Wednesday, 21 September 2016

It's All About Schmidt

News from the Land of the Long White Cloud confirmed that All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has signed a contract extension that will keep him at the helm of New Zealand rugby until 2017. Although not a complete surprise, given the current winning record, it may have caused some wake turbulence further down the slipstream. Particularly for Joe Schmidt and Vern Cotter. Both of whom might have fancied their chances leading the All Blacks post the World Cup next year. 

As yet Schmidt and the IRFU have not held discussions about extending the current contract which last until 2016. However as that date gets closer the rugby landscape may have changed little in terms of available jobs following Hansen’s decision. Not to mention Stuart Lancaster’s extended contract until 2020 agreed with the Rugby Football Union last month. Ruling out in principle Schmidt’s chance at the England job. On the other hand it does leave Schmidt available to emulate Graham Henry’s CV and take the British and Irish Lions to his homeland in 2017. 

In addition it would offer the current Irish boss the chance to take on his home nation and indeed "interview himself" against Steve Hansen. The man who will remain in situ until the end of the 2017 season and be in charge when the Lions arrive on tour. Albeit Schmidt’s already highly regarded stock has risen further following Ireland’s victories over South Africa and Australia in Dublin last month. It pales in comparison to Hansen's tenure where he has overseen New Zealand win 38 of 42 Tests, with only just two defeats. Also lifting the Rugby Championship for the last three years as well. Making it no surprise New Zealand rugby want the winning continuity.

But like buses the managerial hot seats never come when you want them or feel ready. Nor indeed do they last their tenure if the match defeats start to add up. As the former Leinster coach Michael Cheika could vouch. Not imagining in October he would become the new Wallabies coach so quickly. Almost within days of Ewen McKenzie’s unavoidable resignation after only about a year after his appointment in the wake of the Wallabies defeat to the Lions in July 2013. A series that led to Robbie Deans reign being discontinued and the favourite in waiting McKenzie leaving the ACT Brumbies for the top post.

However events overtook his time with the Wallabies and so Cheika was the next obvious choice following his triumphs at Leinster, Stade Francais and NSW Waratahs.

A haste that is unlikely across the Tasman Sea where transitions have tended to be smoother in recent years for the All Blacks with Sir Graham Henry proving the longest serving coach for a while. Racking up almost seven years in the job. A chance earned after restoring Wales dismal run between 1998 and 2004.

On his arrival to All Blacks Henry finally secured the World Cup in 2011 and recovered a trophy that had eluded the rugby mad since they hosted the inaugural event in 1987. And in the intervening decades had seen John Hart lose his job after the semi-final defeat in Cardiff to France in 2011. A fate that eventually befell his predecessor Laurie Mains some months after the 1995 World Cup final loss in Johannesburg to South Africa. Henry finally righted those wrongs in 2011, after which he stepped down and saw his assistant Hansen step up. Proving a very natural progression.

Something which could not be said about the move by Vern Cotter to Scotland. Perhaps the only route left open to the former Bay of Plenty coach to get international experience in the Northern Hemisphere. 

Unfortunately Scotland is a road well-travelled and one that cost Matt Williams his reputation to some degree by the time he finished in 2002. His two years rendering a poor string of results and a reversal of fortune after developing some renowned in Ireland with Leinster, and the Ireland A side. Leaving Williams looking destined for bigger things in either hemisphere. Albeit his two year stint at Ulster was cut short due to family reasons in 2009. But seeing him retreat into the land of Punditry and removed now from frontline coaching with his achievements lost in the ether. 

Back in the autumn of 1999 Williams coached the Leinster backs in the European Cup campaign, a prelude to becoming the head coach a year later. He also undertook the role of defensive coach for Ireland in 2001. As the first Australian Super 12 Coach to move to Europe he took Leinster to the inaugural Celtic League Final as well reaching the semi-final of the European Heineken Cup. It remains to be seen whether Cotter can do more from his current Scottish base and build on his hard earned reputation at Clermont. 

