It was a humdrum Tuesday evening – October 22nd, 2019 – in Dublin Airport when Joe Schmidt walked through the arrivals doors of Terminal One. He gave a small media briefing and headed home. His time as Ireland rugby coach was officially over and with every minute he was moving further away from what had been an all-consuming role: not so much a job as a passion.
Forty-eight hours earlier, he had sat in a crowded basement conference room in Tokyo Stadium and described himself as “little bit broken” after watching his Ireland team ravaged by New Zealand in the quarter-final. He had looked it too: pale and gaunt and subdued. It was a strange and uneasy sight: for a figurehead who had emanated such a degree of calm authority and assurance through his glittering years with Leinster and Ireland, Schmidt looked somewhat haunted by the end of it all.
Ireland’s failure to advance on their scintillating 2018 season, when they won the Grand Slam and defeated the All Blacks on a heaven-sent night in Dublin, generated a revealing set of conflicting responses in Ireland. Among sports fans, whether ardent rugby followers or casual supporters of the national team, the deep disappointment was tempered by an acknowledgement that under Schmidt, Irish rugby teams had given the country many memorable days.
The players had put both their bodies and, in some instances, their health on the line. There was, too, an undercurrent of schadenfreude about the failure: a thinly disguised glee that another Irish rugby team had melted under the spotlight of global expectation. Scrutiny turned to Ireland’s rugby tradition, which has for a century furrowed the rarefied if limited soil of the private school system.
Then the world turned. Big, bruising South Africa won the tournament. The carnival ended. Schmidt sat down and put the finishing touches to a book which he has been writing in his spare hours for the past three years. One imagines those hours were mostly after midnight because as a rugby coach, Schmidt’s brain rarely switched off.
Ordinary Joe went on sale on Thursday. This Friday evening, he sat down with Ryan Tubridy on the Late Late Show. That appearance was the culmination of a week which must have represented a version of personal hell: one spent talking about “himself” in conversations, including this, that would be made public.
“Pretty nervous” he conceded about that prospect on a stunning autumn morning in Dublin. It was Monday November 20th: less than a month since his last game. The colour had returned to his face and he looked rested. Naturally, people recognised him walking through the foyer of the hotel and he made sure to nod in greeting as he passed. You don’t have to spend long with Schmidt to understand that he could live to be a thousand years old without ever fully becoming comfortable with the idea that he has, through no real design, become a public figure. And it was something we touched on over the course of an hour chatting.
So is there a parallel world in which you could quite easily be a teacher or headmaster back in New Zealand? And the world has not heard of you and you are quite happy with that state of affairs?
“Delighted! Yeah. It’s funny. That is the whole premise. One of the frustrations is: I just wanted Ordinary Joe. But that doesn’t sell the book, I don’t think. I really am the same person. And sometimes you go back to New Zealand . . . you are with your mates you went to school with. And you are not even quite the same person. Because you are the person they see on the TV. One of my mates sent me an article yesterday from the Herald, a journalist saying ‘New Zealand desperately needs Joe’. And I’m going, ‘well, they don’t really.’ And you sort of think, this guy sends it to me as if to say: ‘look at this, you should really come back’. And I am thinking – it is not really relevant. I am just doing what is right for the family. It is almost duplicitous. You have this public persona. And you try to keep it . . . and that is maybe why I didn’t write this as autobiography. Because my kids are independent beings. And they don’t want to be attached to me all the time.”
Have you ever had the chance to speak with the likes of Warren Gatland or Steve Hansen about this: you move through rugby from being a private citizen to this quite high profile public sports figure?
“Not with Gats. But with Steve I have. Just because . . . before we played last November, we met a couple of nights before the game. The two coaching staffs did. It is something I try to keep alive . . . a degree of amateur interaction. In the Six Nations that is harder. But we had a good opportunity then to have a detailed chat. We had both decided we were finishing and it was going to be announced after November. I don’t think it was ideal and I don’t think it helped the following season for either of us. But it’s one of those things you can’t really avoid in the modern world. You are either asked the question or to stop it being asked, you say I’m in or I’m not. And Steve was saying it is probably twice as bad in New Zealand. It is a whole different scale. I think in the end, it probably gets the better of you a little bit. But my wife actually booked us down to Spain for six days a couple of weeks ago. Just to get out of the system. And there wasn’t a single day in Puerto Banus when Irish or English people didn’t come up. And they were lovely. There was one couple that far away from us for dinner – my wife and I and Luke – and it wasn’t until we got up to leave that he got up and he said, ‘aw Joe: look’ . . . And that was perfect. And people have been phenomenal. They have been so nice. As disappointed as I was and still am at how it finished, people have been incredible.”
