Reflecting on the Joe Schmidt era

The Ireland coach will leave a glorious legacy

Joe Schmidt recently announced that he would be retiring from coaching after the upcoming Rugby World Cup in Japan, in order to focus on his family life. The New Zealand-born coach has, recent results aside, had an incredible time as the Irish head coach and has created a hugely positive, lasting impression on both Irish rugby and the Irish people, increasing his prestige ever further.

Following the announcement in April 2013 that he would be leaving his position at Leinster to take control of the national team, Schmidt has put his stamp on the side and has enjoyed immense success. Under his tenure, Ireland have won the Six Nations Championship three times, including a memorable Grand Slam in 2018, which was sealed on a blustery St. Patrick’s Day in Twickenham against the old enemy, England. Ireland then went on to beat Australia 2-1 in a test series, the first time Ireland had done so since 1979. Combine this with two victories against the All Blacks and a World Rugby Coach of the Year award, and it’s clear that Schmidt has brought Ireland to dizzying heights under his reign. He will, of course, be hoping that he can leave off the back of a successful World Cup campaign where his second-ranked side will be hoping to make a serious bid for the title.

What then will be Schmidt’s legacy? Not only has he led Ireland to numerous honours, he has also fundamentally altered the way in which this Irish side sees itself, and in turn how the fans and the rest of the world see it. Ireland’s performance in this year’s Six Nations has, in this context, been an anomaly, and this perhaps is actually testament to what Schmidt has done. Ireland have finished the Championship having won the same number of games as England; England’s performance receiving praise from all sides while Ireland’s performance is seen as a huge disappointment, with questions being raised about their World Cup credentials. Under Schmidt’s reign Ireland have gone from being plucky underdogs for whom a Six Nations win was a huge triumph to a side which is self-assured and ambitious, for whom victory has almost become the norm. A team which sees itself on level footing with the likes of New Zealand, England, and Australia.

“Overnight, Schmidt went from honorary Irishman to the most popular and revered man on the island.”

The two greatest moments of Schmidt’s tenure have been the 2018 Grand Slam and that famous victory against the All Blacks in the Autumn Internationals. The latter was the first such victory on Irish soil and was emphatic in the sense that it was such a dominant performance. Ireland had beaten New Zealand under Schmidt before, in an epic game which saw the underdogs grind out a victory in the most dramatic fashion in Chicago. This, however, was different. Ireland looked assured and confident, they defended supremely and capitalised upon every opportunity given to them and never looked like giving up the victory. Not only was it a tactical masterclass, it was a performance which perfectly demonstrated the manner in which Schmidt has altered the mentality in the Irish dressing room, and perhaps that will be his greatest and most lasting legacy. While Ireland have, of course, been blessed with a plethora of talented players in the last decade, Schmidt has to be given a sizable share of the credit for these successes.

St. Patrick’s Day 2018 is a day that will stick in the minds and hearts of Irish supporters for decades to come. The Six Nations Championship of that year was one which Ireland were firmly targeting. In their first game against France, Ireland seemed to be stumbling at the first hurdle and had to be saved by a simply amazing piece of individual skill, as Johnny Sexton scored a last-minute drop goal to give the Boys in Green a marginal victory. Ireland proceeded to dispatch Italy, Wales, and Scotland in short order and went into their final game against England having already been crowned champions. This was the ultimate opportunity to assert their dominance over their old rivals and show how far they had come under Schmidt: to win the Grand Slam in England’s backyard on Ireland’s most patriotic day and national holiday. Overnight, Schmidt went from honorary Irishman to the most popular and revered man on the island. He was seen in such high regard that when Ireland went to Australia and beat them 2-1 in the summer test series, something Ireland hadn’t done in 39 years, there was relatively little fuss made at home. The victory was almost seen as inevitable, just another step in Schmidt’s masterplan to turn Ireland into the pre-eminent rugby power. He normalised such high standards.

“That Schmidt has been wholeheartedly accepted by the Irish public is evident and deserved.”

Even though Ireland have been far from their normal selves in recent weeks, there is still an overriding sense that Schmidt will turn the boat around in time for this November’s World Cup, and that in itself is a mark of his quality as a coach, and the esteem in which he is held. The relatively-poor performance in the Six Nations must be seen in the context of the entire Schmidt era, and fans would be unwise to overreact or give up hope for this team in Japan. This is something Schmidt himself referenced, in the aftermath of the disappointing final day capitulation to Wales. “We’ve won 23 of our last 26 games,” said the head coach. “We finished third in the Six Nations and once upon a time that wasn’t a catastrophe. That we have won three of five titles makes this one dip below our standards. It’s not as good as we want to be. I’d like to think the genuine supporter is still behind us.”

That Schmidt has been wholeheartedly accepted by the Irish public is evident and deserved, and it is clear that the feeling is mutual. The New Zealander was visibly emotional following his final home game in charge, fittingly a bonus-point victory over the French at the Aviva Stadium. Asked after the game if he’d miss being the Ireland head coach, he responded: “Immensely, immensely. It’s been six incredible years for me. I’ll miss it.” Ireland will certainly miss him too. His legacy is safe, regardless of what transpires in November in Japan – but if he can sign off with the Webb Ellis Cup held aloft above his trademark grin, he will live in Irish sporting eternity.