By Liam Napier in Paris
Amid the soundbites, predictions and proclamations there is one influential figure you won’t hear from before the All Blacks and Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final brings the pinnacle tournament to a standstill.
Joe Schmidt’s presence looms large over the latest edition of this intense rivalry. How could it not? Schmidt led Ireland for seven years (2013-19), to the heights of three Six Nations titles; two historic victories against the All Blacks; and a brief stint as the world’s top-ranked team.
Andy Farrell has since assumed, and lifted, the mantle to significantly evolve Ireland, guiding the World Cup favourites through their past 17 unbeaten tests to the foot of their next frontier in Paris this weekend.
While Ireland are a different team under Farrell, Schmidt knows many of Ireland’s senior players and their inherent tendencies intimately.
If there’s a half-gap to exploit in Ireland’s game, Schmidt knows where. That’s a notion to evoke Irish anxiety.
It’s no coincidence the only time Schmidt fulfilled a hands-on role against Ireland, the All Blacks prevailed.
When he first agreed to join the All Blacks in an independent selector capacity, Schmidt purposely pushed his start date beyond last year’s home series against Ireland. Schmidt had Irish friends coming to stay with him in Taupō, and at the time felt more comfortable sitting out that series before officially starting with the All Blacks for the Rugby Championship.
When All Blacks coach Ian Foster, former forwards coach John Plumtree and defence mentor Scott McLeod tested positive for Covid prior to the first test in Auckland, Schmidt answered an SOS to join the team.
Publicly, the All Blacks said Schmidt would help out at their main Tuesday-Thursday training sessions. When Schmidt commits, though, it’s boots and all. Throughout that week Schmidt was spotted having frequent coffee catch-ups with coaches and players to impart everything he could.
The All Blacks won the first test against Ireland 42-19, with their use of forward runners two and three wide of the ruck pivotal in breaking the defence.
Schmidt then took a back seat. He didn’t travel to Dunedin or Wellington. The All Blacks lost those tests to suffer their infamous series defeat. It’s too simplistic to suggest Schmidt was the reason the All Blacks won the opening test, but there’s no doubt he had a major influence.
After that series, Jason Ryan replaced Plumtree as All Blacks forwards coach and Schmidt agreed to elevate his presence to fill Brad Mooar’s fulltime assistant role, following the tour to South Africa.
Schmidt’s brief with the All Blacks is now broad. For the past year he’s worked closely with Foster on the attack while maintaining a demanding eye on the breakdown and skill work.
One often overlooked area, though, is his love of set-play “specials”.
When the Schmidt-led Ireland defeated the All Blacks 16-9 in Dublin in 2018, a lineout switch move created the only try of the brutal contest for Jacob Stockdale. Post-match, Schmidt revealed he regularly watched New Zealand’s provincial competition from abroad for inspiration - and that particular move he had pinched from the Highlanders.
Such a reflection offers an insight into Schmidt’s dedication and detailed analysis that sit on par with Sir Wayne “The Professor” Smith.
Schmidt doesn’t enjoy the limelight. He prefers to work behind the scenes, in the shadows, away from the cameras. He’s the only All Blacks coach who won’t speak to the media at this World Cup but, in an interview with the Herald earlier this year after the Rugby Championship squad naming, Schmidt shed light on his passion for devising set-play specials.
Ireland under Farrell continue to embrace these specials. They often use an inside skip ball to drag the defence one way before switching back to expose tiring forwards loitering near the ruck.
Against Scotland, Ireland opted for a tap rather than a lineout drive, five metres from the Scottish line, to attempt a blindside switch from the next ruck - only for referee Nic Berry to impede the play and leave the Irish coaches with their heads in their hands.
Schmidt and the All Blacks are certain to have held back something similar for Ireland, too. In a knockout contest potentially decided by a scoring play, one surprise set move could be decisive.
“I love getting with the boys and saying ‘hey, how do you think they’ll set up, what do you think they’ll be looking to do’ and often I can help with that because I have done a lot of years of coaching at that level and know a lot of the northern teams really well,” Schmidt told the Herald in June.
“I really enjoy it. Foz does a lot of it. We tend to bounce ideas back and forward and Richie [Mo’unga], Beauden [Barrett] and Damian [McKenzie], they’ll be really important at contributing ideas as well.
“When you’ve got those experienced guys, they’re great for contributing to how they see something. Our job is to help hone it and get the micro-skills, the timing, right and get the understanding of what pictures mean this is the right thing to play.”
Set plays can be used once and discarded. They are kept up the sleeve for special occasions such as a World Cup quarter-final. And they can have multiple layers at any one time.
“It’s all those things,” Schmidt said. “If you’re watching a game a lot of plays have two, three, four options. You may play the tight option and in the same game minutes later, you might play the inside option or out the back and it might be off the same framework.
“If you’re working with structures players can get quite comfortable with their timing, spacing and pass accuracy so you’re not reinventing the wheel.
“You don’t want to waste someone who has got a great left-foot kicking game so if you’re going to play down the left-hand side and you’ve got them on the edge, that’s really handy because you can keep the ball alive.”
All Blacks scrum coach Greg Feek also spent six years coaching Ireland alongside Schmidt. In the context of this week, they could be viewed as trusted informants but Foster suggests much of that intelligence has long been divulged.
“Joe is an All Blacks coach. His mindset, as is mine, is about what we do well and making sure we nail that,” Foster said. “It’s not about micro-analysing Ireland to the 10th degree so we get hung up and dampen our own game a little bit. He’s brought a lot of focus on our game, making sure we get that right. He clearly knows the Irish well but that’s information we’ve been tapping into the last 12 months and getting his nous in how we refine how we play. That’s our No 1 mindset.”
Off the top of his head Schmidt can tell you Mo’unga’s 1.64-second 10m time. It’s this level of detail he brought to the Blues last year that left many players, including All Blacks Dalton Papali’i and Mark Telea, in awe. With Schmidt assisting Leon MacDonald, the Blues forged a 15-match unbeaten surge before losing the Super Rugby Pacific final to the Crusaders.
“He’s one of the Goats [greatest of all time] in the coaching world,” Papali’i said. “He has a lot of knowledge. When he came into our Super team last year he was a real difference-maker. He did wonders for us. Coming into this environment he’s added his flavour and all the boys can feel it. You can’t really explain it.”
Whether it’s in the pack or on the edge, Schmidt’s impact is profound.
“Joe has put in a lot of work for us. Our backs, forwards, he always helps us out a lot with our ball carries and contestables - all those little details other players miss. He’s massive,” Telea said. “I would say Joe knows more than other coaches. He knows the names of players - he knows a lot of information. If you have a conversation with him he probably knows you better than you know yourself. He could probably ref the game if he wanted.”
Schmidt’s Irish tenure came to a crushing end in the World Cup quarter-final against the All Blacks in Yokohama. Four years on, his breadth of knowledge, slick set plays and Irish intellect could yet prove telling for his home nation.
All Blacks v Ireland
Follow live updates: nzherald.co.nz
Listen to commentary: Join Elliott Smith on Newstalk ZB, Gold Sport and iHeartRadio, or catch the ACC on iHeartRadio or Hauraki
Get full coverage of the Rugby World Cup.