There’s a passage in the book just before Kelly and you and the family set off for Clermont. You are talking about this forklift driver you knew . . .
And he’s this guy who knew that’s what he always wanted to be and was completely fulfilled by the routine and satisfaction of that way of living. You write: “I envy his contentment and his knowing what he wanted out of life.” Does that idea of living a private life without needing to chase anything in the conventional sense and having a huge big world within the circumference that you draw for yourself intrigue you?
“The satisfaction, the contentment, intrigues me. I think sometimes we are always searching for that contentment. What is actually gonna be enough? And a lot of people have contacted me about doing a job or going into a new role. And I don’t feel like I have to be defined by being a rugby coach or trying to do something like that. I feel comfortable being a Dad and, you know, having good friends and family. And maybe that’s because I feel it has run its course. And one of the big disappointments, without jumping ahead to the World Cup again, is that if we could have got that semi-final, I would have felt: ‘you know what, there is nothing else that I have to reach for.’ Or build towards, is a better way to describe it. And maybe that is the one thing that would drive me back to it. I don’t have enough to retire permanently - you don’t get that much from coaching rugby! So I will have to go back to work at some stage. But I am not sure what that will be.”
Because it seemed to me that quite deep into your coaching career you were still – hedging your bets is the wrong phrase but . . .
“No. I was hedging my bets.”
Because in the chapter ‘Blues’ you say to your wife Kelly. “Maybe I will finish out the season and go back to teaching.” And you come here to Leinster and you turn down the offer of an agent who wants to represent you. You say thanks but no. And he says: “Well, what are you going to do if you lose your job?” And you say: “Well, I’ll go back teaching.” So teaching was always there as an escape.
“Well. Part of it was an escape from the public part of things.”
Do you hate it?
“Well. I just think it impacts my family. And it impacts me. Good or bad. Cos I feel . . . when it was tough going at the Blues and your 10-year-old kid comes home crying because kids have been teasing him, cos his dad’s no good . . . You don’t want to be no good to your 10-year-old kid. You want to be someone he is proud of and aspires to be similar to. A lot of the things that aren’t in the book . . . family things . . . we try to build a lot on values as a family. Each night we would have dinner at the table because that was a tradition. And each time we would ask each of the kids: ‘What did you do for someone else today?’ And that is something we’ve tried to build into them. To win: you only have to be a good person. You don’t have to win on the scoreboard. You only have to be a good person - who does their best. So I was happy to go back to teaching. And if fact, I got a phone call just after I had accepted the job in Clermont. I hadn’t taught for four years. And I got a call from a big boys’ school. It is up over two thousand students now. And it was from the board chair. Would I be interested in leading the school? So I never felt too far away from education. And even when I was leading the Blues I did a bit of relief teaching at Auckland Grammar. Just . . . to hedge my bets. And because I enjoyed it.”
You like the school environment and the values and rhythm of the year?
“Yup. And I know . . . a woman sent me an email after the World Cup saying she got into a taxi in Sydney. The driver was talking away to her – it was about a 45-minute ride. And he said he had been a good rugby player when he was young and had been on the edge of representative teams. And now he just coaches. And he told her that he is following in the footsteps of a guy who coached him and made an impression on him that you can bring good values to people And he said to her: ‘And that guy now is the coach of Ireland’. And she said, ‘oh yeah, I know that guy.’ For me, that is like winning. Because that is what teachers do. They try to positively affect the way people contribute to, I suppose, the world we live in . . . without being too altruistic at the same time.”
When you decided to go to France as a family, were you in any way fleeing anything? Were you deferring the decision of what you wanted to do?
“Not really. It wasn’t any form of escapism. It was more . . . I genuinely believe I exist with a growth mindset and when there are new challenges, they do energise me. And as much as it is uncomfortable going to a country where you don’t speak the language . . . I was very nervous about it. And again, I definitely say in the book if Kelly didn’t have the confidence in me, there is no way I would have done it. I had a contract in my hand to do two more years with the Blues. I was all set to sign it.”
