match in Twickenham. He will show you what certain individuals will do in every single game. He will blow their minds with detail. Hopefully it inspires more ex-players to start whistling.
This all comes under a WR policy to make rugby union watchable in new markets by fans of other sports.
Not many people would consider taking on such an enormous task. It sounds like a job for Joe Schmidt.
He won’t be long convincing officials to behave as a finely-tuned collective. That means the touch judges and TMO will be challenged to communicate in such a manner that ensures the referee cannot make a glaring error that impacts the result.
I also feel that Joe will bring the standard of second-tier teams to a level that allows them challenge the established rugby nations.
The spread of elite coaches into struggling regions is already happening with Fiji as Vern Cotter has added Richie Gray, Daryl Gibson and Glen Jackson to the backroom. That’s a line-up worthy of the players they will be coaching.
If Joe is given enough time and scope I expect he will raise the standards of nations that have been “emerging” since professionalism happened 25 years ago.
A shadow Six Nations feels more important than ever. Germany and Spain are the obvious sleeping giants but, for now, it is about giving Georgia all the resources they need to be competitive during the autumn series.
I’ve read the WR press release and media reports but until Joe explains his vision as Director of Rugby we cannot fully understand the long-term plans for this new department based out of Dublin.
What I can say is the silo approach – a reluctance to share information – will be eradicated. Joe is the best person to put coaches, players and referees on the same track when it comes to understanding ever evolving laws.
The current antagonistic relationship between coaches and referees needs addressing. Coaches having faith in the ref before matches will cushion the odd time they may get it wrong.
The poacher-turned-gamekeeper analogy would not have been lost on the governing body after last year's World Cup fiasco. Clearly, there was a disconnect between WR's referees manager Alain Rolland and the refs, who refused to implement the strict high tackle measures with red card sanctions, until an embarrassing amount of yellow cards were ungraded to suspensions.
The governing body would have read the detailed reports submitted by Schmidt and other top coaches. They would have seen the need to have someone like him in-house.
There will be difficult conversations because, like a lawyer, the coach constantly seeks to exist in the grey area between what is legal and illegal
They would have seen how he brought Ireland from a top-seven team to world number one on the eve of Japan 2019. They also noticed how – during this process – he manipulated the laws of the game to our advantage, time and time again.
The fact that Schmidt’s team peaked 10 months before the tournament was as much down to Eddie Jones, Steve Hansen, Jamie Joseph and Rassie Erasmus refusing to allow this wily strategist to remain so far out in front of them with less resources.
In short, WR have recruited – via my old teammate Bob Casey – a special mind to safeguard players and enhance the sport as a spectacle. It is not just the otherworldly technical expertise that he brings to the organisation, it is a human element. Joe understands people. Knowing what makes an individual tick is a rare gift.
There will be difficult conversations because, like a lawyer, the coach constantly seeks to exist in the grey area between what is legal and illegal. Joe was the master of this. Again, he sees most of the angles.
It’s a significant coup for World Rugby but I am fascinated to see how long it will satisfy Joe Schmidt, the natural-born coach. I’d also like to know what represents success, for him, with such a widespread brief that has him “responsible for the high performance, match officials and technical services functions, including player welfare as well as training and education”.
Maybe by 2024 he will have put enough processes in place for somebody else to take over. I imagine, after the next World Cup, the market place will demand that Schmidt the coach is returned to the fold. There may even be a provincial opening in Ireland by then. Or perhaps this is a new path, and he will grow into a Commissioner-like figure, like in American sports. What we can say, with the confidence of all future referees, the sky’s the limit when we talk about Joe Schmidt.
Injuries will hamper Farrell’s plans
Test match rugby is about to flood onto our television screens and Ireland's injuries are mounting. Italy won't be a problem but Paris on Halloween night is a tough prospect now Ryan Baird has joined Dan Leavy, Keith Earls, Iain Henderson and Tadhg Furlong on a list that leaves Ireland exposed in the back field, lock and prop.
The loss of these players puts less emphasis on Ireland finishing the 2020 Six Nations with a flourish and more on who can recover to boost squad strength entering the autumn series. Ideally, Baird's international career begins alongside a flood of key men returning to fitness. James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park should also complete their journeys from the same New Zealand schools side to wearing the green jersey.
Andy Farrell sets out to bring Ireland back to the standard the team set in 2018. That’s how long it has been since they looked capable of beating any opposition. They can get there again but a rash of injuries has them starting from a low base.