The Joe Schmidt era: Burnout the inevitable result of a regime based upon excessive control

Subscriber OnlyRugby

Unexplained conservative strategy will forever taint the most important Schmidt season

To the bitter and largely unexplained end, Joe Schmidt remained the same. It was all about control. Control of the young players who, like life in a 1960s rural boarding school, feared chance meetings with the deputy principal in hotel corridors.

Control of an outdated masterplan. Control of the media. Working every day for six and half years to remain in control of everything.

In Fukuoka before the Samoa game, Jordan Larmour was cornered for an unnecessary pep talk seconds before standing with four reporters who had championed him since first catching sight of his dazzling ability as a teenager. Even Schmidt was sheepish on realisation we’d witnessed him in action. The curtain was ever so slightly drawn back. Media prep. Game prep. Unending prep. Unsustainable, suffocating prep.

Six and a half years is a very long time to exist in the strictest possible environment. Imagine the mental release knowing it would soon be over?

Turns out the inevitable fate for Ireland in 2019 was burnout. Spectacular mental and physical burn out.

As the World Cup in Japan got serious, the contrast between Schmidt and Eddie Jones was stark.

“Any 23 can play very well against the All Blacks and not get the result,” said Schmidt before New Zealand thrashed Ireland 46-14.. “It’s hard to get a feel for quite how we’re going. We’ll do a captain’s run tomorrow and then hopefully that will be the springboard.”

It sounded like he knew what was about to happen. Since February 2nd, if you listen carefully, it sounded like he knew.

“We don’t have any pressure mate,” zipped Jones, with that crinkly-eyed grin, before England overwhelmed the All Blacks.

“Put up your hand if you think we can win. There you go. No one thinks we can win. We’ll enjoy this great opportunity.”

Sit with Andy Farrell for six and a half minutes and it is apparent he won’t follow Schmidt’s highly constrictive way of running the Irish team. You can’t but wonder what Farrell thought of all the needless mind games, like injured players togging for cameras (then putting their tracksuit and runners back on) even though the opposition already knew Keith Earls and Rob Kearney were not in the team to face Scotland.

Needless charade

Pitch-side journalists were encouraged to report both men trained the Tuesday before the World Cup opener. A pit stop at the Scottish camp had Stuart Hogg telling us Andrew Conway and Larmour would be starting.

Charade after needless charade followed that afternoon in Yokohama as the rugby correspondents agreed not to break the team so it could be published in Friday print editions. We knew seven of eight players sitting for interviews wouldn’t be in the XV.

Andy Farrell was up. We asked him about players we knew he knew were not playing. "Yep, they are fit and in line for selection." Joey Carbery and Earls sat before us despite being injured and unavailable.

The media messaging after defeat to Japan was cringe-inducing layers of positivity.

The die was cast after the 57-15 Twickenham humiliation in August with Schmidt’s major selection decision, to cut Devin Toner for Munster enforcer Jean Kleyn, leading to the South African registering 83 mostly anonymous minutes against Russia and Samoa. The vague explanation for Toner’s exclusion was a prime example of Schmidt refusing to provide clear rationale during his ignominious, long goodbye as Ireland head coach.

“We are never really sure who is playing and for what reason, or whether the information we are being told is accurate,” wrote Gordon D’Arcy.

“Players are sitting in front of microphones saying they are fully fit to play and togging for the cameras at training when they know full well they are injured. The opposition are not being fooled. Nobody is.”

Killing time and fiercely protecting irrelevant information were constant tactics of the Schmidt era. Nobody complained when Ireland were winning but deception became his obsession and possible undoing. It was certainly draining to witness. And that’s just media interactions.

A senior figure in a successful Irish province has spoken about players returning “mentally fried” from national camp in Carton House. And that’s in the best of times. Imagine how damaging it was for morale when all the progressive attacking strategies of 2018 were shelved come January 2019?