There’s still a bookish child in Joe Schmidt. He’s a reader. And, it transpires, a writer. His book is sprinkled with literary and educational references. The genesis of that is made clear in the opening few pages. Glimpses into his private world are sparing but those he shares carry significance.
The book isn’t autobiographical. But you do share some very personal moments. One was the morning in Clermont where your son Luke has an eight hour operation for a tumour. And you decide to go training that morning. You don’t dwell on it. But those six or seven hours must have been . . . a true nightmare?
“Yeah. And he had 13 hours of surgery in Melbourne four years ago. So it has been something we have had to get used to. Then, we got a little Airbnb unit around the corner from the children’s hospital. We went back and they said it would be eight, nine hours. We still had to wait three hours because it took longer. But I . . . I do struggle to sit still. Kelly and I have some really good friends in Clermont and they all stayed there during the operation. So I went to training to distract myself, really. The squad was aware Luke was sick. But not of the surgery. Rene Fontes [the Clermont Auvergne club president] died last year and he lived in Aix-en-Provence and he flew up then. That . . . makes a difference. It gives me a loyalty to Clermont that runs deeper. People say . . . I don’t know if it’s public knowledge but I write back to people who write in to me. If the address is legible, then I reply! Even if they are critical, which is seldom I must say. They might think this guy should be picked ahead of that guy. But that personal engagement is really important as much as you possibly can. And that’s one of the reasons I get around to the amateur clubs as much as I can do as well.”
You wrote the book you wanted to write here.
“Yeah, a lot of it, Because it started off as a joint project with my Mum and it was a little bit like the World Cup in the end . . . she didn’t quite get to see the end of things. That maybe was a blessing as far as the World Cup was concerned but with the book itself, with those early chapters . . . she was . . . it was great. We spent a bit of time chatting and those memories are those things that you share with family: those things that happened so long ago that they might not seem relevant now to most people but they were certainly relevant in that those formative years, build you up to what you end up becoming.”
It’s true to say it’s not an autobiography? In the linear “I was born and now I’m here” type deal.
“No. That’s probably . . . that’s fair, yeah.”
And the descriptions of your family life are quite sparing, but the first one of your mum is striking. It’s her cooking dinner for a bunch of you kids and reading at the same time. Why did that image stay with you so vividly?
“Because it was every day. She read so often. She did the Dominion crossword every day and solved it so quickly. I suppose that’s where the word thing came to me and my siblings. Because . . . we all read and a lot and its one of the frustrations of the last 10 years that I don’t read as much as I used to.
What did she read?
“Awwhh . . . everything. She loved history and geography. Like, when Trivial Pursuit first came out, it was a waste of time playing against my Mum as far as those questions were concerned. She loved those things and read lots of fiction. She always had a book on the go.”
And you’ve been a reader the whole way through your life as well? Across the board?
“Pretty much. I read biographies. One of the motivations for this was – Dec [Declan Kidney] will probably hate me saying this but I remember catching up with Declan at a Munster game. I said, ‘awwhh by the way congratulations. I see your book is out. The Master.’ And he said: ‘Don’t talk to me about that book! It’s not my book!’ And I just felt I knew there was someone who had interviewed a few of the players who was thinking about writing a book [about Schmidt] and one of the motivations was that I might as well get in first. People have perceptions. It may not be an autobiography but I do think I reveal quite a bit about myself.”
In the first part of the book, it’s striking how many teachers and educators, including your Dad, seem to loom large in your subconscious.
“My Dad the referee!”
Your Dad the referee and the long walk home.
“Yeah. Well . . . the walk wasn’t that long. But the shame was deep.”
People like the teacher Jack Salt. Why did they make such a deep impression?
“I know this is probably a very human thing. But I remembered good things they said about me or that that I felt they helped me with. Like, Big Jim Kearns – I still have some of those quotations in my head from Caesar, which meant it was easy to write a paper in an exam. He actually sparked in my head how words can create images and convey messages when, well put together, can be a lot more impactful. Look at the really good orators. They spark an emotion, whereas someone who doesn’t have an ability to speak well or stumbles over words . . . it is more challenging for them.”
