Ireland job is a bit of a risk for Joe Schmidt – the key will be how he adapts to the step up
He could have walked away from Leinster with a glowing CV but instead he’s taking over a team in the doldrums
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt with Eoin Reddan during squad training at Carton House this week. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Whatever happens during Joe Schmidt’s reign as Ireland coach, the one thing you will be unlikely to hear is somebody saying they were against it from the start. If it ends up going badly, there will be no one who can say, “I told you so”. Not only was Schmidt the most popular man for the job, he was being touted for it as far back as maybe a year or more before he actually got it.
This will buy him a bit of time in the beginning. Ireland have been mainly a source of frustration since 2009 and the team’slack of consistency made a lot of people lose patience with them near the end of Declan Kidney’s time.
Because so many people pointed to Schmidt as the right man for the job, the reality is that in the short term anyway he won’t be blamed if that inconsistency continues.
If we’re totally honest about it, Schmidt will need that time. He is stepping into a new world. The habits he had as a provincial coach might not be any good to him in the national set-up. There’s no guarantee, for example, that the relationships he has built up in his time with Leinster are going to be an advantage. You never know – they might become a stick to beat him with.
His main task in the beginning will be to find a way to gel the team together. When Declan Kidney made the same step up from province to national coach in 2008, that was his first job as well. We all sat down as a group after the November internationals that year and raised issues like whether or not we all had the same purpose or the same goal. It’s well known the Munster/Leinster thing got an airing and had to be worked out.
Philosophies and motivations
Schmidt knows the Leinster players but he doesn’t know the individuals from the other provinces as well. He would have begun that process a few months ago and he would have sat down with a good few of them along the way over the summer. He has to get to know what their philosophies are, what their motivations are, what their beliefs are when it comes to where the team should go.
When you don’t know people, you need to build an understanding. I’m not saying that he sits down individually with every player and asks politely how they’d like to play and train. He’s the boss, he’s the one that will ultimately tell them what’s what. But he has to start by getting a feel for who they are.
How do they operate? How do they react to criticism? How do they react to praise? Schmidt already knows all this when it comes to the Leinster players in the squad but he is feeling his way with the rest of them. It was the same with Kidney when he made the step up.
Players are always sizing up a new coach. Non-Munster guys would have done it with Kidney in the early days, just as the non-Leinster guys will be doing it now. That’s why he has to be careful that he doesn’t appear to be too close to the players he already knows.
If there’s a selection issue between two guys and he falls down on the side of the Leinster player, he needs to have gained everybody’s trust by the time he makes that call. He can’t have a situation where players from other provinces feel they have to outperform a Leinster player by a distance to get the nod. It’s all a process of gelling a team together.
Joe is an intelligent man. He will have his own way of doing this. He knows you can’t be going in there being over-friendly or false with guys he doesn’t know. It’s about treating everyone the same and convincing everyone that decisions will be made on their own merits. That’s something that has to be done at the start because it sets the tone for the rest of his time in charge.
Time is limited
That’s the foundation. It’s crucial to have it from the beginning because it feeds into the main difference between being a provincial coach and being a national coach and that’s time. Your time with the players is so limited compared to what you’re used to and you can’t be wasting it on trying to get everyone to pull in the same direction. Do it at the start, get it sorted straight away.
Because international rugby is just ruthless. We know from what the Leinster players have said about him that Schmidt is ruthless underneath the nice guy image that we all see.That will stand to him. He won’t have time to work individually on every little problem a player has.
Those sessions you were able to spend refining a certain skill or a certain idea are taken up now with very defined game plans. With so few games, there’s no shrugging your shoulders and saying we’ll do better next week. It’s not like the Rabo or even the Heineken Cup where you can often get straight back on the horse and go again.
Lose a couple of internationals in a row and everything is heightened. The press is harsher, the public’s faith starts to slide, the whole atmosphere around the squad becomes far more intense than it ever is with a provincial side. Players, coaches, staff – they feel the clock ticking on everything they do.
The other side of it is that you do have more time to plan and prepare. A provincial coach can find himself getting bogged down looking after every little detail in the organisation. International rugby is about short bursts of intense pressure in between long periods of trying to get ready for them. It takes a bit of getting used to.
That’s why it’s the pinnacle. I had a good chat with Clive Woodward last year about it. There are merits to having a secure job with a club or a province where you have more control and you’re in a cosier environment to some extent. The pressure is still huge if you’re not performing but you’re more hands-on when it comes to recruitment and making guys better day after day. You have a level of control that just doesn’t exist at international level.
But Woodward’s big thing was that international rugby just stands head and shoulders above all of that. All the little things that frustrate you are part of the challenge and if you’re not in it for the challenge then what’s the point? All top-rank sportspeople are mad for the next challenge. That’s what drives them.
This won’t be a walk in the park for Joe Schmidt. When you look at it, this is a bit of a risk for him. He could have finished up with Leinster and gone back to the Southern Hemisphere with a glowing CV.
Instead he’s taking on an international team that is in the doldrums, one that has a few senior players coming near the end of their career and some younger ones whose development has stalled a bit after a very good start.
From where the team finished last season, you’d imagine things can only get better. There is huge scope for improvement both individually among the players and in the squad as a whole. But there are no guarantees.
At international level, you have to adapt your ideas and the methods that have served you well so far. You sometimes have to adapt your personality too. Whereas before part of his job would have been to bring along some younger guys and improve the skills of players who weren’t quite at the top level, now he’s dealing with elite players.
The way you talk to those two groups of people is slightly different. He will probably have to be a bit more strict, just to make sure everybody knows what’s expected of them. The coach can’t take responsibility for the drive and determination of the players – that’s up to them. But he can make it clear what standards he wants kept and encourage the required leadership out of the players.
The job is still about getting the best out of players. It’s still about making a team gel together, keeping them motivated and creating a spirit. Time is shorter and pressure is higher and it’s up to the man himself to adapt. It’s an exciting time for Joe Schmidt. I wish him all the best.