Interestingly, Stuart Lancaster and Mike Catt previously worked together on the England attack (2012-15). That suggests the Leinster and Ireland backlines will be somewhat aligned come the 2020 Six Nations.

Isa Nacewa, the ultimate Schmidt disciple, informed Sky Sports that his former coach permitted “a little bit of that Leinster flair to infiltrate the Ireland camp” following European Cup success under Lancaster.

Conservative approach

“In 2018 there was no fear,” said Nacewa. “Joe started to go away from his tried and trusted drills and introduced a bit of what we call unstructured play in Ireland camp. That got them all the way to the top of the world with all the trophies.

“Post that, I hear they actually went away from that and started to take it back out and went back to the conservative approach and that’s just shone through the whole World Cup and 2019.”

Nacewa echoes criticism of Eddie O’Sullivan in 2007: “He went back to the tried and trusted of what worked for the last six years.”

Maybe the Ireland head coach should be a job and not a “way of life” as Schmidt described it. Maybe some form of life work balance is essential at the elite end of any profession.

Schmidt might learn this for his next coaching role, especially after 12 months when Jones, Steve Hansen, Rassie Erasmus and Warren Gatland passed him out in both tactical and organisational stakes.

Each rival coach saw the wood for the trees. They tinkered, while Ireland – as Nacewa has revealed – reverted to outdated methods that were repeatedly exposed.

Embracing a conservative strategy is an unexplained decision that forever taints the most important Schmidt season.

Irish rugby’s greatest ever year was 2018. The next leap demanded a cross pollination of the best work being done by four progressive provincial coaching minds – as IRFU king maker David Nucifora always intended, right? But what actually happened showed a lack of faith in the individual player skill sets.

The very work Schmidt demanded of his players on day one at Leinster in the summer of 2010.

It is fallacy to state basic skills are not rooted in the current generation. In March 2009 Jordi Murphy led a ball-playing Blackrock team to the Leinster Schools Cup with offloading prop Denis Buckley and a gifted fullback named Andrew Conway following Murphy into the professional ranks.

The ensuing decade saw a stream of highly talented players contracted from a small number of elite schools. The system has proved strong enough to deliver Ireland to the top of world rugby so long as the odd Tadhg Furlong and Sean O'Brien are unearthed from the GAA landscape.

In Wales and New Zealand the sport is a national pastime. These rugby nations thumped Schmidt’s team in Cardiff and Tokyo but it was England’s destruction of Ireland last February that signalled the start of a stunning decline. The group and coach never recovered.

Reality check

“Yeah, it is a reality check,” Schmidt admitted. “That’s how it is going to be at the World Cup.”

“You are talking about human beings here,” he stressed in February and again in October. “We got beaten up.”

The Six Nations proved a prelude to the record defeat at Twickenham, the suffocating and clueless Shizuoka failure, all before total humiliation in Tokyo.

Each loss was emphatic and should bring the entire Irish system into question from high performance director David Nucifora right down to grassroots. Specifically, where these grassroots should exist.

Shane Horgan was the first ex-player to sense a deeper malaise following a nervy 26-16 victory over Italy in Rome on February 24th.

“It has a similar feeling to what I experienced at the 2007 World Cup. Things were going brilliantly in the Six Nations before that World Cup. Everything seemed to be fine but then a couple of things went wrong and we just couldn’t get it right. I’m not saying this group of players are in the same situation but there is a sense of that.”

Virgin Media switched back to Stadio Olimpico where Ireland captain Peter O’Mahony opined that Conor O’Shea “is doing an incredible job” and that Italy “are a super rugby team”.

Horgan: “It’s the worst Italian team I’ve seen in ages.”

Nobody panic, Schmidt will have answers: “I can’t put my finger on it at the moment.”

Another 2007 survivor, Rory Best, protested in Hamamatsu on October 4th that this was nothing like previous collapses at World Cup.

“This is a completely different group of players, a completely different management, and I see absolutely no similarities to 2007, if ultimately that’s what you’re asking me.”