He’s always been different. The former Ireland forward Mike Ross tells a story. Leinster are going to play Clermont away. More than anyone, Schmidt knows the noise levels in the stadium will be similar to standing beside a speaker at a Megadeth concert. A successful defence requires communication. But Schmidt is concerned the players won’t be able hear each other. Some coaches might flood the training ground with recorded crowd noise to simulate that kind of experience. Schmidt did the opposite. He made his defence practice in total silence so he they’d get used to defending without verbal cues.
“He is probably one of the most obsessed and driven men I have met in rugby,” Ross told Joe Molloy last year. “I don’t know if he switches off. He still lives quite close to me and his wife and my wife are friends. You sometimes pop around the house and you can guarantee he will be in the den watching games.”
Why did you write about the World Cup as a diary?
“That was the only way I could include it in the book. Because whenever we went out, the book had to go into print because I was under pressure to get it done for this time of year. I had done the Slam diary. I also think it gives a slightly different flavour. Some of the book is reflections that I have time to put into context. Whereas the diary is raw. You know, that is what I thought on the day.”
Yeah, it is. And obviously you had the terrible family bereavement with your Mum in August. Again, you don’t dwell on it. But you do say that you flew back home. You had a family service for her on the beach. And then you flew back to the Ireland camp before the official service. That can’t have been easy to energise yourself in those months of mid-August for what was coming?
“No, no. And the other thing was it was the third time I had flown back to New Zealand in the year. Without getting too personal, not getting back for my Dad [before he passed away] was huge to me. I was a little bit broken by that. And I had to get back for my Mum. I was always on edge even before that. And I mention the kids training session I took with Richie that was kind of a prize for Canterbury: I can tell you now there was no way I wanted to do that. I just wanted to get to the airport but I couldn’t get a flight any sooner. But when I coach – once I started – it is a little bit of a different world. And I am so actively involved it was actually a bit of a blessing to be able to separate yourself. It was a bit like instead of sitting there waiting for Luke to come out of surgery. For me to go and do something where I can detach myself from the reality external to what is on the pitch. I wanted to get back for that reason. And again, personally, I didn’t want to meet all the people coming to the service for my Mum. I didn’t want to talk to them about rugby. I didn’t want to talk to anyone.”
You didn’t want to be Joe Schmidt: Ireland manager?
“And that is the difference. I don’t want to offend people in New Zealand either, but that kind of duplicity of being who you are and doing the job you do. Most people do their job and are the same person. And I am the same person: that is what I am trying to say. I am still the same person! But people don’t perceive you to be. That is the difference.”
Were you fatigued during the World Cup?
“I tried not to be. I don’t think people would have perceived that I was. But definitely, I didn’t feel myself. It is only now, just getting away, I know it was only for six days, with Kelly and Luke, when I got back that I actually feel . . . fully recovered, if you know what I mean.”
Well, yeah, you look a decade younger than in Japan! Because you looked quite drawn over there . . .
“You’re not the only one to say that to me! Kelly said to me: ‘are you okay? You look sick.’ I didn’t think I felt sick and I was trying to bring energy. What I say about being a catalyst and needing to bring energy to situations . . . I felt I was doing that. But it wasn’t as natural as it normally was. Even Kelly’s mum said to her: ‘Is Joe all right?’ So you can’t control those things and can only do your best when you are in them, but I didn’t think it lowered my level of performance. I genuinely mean that I worked through the night sometimes. Because I do. But it doesn’t stop me – if you ask the boys – on the following day, I don’t think it is perceptible that there is a drop off. At some stage you have to grab a bit of sleep.”
You write after the Scotland game in Yokohama, you grabbed three hours sleep. Is that not pushing it out too much? That was a night game. You’d have been on adrenaline the entire day.
“Yeah. But then you are on adrenaline. It is tough for the players as well. The players don’t sleep. Those night games . . . I think the Six Nations is the best competition in the world. The daytime games! I can review the first half by midnight after the function. And then you can be up at six and do the second half by nine thirty. And then you are ready to go. So I do find the night time games . . . the later they are, the worse it is. That’s why I couldn’t believe when World Rugby said there was no fair and consistent way to have a contingency. Because for us it certainly wasn’t fair and consistent. For us, we were playing at 7.45 on a pitch that was unsafe [against Samoa].
