It’s a long way from Woodville in New Zealand to the bright lights of Twickenham in London, but If Joe Schmidt’s Ireland team beat England on Saturday it will be the biggest milestone yet on a journey that began in a small town on the North Island.
The former school teacher has the chance to cement his status as Ireland’s greatest coach this weekend if the Men in Green seal a first Grand Slam – and third Six Nations title in five years – under his tutelage.
And whoever takes over from the Kiwi after the 2019 World Cup, you’d have to feel sympathy for.
Remarkably, Schmidt discovered coaching by surprise and was all set for a career as a teacher in New Zealand.
It was a stint in Ireland during the 1980s – in remote Multyfarnham, Westmeath – where he found his passion for coaching and steered Wilson’s Hospital to a Leinster schools title.
A life teaching in Woodsville seemed the right option for the then 25-year-old – but a love for rugby remained – and subsequent coaching roles with Bay of Plenty, the Blues and Clermont pinpoint key moments on his coaching CV.
It was this welcome in Westmeath almost three decades ago that drew Schmidt from Clermont to Ireland in 2010, when the offer of the Leinster head coach job came up.
Three years in Dublin – and two Heineken Cups later – saw the 52-year-old take the reins from Declan Kidney as Ireland’s head coach.
And while working at a school and coaching a team may seem words apart, Schmidt draws comparisons between the two professions and is now on the cusp of delivering a stunning Grand Slam success.
What makes Schmidt great is his high standards and attention to detail – a reductive phrase – but one that elevates his players to such a meteoric level. To have so many young players fit in so seamlessly shows the trust and respect he has for those in the Ireland set-up.
He analyses the games in considerable detail and has clear communication to pass on that knowledge. For example, he would have reviewed Saturday’s win over Scotland five, six or seven times before meeting with his coaches on Monday morning.
Schmidt has proven time and again how he can devise formidable game plans and wins more matches than he loses (39-14 win record). Memorable defeats to Australia in 2013, Argentina in the 2015 World Cup quarter-final and Scotland in 2017 are examples of this, but each time he has learned from losses and developed stronger teams.
Schmidt has transformed good players into inspirational figures. He is the reason why Ireland beat the Springboks for the first time in July 2016 and why the Men in Green ended a 111-year wait to beat the All Blacks in November of the same year.
Right now, Irish rugby is in the midst of a golden generation and Schmidt has sown the seeds that have allowed his team to sprout into a towering oak.
Blooding the likes of Garry Ringrose, Joey Carbery, Tadhg Furlong, Jack Conan and Jordan Larmour will have a lasting impact on the Irish game that will go through to 2023 and beyond.
The nature of a physical sport like rugby is seismic injuries will affect the team – even though every coach wants a full deck to select from – but Schmidt has shown faith in young players and given them the confidence to step up and perform when opportunity knocks.
Indeed, to see someone like Dan Leavy fit in with ease on the grand stage and become Ireland’s best performer in every match this Six Nations campaign, is impressive.
He wasn’t alone. Andrew Porter, 21, and Chris Farrell, 24, also stepped up in on the absence of key players and blew Wales apart two weeks ago – further demonstrating the depth of talent available.
It’s still another 18 months before next year’s World Cup but winning a Grand Slam will provide a springboard as Ireland harbour a goal of challenging the All Blacks in Japan next September.
It also adds fuel to the debates in pubs and clubs around the world as every amateur pundit tries to pick their team on a weekly basis.
Consistently, Ireland are brimming with confidence and flair. They are an international side picking their players from four provinces – in a country where rugby is the fourth-most popular field sport behind Gaelic, Hurling and Football. And Ireland are ranked ahead of Australia, France and South Africa.
England will no doubt be looking to end the campaign on a positive note this weekend – after two shock defeats in four games – and deny Ireland a Grand Slam.
Although the Red Rose have injury worries of their own and a struggling back-row Schmidt will need the likes of Conor Murray, Jonny Sexton and Furlong firing in a bid to win in the English capital.
If his men do beat Eddie Jones’ side then Schmidt has a case for being the best coach in rugby.
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