So far it looks promising so far given that for seventy minutes his team came close to ending the All Blacks streak of wins at Murrayfield. But the balance of statistics show the job has taken its toll on Andy Robinson and Scott Johnson as well. Bad precedent for Cotter who might now settle for an assistant role with Schmidt should he take over from Hansen in a few years time. Reflecting a role reversal as it was Joe who came to work for Cotter at Clermont Auvergne as backs coach in 2007.

On the surface it seems that Schmidt may have fast tracked himself following the move from Cotter when he took up Leinster's offer in 2010. Showing a clear ambition and fearlessness that has manifested itself in the achievements of Leinster during his time. A role that had just been vacated by Michael Cheika a coach who had brought Leinster the Holy Grail in 2009 with their Heineken Cup win. Breaking the stranglehold of Munster along the way, with the help of Rocky Elsom and a young Mr Sexton.

Into such a cauldron stepped Schmidt, who then went on to add two more Heineken Cups and a string of other titles. Proving his metal beyond doubt.

Amidst all these musical chairs there is one Kiwi who appears forgotten who only twelve months ago was a shoe in after the tour to Australia finally reversed the Lions continuous losing record down under. Warren Gatland becoming the coach to finally end that sixteen year drought and revive the Lions brand to former glories. And more importantly, its commercial strength with the 2-1 test win. The final test a devastating display of the Northern Hemisphere’s raw power, burgeoning talent and sheer skill. Done also against a negative backdrop after Gatland omitted the 2009 Lions captain, Brian O’Driscoll, from the final test.

Having retained his post with Wales throughout that two year Lions campaign Gatland was very much viewed as the odds on favourite to take the Lions to his home nation in 2017. In fact confirming his interest and availability very publicly after the triumph in Sydney. But as former Ireland coaches Eddie O’Sullivan and Declan Kidney now know rugby is a results business and allows for no slippage or sentimentality whatsoever. 

O’Sullivan very tarnished following Ireland’s disastrous 2007 World Cup in France. Not unlike Gatland in the previous tournament in 20013, With Declan Kidney seeing his star fade within twelve months of winning a Grand Slam and eventually losing the confidence of the IRFU in 2013.

It was Kidney who replaced Gatland as Irish coach in 2009 and immediately secured a Grand Slam at the Millennium Stadium in 2009. Deservedly earning himself the IRB Coach of the Year honour in doing so. Then two years later Ireland reached the quarter finals of the rugby world cup only to be defeated 22–10 by Wales – a side coached by Warren Gatland. But Kidney’s fortunes declined further when Ireland fell to their worst IRB World Ranking of 9th by which time they had finished 5th in the 2013 Six Nations Championship. After which Kidney's contract was ended and all those heroics leading Munster to Heineken Cup trophies truly forgotten.

But Kidney was the last domestic coach at Munster until Anthony Foley was given the job this season. The vacancy unexpectedly arising when Kiwi Rob Penney opted not stay for the remaining third year of his contract and headed off to Japan. Not unlike his predecessor Tony McGahan, who in leaving Munster left without any real continuity plan on the coaching front. Losing as well that imaginative and creative spirit from the southern hemisphere that helped make them almost invincible at Thomond Park. 

Something Foley has been unable to replicate as yet and now fighting for their sporting lives in the new Championship this season. Fortunate to see an Ian Keatley penalty earn a losing bonus point in the 26-19 defeat at the Stade Marcel Michelin last weekend. Leaving Foley's side with an uphill task to progress to the last eight with matches to come away to Saracens and then home to Sale. Lying now in third position in pool one, four points adrift of Clermont and three behind Saracens. But as captain Peter O'Mahony said after wards the losing bonus point will give the side renewed hope.

"We've got to fight for our lives," he said. "We have two huge games in the New Year and all we can do is fight for our lives."

In fairness Foley put his hand up and took the Munster job before he perhaps would have wanted in ideal circumstances. But like buses the job might never come when you want it. So you have to jump when it arrives – even unexpectedly - and enjoy the trip. 

It seems to have worked very for Joe Schmidt - so far.

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