“Meanwhile the All Blacks were resting up. All three of those teams - France, really: they are 19-10 up and are four metres from the Wales line. They’ve got a penalty advantage. They had already missed a few chances. They get a red card and release that pressure. One of the things I really like about Eddie [Jones, the England manager] is that there is a bit of a glint in his eye when he is winding people up. He will be pretty transparent. And [when England-France was cancelled due to the typhoon] he said: ‘I’m delighted. We are off to have a real gut-buster and then a few beers.’ I thought it was ironic when he said: ‘I should have changed the team. We had four tough games in a row.’ They’d had a weekend off in between them. So it is a pressure cooker for everybody.
“Now, the All Blacks were really good against us. And we weren’t good. And I tried to put down my thoughts as the game evolved. Now, I didn’t write those. They were reflective. But the start of the game with Jacob . . . if he gets that much of a finger to the ball, he probably parries that up to himself and you potentially go 7-0 up. And then they go 3-0 and Jacob gets the kick off and Seevu Reece tips him up and he lands on his back. Now, that’s another story. But we make inroads really well. Two kind of half breaks. And Earlsy, who is a great passer of the ball . . . Garry Ringrose is off getting 18 stitches . . . so he doesn’t give the ball to Jordan Larmour on the edge. There is a great overlap. The ball gets knocked down. And that is the lead up to their first try.”
Okay, but generally speaking on Ireland at the World Cup. I can instance any number of former players turned analysts who felt that the team maybe peaked in 2018 and that several key players – they don’t name them, mind – were on that declining arc of their absolute best. And that maybe that is what happened the team: it just wasn’t the same team?
“Yeah. I still think that we could have - the one key thing I talk about even in the book is not chasing success but building based on a really solid foundation of positive habits on the pitch. I think I went away from that a little bit. But I also mention Nassim Nicholas Taleb about that narrative fallacy of: here is the end point. And people then join up a whole lot of dots to get to that. And I am always wary of doing that myself and trying to problem solve in retrospect and say: that is why or this is why. And that’s why – sometimes people who demand big reviews of things – even if you do that review . . . I remember the review from the 2011 World Cup that I read through and the 2015 World Cup: we tried to kind of adjust things based on those. And one of the adjustments that I made was that I went after this World Cup a year out. And I now think maybe that it wasn’t the best way to do it. I do think there will be a generational change now. It happens to a degree to all teams post World Cup because the players often hang on until after the World Cup. Even last time Paul O’Connell was going to finish after the World Cup. But for those people, the World Cup is something – particularly in Ireland because it is the one thing we haven’t done.”
What about the criticism made around Russia/Samoa that Ireland should have changed and adapted after November 2018? To have introduced newer players and have players like Carbery with a more defined central role and to adjust in terms of your game plan?
“Yeah. Well, I couldn’t use Joey! Joey was injured! And there’s a key hub there. Instead of changing, after November – we had Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath playing all through that November. And they did super. We were trying to get Conor Murray back up to speed because I don’t think anyone would doubt his ability. So you are trying to get him back into rhythm. So around that pivotal 9/10 position we were trying to build there. And we did experiment with a few things during that Six Nations and there were some really good learnings.”
You didn’t have a bad feeling or a sense that the team wasn’t where you wanted it to be midway through the Six Nations?
“Yeah. But I always have that feeling. Even the year before, we played Wales in the third game and after 20 minutes we were down 13-5 or something. But I felt we were playing better than them. And when we got to 27-13 we were playing ahead of them and we let it slip by relaxing. And they got to the stage where they almost could have won the game. And we were criticised for letting Italy score three tries in the final 20 minutes. But I did feel we lost our rhythm. And there is a rhythm to the way we play. And I know a lot of people say, ‘awwh, you gotta keep growing your game.’ Well, what did South Africa do to win the World Cup? It does crack me that these guys who haven’t necessarily played recently or done a lot in the game try to say that we should offload more or do this or do that. And I am thinking that South Africa have now won three World Cups. Do you know, they didn’t score a try in the first two finals they won? They didn’t score a try until 20 minutes to go in the third World Cup final they played. And people are telling us, ‘oh you gotta grow your game.’ And I don’t disagree. But: you’ve got to grow your people.”