Nobody had mentioned Bordeaux. A fortnight later Schmidt was blaming Samoan physicality as a primary reason why Ireland couldn’t cope with “rested” All Blacks.

An obvious Schmidt flaw was his refusal to offer a mea culpa. Laughably, in 2017, he blamed the Edinburgh motorcycle police for defeat at Murrayfield as the team bus was late to the ground.

Clever excuse

There was always a clever excuse. Schmidt’s last Six Nations match in charge will go down as the worst. There was a “bug” in camp all week.

“Keep the faith,” was his direct plea to supporters on St Patrick’s weekend before largely disappearing from public view until August.

He never allowed a pause to examine root causes. Time was always against him under microphones. He filibusters better than a veteran US senator.

His unique levels of control within Irish rugby were initially a groundbreaking boon. It brought clarity across the board, but the problem with one person having that much influence over so many areas, including player contracts, is it proved too late to change tack when storm clouds appeared on the horizon.

The general defence of Schmidt by the loudest heads on social media is understandable – ‘Joe delivered so many wonderful days leave him be’ – but that means no solutions to lingering problems, and that means trusting those in charge for a very very long time to avoid making the same mistakes come France 2023.

That the most pointed criticisms were similar, coming from Brian O’Driscoll’s opinion and Nacewa’s connection with the most senior of Irish players, does not sound like coincidence.

Maybe if other Schmidt followers, besides Horgan, spoke up sooner positive change could have intervened. The same lament was heard in 2007 and 2011 when leaders were too subservient to challenge the coaches’ authority despite glaring weaknesses.

The attempt at problem-solving, at all the World Cups, has been to work harder and stick to established personnel. The French in 2011 and English in 2007 – both losing finalists – will never die wondering.

Perhaps Irish rugby men are too well educated for their own good. Perhaps that is the lesson after four failed World Cup campaigns when Ireland were positioned as contenders (by themselves).

It is understandable why there was no player revolt or turncoats besides the odd crass joke by Simon Zebo on Twitter: Schmidt made them better players and in many cases better people.

He shall remain a valued figure in Irish life. The corporate tentacles must be all around him as the 54-year-old is as effective a public speaker, hilarious and insightful, as he is a coach.

I tend to be a little bit of a workaholic

But by early 2019 the magic and mystic were gone. He admitted to being “broken” by England’s power game. He admitted to leaving the job not for pastures new but because he needed a break. He admitted to being a workaholic.

“Did they [the players] become too close?” D’Arcy wonders aloud. “Can there be free commentary between peers if the working relationship is blurred by friendship?”

The arrival of partners in Fukuoka before the Samoa game certainly appeared to improve the mood. But change came far too late. The Schmidt plan to rest key figures after beating Scotland and Japan (sic) was in tatters.

Did a lack of healthy debate between Schmidt and the players fester beneath the surface?

“I tend to be a little bit of a workaholic,” Schmidt said in November 2018 “so that’s probably a character flaw. If you probably talk to some of the people on the staff, it’s one of many I have. Hopefully they don’t disclose all the other ones.”

Leading characters will monetise Ireland’s disastrous World Cup campaign. Just like the 2007 generation, autobiographies are inevitable. It would be a surprise if Schmidt and Best did not publish memoirs. Kearney’s would be a riveting read. A deal for Sexton Volume II has been agreed at least in principle.

For now Schmidt and others refuse to elaborate. He doesn’t regret the rejection of Lancaster’s ‘comfort in chaos’ methodology, but more doublespeak in the airport arrivals area delivered a new revelation about his primary regret in 2019. Seemingly, a change of course during the Six Nations disrupted the “positive rhythm” and “week to week focus.”

Away he went with no explanation, which is typical, but these words must be clarified – who did what and why to accelerate the downward spiral? – because if they aren’t the “malaise,” as Schmidt called it, will follow Andy Farrell’s coaching ticket into 2020 and beyond.

Like 2011, in the wake of another Grand Slam, this squad was being framed as a golden generation. Success had been unprecedented. ‘Everyone In’ went the slogan ad nauseam. Far too many people were blindly committed.

