We’re breaking from our customary summer sabbatical because an important bit of news broke yesterday. Joe Schmidt signed a contract extension to stay on as head coach until 2017. Hip hip! There were a couple of amusing red herrings in the announcement lead-up. Fangio reported that Schmidt’s extension was for eight years (eight!), and the presence of the Lions rugby handle on a Peter O’Reilly tweet had people speculating that Schmidt was being given the Lions gig a full two years in advance.
It seems to be now customary for the good people at the IRFU to extend the coaching ticket’s contract before – and not after – the world cup. It’s a double edged sword, and hasn’t necessarily worked out in the past, but also a tricky balancing act we can have some sympathy with. Renew the coach’s contract and it bears the hallmark of a reward before he’s even passed his exams; leave him hanging and the coach spends half the press conferences fielding questions about his future, and if things go well (heaven forbid!) he’s open to being whisked away by another paymaster.
The IRFU gave Eddie a whopping four-year contract before the 2007 World Cup, when his stock was at an all-time high following a stupendous autumn and a Six Nations lost only on points difference, only to see the bottom fall out of his team in the tournament itself. They appeared to learn by degrees and heading into 2011’s Grand Shindig they gave Kidney and his coaching team, which was held in high esteem to be fair, a mere two year extension. It looked a slightly dubious move, as Kidney’s coaching style and conservative selection was already looking its age, and his team were capable of mixing the good with the truly awful. The performance in the World Cup was a rollercoaster affair, starting and ending abysmally but with spectacular highs in the middle but after that the only way was down, and although Kidney hung on to see out his two year extension, his tenure fairly petered out.
On the face of it, the IRFU’s obvious concern in this case would appear to be Joe Schmidt leaving for his homeland nation, New Zealand. The Kiwi coach is universally admired and regarded as one of the best coaches in world rugby, and might be on the all-consuming rugby nation’s radar as a potential replacement should Steve Hansen decide to rest on his laurels after winning the World Cup later this year. Schmidt was contracted until the end of the 2016 Six Nations, rather than the end of the World Cup, but that would be no huge barrier to him switching to New Zealand, where the Rugby Championship only kicks off in July.
In Ruchie’s (excellent) book, he talked at length about the huge premium BNZ put on players and coaches being at home, within the system – there is huge emphasis put on building structures, from school to club to Air BNZ Cup to Super Rugby to the <insert hackneyed colour-driven marketing tool team name here>. If you leave BNZ, you are out of the game. Deeeen Caddah got very special dispensation to spend six months on the medical couch in Perpignan, but Dingo Deans, who took the Wobbly job after being passed over for Graham Henry after RWC07, was told he could forget about the BNZ job forever if he left.
We’re not sure if BNZ would appoint a new coach direct from Northern Hemisphere rugby without a few years penance in Super Rugby – sure, Schmidt was assistant at the Blues ten years ago, but we suspect some lip service would need to be shown. Still, the IRFU would be foolish to bank on that, and the point stands – BNZ would look to bring him home at some point.
The new contract leaves Schmidt with the option to be brought home by the NZRU for the 2018 and 2019 SR seasons and take over BNZ after RWC19 – it’s called “succession planning” and will probably never work – but the Union are right to hedge against the less likely possibility of him being sniped right away.
So, for Ireland, three times a charm, then? Hopefully, and with back to back Six Nations under his belt and having appeared to solve the two most demanding riddles associated with this, and any, Ireland team: how to get them to perform to a consistent base level, and how to overcome their innate inability to beat France, Schmidt is surely set to oversee Ireland’s first properly decent World Cup attempt, and there appears no earthy reason why he can’t continue to excel beyond that.
It also leaves him free to take on the Lions Tour in New Zealand, should he be daft enough to take on what from this distance appears to be a tour that can only irreparably break the reputation of whoever chooses to take it on. Best leave that one to Wazza. After all, he did so well on the last tour and seems to enjoy the wretched thing, and if Schmidt does have ambitions to coach BNZ, best not to show them up too publicly.