If a team can’t find its rhythm, something that had come naturally to them for so long, then they start forcing and becoming anxious. And then you see uncharacteristic mistakes. Is that what happened against New Zealand?
“Yeah. And when we didn’t get a good start, I think anxiety where you try to hard or just don’t want to make an error. Like one of the things I want to defend is Johnny’s kick to the corner. It was this far away from being unbelievably good. Most teams put someone there but Richie [Mo’unga] did incredibly well. At that stage the score is 10-0. Even if you get three points, even if you get five: if you get something I think the anxiety lessens. People talk about fine margins. And unfortunately they can start to stack up and they are unlikely to go your way if you are over-chasing.”
When you are the figurehead of a squad or group of 50 odd people, is there a danger that the intensity and energy you demand of yourself could potentially overwhelm or drain those around you?
“That is something I’m very conscious of. It’s something that I do mention in the book – that I give the players plenty of time and space where I am not interacting with them or I try to have conversations about other things such as interests or family. I think being self aware or self conscious of the intensity that I might have is important . . . and I mention in the book about the mix of coaching personnel we had, with some of the other staff bringing a softer or more laid back approach to the mix.”
Is there any sense now that that pressure you all felt to take Ireland to new ground in the World Cup meant that it ceased to be an enjoyable experience? Are there good moments to take from Japan despite the disappointments?
“I think we all felt that there was more pressure . . . and some of that pressure built up through us formally targeting the World Cup from too far out. We also probably over focused on the Scotland game, then slipped up the following week. There were certainly good moments, with the Japanese people being tremendous hosts. The down weekend in Fukuoka was like a release valve for me and I enjoyed the chance to come up for air and just take a bit of time to relax during parts of the day. I think the players felt the same way as well.”
Schmidt is a New Zealander, where rugby union is the abiding source of national pride and expression. Rugby commands a trickier role in Irish society in culture: thriving in pockets but virtually invisible in parts of the country and associated with private school culture. The success that Ireland enjoyed under Schmidt meant that the game commanded a heightened profile.
You coached at High School Old Boys senior team. And you write that there was a perception that they were “toffs”.
“That was already there. They were called the Toffs. Yeah, it was something that I do think other teams thought they could probably give us a good kicking and that all the fancy boys wouldn’t quite deliver if it got physical in the same way as if they got on top and they could play the game.”
So the connection emphasis on the private school system and that rugby tradition in Ireland that has been created over a century. Was that hard to get your head around?
“Not really because the big schools in New Zealand are the breeding grounds for the players as well. One of the changes that has happened is . . . there was a big furore when St Kentigern were getting in kids and giving them scholarships and the other Auckland schools refused to play them. There is a real competition for really good players. It is a little bit similar here. They get kids in their first year because they see a potential in them as a rugby player. I do think it is starting to change a little bit here. Where players are coming from now is definitely a little bit different.”
It was something that came up in peripheral conversation during the World Cup. Once Ireland didn’t reach this mythical semi-final, people started to look for reasons and what is wrong with the system. One theory is that the private school base is just too narrow and the IRFU and Irish rugby needs to spread its tentacles and get into the heartland.
“Awh, you know that is the ideal. That is what New Zealand has. A similar sized population as southern Ireland. We have the north to add on here. So we have a bigger population but a smaller rugby playing population. But I do think one of the key differences in New Zealand is the intuitive player – the kid who starts at four years old and plays all the way through. Whereas some of our players, when they come into a secondary school start getting serious, or even start playing at 13. That opportunity to get a sense of how the game is played, confidence in the tackle . . . look, I think the Irish system is unbelievably good. There is no way we could compete as we do without it. I think you have got to maintain the system – the schools, the academies and the provinces but you’ve gotta get more breadth – without breaking what you’ve got.
“Because one of the things when I first came here was I couldn’t believe there was just a schools’ cup competition. My son had three years of Senior Cup for Terenure. The first year they got beaten in the semi-final. The second year they got beaten in the quarter-final. And he was just a little transition year kid and played scrumhalf. I was delighted for him. But the next year they had quite a good team and they got beaten down country by . . . Roscrea. And the very next week I went down and took a training session for Roscrea. What a beautiful school. And Blackrock incredibly scored two late tries to beat them. But they trained the whole season to play two or three games. And then it is gone! That doesn’t make sense to me.
