Joe Schmidt: Rory Best nearly quit before 2018 Grand Slam

In his autobiography Ordinary Joe, the coach says he faced several ‘uncontrollables’

Ireland celebrate winning the Grand Slam following their Six Nations Championship final victory over England at Twickenham on March 17th, 2018. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Ireland celebrate winning the Grand Slam following their Six Nations Championship final victory over England at Twickenham on March 17th, 2018. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

From the outset of his “Slam diary”, Schmidt confirms that the Grand Slam was indeed their goal. However, the build-up to Ireland’s opening game of the Six Nations had been affected by the trial of Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding in Belfast, which started that week, and not only does he admit that such was the furore around his appearance at the trial that Rory Best not only wanted to stand down from the captaincy, but considered retiring altogether as well.

Rory even thought about walking away from the game completely, such was the fallout for his family 

Best and Iain Henderson had attended the trial on the Wednesday, the players’ down day, and Schmidt confirms: “None of the management were aware that the two players were going to attend, and the outrage that followed was difficult for everyone in the group.

“It was uncomfortable for all of us,” Schmidt adds, “but it particularly magnified the stress that Rory was under, and he considered relinquishing the captaincy.”

That much had already become known, but Schmidt also reveals: “He even thought about walking away from the game completely, such was the fallout for his family and those around him.”

In the throes of reliving Johnny Sexton’s match-winning drop goal against France, Schmidt makes no attempt to conceal his frustrations with the performance of Nigel Owens, or his mirth over Matt Williams’s description of the drop goal in the TV3 studios when also noting fellow panellist Ronan O’Gara might have been better equipped to do so.

“Punditry sometimes seems to be more art than science,” Schmidt concludes.

Destabilising events

Along the way there were plenty of other destabilising events to Ireland’s 2018 Six Nations, such as the midfield curse which struck down Robbie Henshaw and Chris Farrell in turn, and even the previously indestructible Bundee Aki in the second half at Twickenham. There was also the passing of Ultan Dillane’s mother, Ellen, on the week of the Italian game, with Schmidt skipping the Friday captain’s run along with manager Paul Dean to attend her funeral in Tralee.

In addition to the media and prolonged bus journeys to training or match venues, other dastardly “uncontrollables” in Schmidt’s world are, of course, referees and the weather. The two combined to amusing effect for the Grand Slam finale against England at Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day.

Having been informed the day beforehand by the RFU that – “bizarrely” – the in-goal area had been extended by two metres, come the Baltic conditions on match day, they were told that the pitch lines would be painted blue in case of further snow. En route to the ground, they were then informed that there would be white dashes on those blue lines as the referee Angus Gardner was blue/green colour blind.

Jacob Stockdale scores Ireland’s third try against England at Twickenham on March 17th, 2018. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Jacob Stockdale scores Ireland’s third try against England at Twickenham on March 17th, 2018. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Schmidt noted that it would not have been a touchdown had the in-goal area not been extended

Schmidt showed this texted update from their media liaison to the other coaches.

“We chuckled nervously and shrugged, knowing that there would probably be a few more surprises over the next four or five hours.”

One ventures Schmidt was not, actually, that amused.

Albeit after revealing that Simon Easterby’s three pages of lineout calls were scattered by the wind from their coaches’ area in the stands, with the English coaches nearby and only two of the sheets recovered, Schmidt admits that otherwise things fell Ireland’s way – in the first half especially.

No credit

Typically, Schmidt takes no credit for the set-piece try fashioned by Tadhg Furlong’s deft pirouette and offload to Aki, and the latter’s break and pass for CJ Stander’s finish. The half concluded with Jacob Stockdale’s kick and chase try with Schmidt noting that it would not have been a touchdown had the in-goal area not been extended. He enjoyed that observation. You know he did.

The celebrations continued in the squad’s Richmond hotel, and then a rendition of The Fields of Athenry at Heathrow

His description of the second-half reminds us that Ireland played out the last quarter with Joey Carbery at outhalf, a midfield partnership of Garry Ringrose and Jordan Larmour, and Kieran Marmion on the wing.

“Wow, it felt special. Really special for all sorts of reasons,” writes Schmidt, recalling the Houdini act of escapology in Paris, and how they’d targeted a cherished Grand Slam.

A delayed flight meant the celebrations continued in the squad’s Richmond hotel, and then a rendition of The Fields of Athenry in the Aer Lingus lounge at Heathrow, led by a shaven Andy Farrell.

“A moment to savour,” says Schmidt, and with that he closes that chapter and moves on to his 2019 World Cup diary, which actually starts a year before the Grand Slam.

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