Tipping Point: Maybe Joe Schmidt is on the verge of being burnt out
This Six Nations has seen an Ireland side so unlike the ones that have gone before
Joe Schmidt: Everyone you talk to about him calls him variations on the same thing – a rugby nerd, an obsessive, someone who lives the game to an extreme degree. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
At an event ahead of the France game, Brian O’Driscoll settled in for a story.
A question had been lobbed up from the crowd mostly in mischief, asking him to pick between Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt. O’Driscoll smiled, as if to ask the messer in the crowd if he thought he was the first one to try and lasso him in like that.
But after a couple of lines about how he’d always owe Gatland, who had given him his first cap and so on, he just said simply and firmly: “Joe Schmidt is the best coach I ever had. And by quite a distance”.
By way of colouring in his contention, he went back to the early days of Matt O’Connor’s time in charge of Leinster in 2013. Schmidt had moved on to take over the national team and O’Driscoll was in O’Connor’s office on a Monday in early September, ostensibly shooting the breeze with his new coach but in his head doing something more than that.
“I was trying to impress him, basically. Australia had played South Africa on the Saturday and I started talking about a switch move the Aussies had made down the left at one stage and how it was really clever what they were doing.
“And he went, ‘Aw mate, I didn’t see the game’. If that was Joe, I wouldn’t have got two sentences in – he saw every game and he knew every move. He would have known exactly what I was talking about as soon as I opened my mouth.”
Ask around and talk around and there are any number of these stories about Schmidt. Mostly, the public know him as Late Late Show Joe – affable, humble, gee-shucks Joe. Inevitably and necessarily, his rugby persona has a much sharper edge. He’s merciless Monday review Joe, sky-high standards Joe, exacting Joe. Most of all and first of all, he’s no-stone-unturned Joe, see-around-corners Joe.
All of which makes the past six weeks as confounding as they were depressing. At times, especially early in the games against England and Wales, Ireland have looked the one thing you couldn’t fathom in a Schmidt team – they’ve looked unprepared.
In both games, they gave up tries inside the first couple of minutes. Previously, they had gone every one of the 25 Six Nations matches under Schmidt without conceding a try in the opening five minutes; now they’ve done it twice in five games. To lose one parent, etc.
Now. Before we naval-gaze too much, it’s worth pointing out that in professional sport the other crowd get paid to come to work too. We forget that sometimes. In poring over the results of Saturday’s MRI, the natural urge must of course be to zero in on everything that is sick and wrong with the Ireland rugby team. But since mistakes seem to be the order of the day, it might be wise not to make another one straight away and presume that this is solely a matter of how badly Schmidt’s side are doing.
Wales have won the Grand Slam, they’ve laced together 14 wins in a row, they’re heading to the World Cup with an eminently winnable pool and a quarter-final most likely against Argentina or France.
By the end of the year, buckling to them in a feral Principality Stadium back in March might not look like quite the stain on this Ireland team’s soul it does this morning.
But still. The very fact that this past month and a half has been so unlike the Ireland from the rest of the Schmidt reign is interesting. Maybe it’s a coincidence that it’s his final Six Nations and maybe it’s not. The question is worth asking, all the same.
Ireland have lost matches under him before, just not like this – outwitted, undisciplined, beaten to the tactical punch. They’ve gone through shaky patches before, just not for this long – across five matches, they were in what you might recognise as top gear for one half against France and not a whole lot more.
O’Driscoll describes Schmidt’s approach as trying to win 80 one-minute games rather than one 80-minute game. How many of those have Ireland so much as broken even in since the start of February. Sixty per cent? Fifty? Fewer? Whatever the number, it’s reasonable to ask what has changed.
The idea that Schmidt’s imminent departure has given him a certain lame-duck quality with the players doesn’t really hold water. As plenty have pointed out, it hasn’t done Gatland any harm with the Wales players. More to the point, in a World Cup year, there’s no reason Irish players hoping to make the plane would consider phoning it in under an outgoing coach. It doesn’t make a lick of sense.
There’s another side of that coin that is worth exploring, though. Schmidt is moving on not because he has another job lined up and not because he has, in the parlance, brought the Ireland team as far as he can. He’s going because he needs a break from it.
He’s moving on because he feels he owes his attention to other parts of his life and to his family. By his own admission, he’s planning to be out of coaching for at least a year once the World Cup is over.
“And I’d say quite likely longer than that,” he said at the Six Nations launch.
So who knows? Maybe he’s on the verge of being burnt out. Everyone you talk to about him calls him variations on the same thing – a rugby nerd, an obsessive, someone who lives the game to an extreme degree. It’s no slight on Schmidt to wonder how long – and to what degree – anyone can keep that up for. Especially when the end is hoving into view.
Ever since he landed here to take over from Michael Chieka at Leinster, Schmidt has earned himself a rarefied spot in the Irish sports psyche. His record has been unimpeachable, his effect on the players and coaches who have worked under him has been borderline life-changing. For O’Driscoll to get 11 years into one of the great careers in sport before meeting the best coach he’d ever know tells you everything.
Is he still that coach? That’s the question that will presumably needle him for the coming months. It goes without saying that Schmidt has earned every inch of the benefit of the doubt. At the same time nobody, no matter what they’ve achieved, reserves the right not to be doubted at all.
He has six months to turn it around. Then six weeks, all going well, before he can get on with the rest of his life.
Tick, tick, tick.