“If they had a really good league and they had a cup . . . the big guns don’t go into the league. Even look at the GAA - the league wasn’t the big thing for Dublin. I think they lost a couple of games in the league? It is all about the Sam Maguire and they timed their run and used the league. That was one of the mistakes I think we made about the World Cup this year – I went away from what I have always done and sort of felt that we had won three of the last five Six Nations and that we didn’t need another one of those. We had beaten everyone. The only thing we hadn’t done was the World Cup . . . lets aim for this. But then . . . I think we eroded a bit of our confidence. We lost a bit of our rhythm. And if I had my time over. I wouldn’t do it like that. But that is one of my frustrations. I am no longer involved but I think it is a learning for us. There are some teams that might work well for but I think for us, that continuity and confidence was really important.”
Did you have much of a chance to go into the Irish rugby peripheral counties where rugby is kind of a cult pursuit? Is there a way of making the game more of a national sport?
“Well, I think that is changing. I do. This is 10 years so it has been quite an incredible 10 years for provincial performance. And as I say in the book, one of my massive frustrations is that I think the identity and sense of belonging that the Irish provinces have is really strong. One of the guys who wrote about it was an ex-international who I had coached and he said, you know, we aren’t going to be at the top table. Teams are struggling to get out of their pool. Now he is very Leinster focused and it was the year that they won only one game. But that was tough for Leo [Cullen] because he hadn’t the breadth of coaching experience to be in that environment so quickly . . . it wasn’t his fault, it happened because Matt O’Connor wasn’t able to see out his contract. Leo got left with that.
“But Leinster are right back at the top table. They won it two years ago, finalists last year against a team now in disarray. And Munster in the semis . . . I felt sorry for them in the semis against the same team. Ulster’s win in Bath . . . that’s incredible. So because there is an interest I think people have to seek it out less and less. I have been down at quite a few clubs on Saturday mornings and there are hundreds of kids out there. And I am down at Kilmacud Crokes on Saturdays and the little kids are doing their hurling. But when I’m chatting to them, a heap are doing rugby as well. And I think that is brilliant. I know when my kids were young they played football and hurling. And honestly, they all know about the rugby. There was an IRFU staff member down there, two Leinster staff members, guys involved in coaching rugby whose kids play GAA. I don’t think they have to be mutually exclusive. The guys like Robbie Henshaw, Tadhg Furlong, Rob Kearney, Shane Horgan. there have been a number of guys who have made that crossover.”
Our time’s almost up! Just to finish: you write about reading a lot of Irish history. You had Diarmuid Ferriter in to give a talk and he referenced a question that an old history lecturer had once asked a class he was in and he’s still trying to answer. What is an Irishman? So what is your sense of that question after your time here? What is an Irishman?
“Mmm, if he is still trying to answer that, then I’m sure I’m not qualified to define an Irishman. But for the players, their work ethic and their selflessness and resilience would have to be part of any definition in our particular environment. I think . . . resilience is key to the Irish. It was a massive privilege to work with such good people for 10 years. Their willingness to contribute to the team . . . I think an Irishman is someone who has a resolve, a resilience that allows them to get to where they need to be. And that is what they did so often and that is why it is disappointing to finish like that. Because so often they broke new ground in South Africa or Chicago or back here – 20 tries in a Grand Slam is massive. To score them against the big teams – five against Wales, three against England, and the drop goal against France. How resilient was that?”
And what is your sense of Ireland as a country and a community having lived and worked here? Have you sensed Ireland changing over that period?
From what I’ve seen over the past 10 years, Ireland is more optimistic and confident – at least from a sporting perspective. The belief that we can compete with the best and when we get things right, beat them, has been visible across a few sports. And probably in business as well. Because I arrived just after the Celtic Tiger when things were pretty tough for people? The support we have had has been incredible and it’s something that we’re genuinely thankful for. Even after feeling that I had let people down after our loss to the All Blacks, people have been positive over the past four weeks . . . which has been really humbling.”
Ordinary Joe by Joe Schmidt is published by Penguin Ireland at €25.00. Joe will be in conversation in Dublin, Limerick and Belfast and tickets for the events are available here https://www.penguin.co.uk/events/