It’s Joe Schmidt’s world now, so let’s not mess it up for him

Beating Australia and South Africa may not be enough when perfection is all that will do

Highlights from the press conference from the Irish and the Australian camps. Video: Daniel O'Connor

 

Malachy Clerkin

I had my appendix out once. Says you, it would be hard to have it out twice. Thing is, I never had appendicitis. I never even had a sore tummy. I had a bad case of something familiar to 11-year-olds the world over - an empty copybook and a teacher rounding the class checking for homework. And now I feel like I owe Joe Schmidt an apology.

Not, you’ll notice, the young teacher who I duped with a groaning, grimacing performance straight out of Platoon. Nor, for that matter, my parents who had to come to the school and bring me to hospital and watch me go off to the operating theatre and who, I’m fairly sure, are just finding out as they read this that there was nothing wrong with me the whole time.

No, this is for Joe. Paul O’Connell said afterwards that they wouldn’t have known there was anything wrong with Schmidt on Saturday had they not been told. He did notice, however, that in order not to pass any sort of lurgy onto the players, the coach had been “kind of stand-offish”. Well, I was kind of lie-downish. Kind of curl-up-in-a-ballish. And though it’s taken all of 25 years, Joe Schmidt has made me feel guilty enough to fess up once and for all.

Be honest. Everyone feels a bit like this now, don’t they? It can’t just be me. Every time you hear a player talk about Schmidt, it’s like he’s some sort of mythical dark force come to excise your imperfections with or without your consent. Ireland have beaten Australia and South Africa and will end the year as Six Nations champions and Europe’s top-ranked country. Yet every report, every conversation is flavoured by how unhappy the head coach will be.

Second Captains

“There’s a lot to improve on again,” said Jamie Heaslip on Saturday. “Whatever confidence we have, Joe will surely take it apart a little bit come the Christmas camp.” Speak softly and carry a big stick, that’s what they say. Schmidt must be carrying a caber around with him.

He is Keyser Söze. A video session Satan behind closed doors who has convinced the world he doesn’t exist. After the South Africa game, he aw-shucksed his way through an RTE interview with such brazen kid-modesty that it must have killed him not to dissolve into laughter. “I’m just an interested observer who puts a few subs on,” he said. That sentence actually came out of his mouth.

Whatever about the players, the effect he is having on the rest of us is very funny to watch. Leaving the Aviva on Saturday night, people were outdoing each other with declarations of how poorly Ireland had played after the first 20 minutes and how many mistakes had been made. Schmidt was on his way to St Vincent’s Hospital by then but he was present everywhere that people gathered to talk about the game.

The Sunday papers talked of a flawed performance, of inaccuracies and glitches and improvements that must be made. The player ratings in one of them had Ireland four points worse off than Australia. Now, as anyone who’s ever done player ratings will tell you, they are liable to have all the accuracy and definition of a camera-phone snap taken out the window of a moving train. But they are generally a decent impression, however hurried, of what you’ve just seen.

And it’s obvious that the Schmidt effect is to have us come down harder in our judgement of Ireland’s players than we otherwise would. It isn’t so much what we think of them as what we think Joe might think of them. It’s sanctioned tough love, the whip and lash of a well-meaning people wondering What Would Joe Do? The WWJD wristbands can’t be far away.

This is a new, new feeling. An Ireland coach that nobody has a problem with. Instead, one that people are thankful for, almost to the point of being a little scared of. One who you could genuinely imagine sitting in a job interview and answering the ‘What are your weaknesses?’ question with, “I’m a bit of a perfectionist.”

It is clearly working with his players. And you never know, it could spread to the rest of us. It can’t be long before someone calls for him to be put in charge of Irish Water. He probably project-managed the Newlands Cross flyover in his spare time over the summer. You can be sure that the surgeon who took out his appendix on Saturday night had a double take when he saw the name on the chart.

One way or the other, I’m getting on the right side of him from here on out. The apology is just the start. I tried out a few metaphors during the GAA championship that, when I look at them now, just didn’t work. I’m going to spend the next few months shaping them, planing their edges, getting them ready for use in 2015. I feel my transcribing could be slicker and my brown-nosing of the boss could certainly be more fawning. It’s going to be a long winter.

It’s Joe Schmidt’s world. The rest of us just live in it, trying not to ruin it on him.

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