Injuries, yet again, were a major factor in failure.

"It's a massive toll," head of fitness Jason Cowman warned a year out. "Out of respect for the effort, let's manage our expectations around how often we expect them to do it."

Psychological wall

All the promises of strength in depth proved false. A ravaged Wales reached a semi-final. Both finalists appear largely immune to injury. The hope is that James Ryan’s peer group will not be tainted by the psychological wall of quarter-finals.

Enda McNulty is the Irish team’s “mental conditioning” expert. McNulty knows all about breaking down seemingly insurmountable barriers, having been part of the first and only Armagh side to capture Sam Maguire in 2002, but he cannot be put in the category of Gilbert Enoka, who is credited with helping to cure New Zealand’s World Cup mind block from 1987 until 2011.

Kieran Shannon, the writer and sports psychologist, even adopted a harsh view in The Irish Examiner: “Enda McNulty has contributed handsomely to Irish rugby over the last decade, both with his work with multiple European-winning Leinster sides and then with the national set-up which he joined in 2013, but there’s always the danger in that kind of role that the players have heard and absorbed all you’ve got to say and offer. Sometimes stability can lead to stagnation.”

The key question – what stagnated Schmidt’s final year? – remains unanswered.

When it is whittled down, Ireland’s World Cup campaign was ruined at The Ecopa Stadium on a stiflingly hot night when the players looked like “carthorses” in desperate need of shade as a surging but very beatable Japan set the tournament aflame.

There remains some never-to-be-forgotten days, despite each heroic victory being avenged, but Ireland, in the aftermath of Joe Schmidt, stand in the same place as before.

Loyal to a fault, O’Mahony disagrees: “Not only has he changed the direction of my career and this team’s career, but he’s changed probably the careers of the guys who are in primary and secondary school at the moment, so he’s done incredible work.”

For what Andy Farrell might lack in comparison to Schmidt’s brilliant, all consuming Kiwi rugby brain he’ll make up for with plain-speaking northern England working class values.

That is needed now.

Ireland’s Quarter-Final tale of woe

1987: Australia 33-15 Ireland
Concord Oval, Sydney
Despite coach Mick Doyle suffering a heart attack and losing the Pool game to Wales, Ireland reached the last eight where they were dumped out by the Wallabies.

1991: Australia 19-18 Ireland
Lansdowne Road, Dublin
Gordon Hamilton's dramatic finish puts Ireland ahead of the Wallabies in the 75th minute, leading a quarter-final for the only time at World Cups, with Ralph Keyes curling conversion making it 18-15. Pure delirium lasted three minutes until Michael Lynagh's dramatic late try.

1995: France 36-12 Ireland
King's Park, Durban
Jonah Lomu used the Ireland game to introduce himself to the world but wins over Japan and Wales led to a last eight encounter against a vastly superior French outfit.

1999: DNQ

2003: France 43-21 Ireland
Docklands Stadium, Melbourne
Inside three minutes the Irish defence was ruptured by Oliver Magne. It was 24-0 inside 34 minutes. A valiant Brian O'Driscoll-inspired fight back is a footnote. Same as the narrow Pool loss to Australia.

2007: DNQ

2011: Wales 22-10 Ireland
Regional Stadium, Wellington
The worst of all considering Ireland announced themselves as tournament contenders when pulverising Australia at Eden Park, only for Warren Gatland's Wales to wipe them out both physically and tactically.

2015: Argentina 43-20 Ireland
Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Unable to recover from an unbelievably confrontational victory over France, the leaderless Irish – with O'Connell, Sexton, O'Mahony, O'Brien and Jared Payne gone – were destroyed by an average Pumas side.

2019: New Zealand 46-14 Ireland
Tokyo Stadium, Chofu
Defeat to Japan in Shizuoka meant Ireland would face the world champions in Tokyo. The All Blacks led 22-0 at half-time.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent