It will take some time for the announcement that Joe Schmidt will step down as head coach of Ireland after the 2019 World Cup to fully sink in.
In terms of the timing of the announcement, it couldn’t be better.
When the 2019 Six Nations rolls around, the news will have been digested and focus will be placed purely on Ireland’s on-field fortunes. The IRFU’s announcement of Andy Farrell as Schmidt’s successor will also put a halt to any potential distracting speculation which could have occurred between now and the World Cup.
Although Schmidt still has 11 months in charge, which will hopefully culminate in a memorable campaign in Japan, Monday’s announcement has generated a lot of reaction as the Irish rugby public reflects on his achievements since he took over in 2013.
Former Ireland, Leinster and Connacht second-row, Mike McCarthy, who would have earned seven of his 19 caps for Ireland under Schmidt, was, like the majority, disappointed with the news, but reflects on his tenure thus far and believes that Ireland should be thankful for being under the instruction of a world-class operator.
“I suppose we have to be thankful for the amount of time we’ve had him,” McCarthy told Pundit Arena.
“At the same time, you kind of feel he’s irreplaceable in terms of what he’s achieved. When he came in, I think Ireland were eighth [in the world] and now we’re currently sitting second.”
One of the major achievements which Schmidt has managed to accomplish in his time in charge, besides the on-field accolades, is highlighting the need for greater strength in depth at the highest level after the 2015 World Cup and subsequently nurturing that young talent into the top-class internationals we see today.
“I suppose the key learnings going forward from that [2015 World Cup] were we need to build two or three players depthwise in every position and that’s exactly what Joe has done since then,” McCarthy said. “He’s probably seen the bigger picture of Japan coming up since we lost that [Argentina quarter-final].”
McCarthy continued: “I think Sammy Arnold getting on [against USA] was the 37th new cap since that 2015 World Cup so it shows how much he’s really built the depth there. Then in 2016, beating the All Blacks for the first time in 111 years. There’s the Lions tour, a chance to blood more guys – the emergence of Stockdale, James Ryan, the list goes on, during that tour to Japan.
“Six Nations 2017 where we halt England’s 18 match run I think it was and while we’re talking about missing Conor Murray, Marmion steps up and has a great game.
“Obviously, 2018, winning the Grand Slam, beating the All Blacks again, a series win in Australia. Murray missing for the All Blacks game and Marmion steps in. It just shows how much stronger we are since 2015.”
It’s not just lessons with regards to depth which have been taken on by Schmidt. The famous 2013 loss to the All Blacks where Ryan Crotty crossed at the death to break Irish hearts has also played its way into the Ireland head coach’s training methods as McCarthy explains.
“So in 2013, we were playing the All Blacks, we were winning, pretty much time was up, we were trying to see the game out, picking and going and building the phases but Nigel Owens penalised us for coming off our feet.
“The All Blacks kept the ball for, Joe worked out the exact but I think it was four minutes 30 seconds so ever since that day in camp we used to do the end of a session on a Monday and Tuesday, this block of attack for four minutes 30 seconds with pads and shields. It was hugely intense and it was more tiring than that incident in the game.
“It was all about keeping hold of the ball, knowing what you’re doing and doing everything right under fatigue. When you compare it to that game in 2018 that we won against the All Blacks it was kind of a mirror image of that game in 2013 where we were winning and the All Blacks had the ball. Obviously, we learnt our lessons in 2013.”
McCarthy’s first time working under Schmidt would have been during the 2013 summer tour of USA and Canada. It was during this time that Declan Kidney had been relieved of his duties and Les Kiss was taking temporary charge of the squad. Schmidt had already been announced as the new head coach at this stage but he was in a watching and learning capacity as he observed the squad for the first time.
In fact, McCarthy’s first time working under Schmidt could have been a lot sooner.
Schmidt tried to bring McCarthy to Leinster from Connacht ahead of the 2011/2012 season at the same time Sean Cronin made the move east, but the second-row decided to stay on for another two seasons at the western province.
Schmidt did manage to land his man. However, after McCarthy agreed to the switch, Schmidt was announced as the new Ireland head coach.
So the 2013 November internationals was the first time for McCarthy to really get to know what kind of coach Schmidt is.
“I suppose just how knowledgeable about the game he is,” McCarthy said when asked on what was his first impression of the Kiwi.
“As you build time with him, you realise why he’s a great leader. He’s a great leader because I’ve played with a number of different teams, a number of different coaches. These other coaches, sometimes they, as a leader, they put a huge pressure or emphasis on the players and not so much on themselves as a coach. Some coaches put a huge emphasis on themselves as a coach but no so much the players. Whereas Joe puts a huge emphasis on the players but he also puts huge pressure on himself as well.
“He just gets the best out of lads. He creates confidence in the squad and the team that if you do know your detail, if you know everything then you’re confident that you’re going to win because I’ve never known a coach who is able to look at the opposition and be able to find chinks in the armour, weaknesses and be able to come up with plays to manipulate chinks or weaknesses in the opposition.”
One of the chinks in the opposition armour which McCarthy recalls is CJ Stander’s try in the Grand Slam-winning performance against England at Twickenham earlier this year. Tadhg Furlong (red) played a major role in the lineout setpiece move which saw the Wexford man pivot and pop a pass to an on-rushing Bundee Aki (white) instead of to Johnny Sexton (orange) who was running a loop.
“The ball went to Tadhg Furlong and it almost looked a bit weird. Tadhg did a semi-spin who popped it to someone [Aki] and he went clean through. You’re just thinking that’s a classic example of a play that’s been built around something that Joe has seen in looking at footage of the opposition.”
We’ve often heard from players anecdotes about Schmidt’s attention to detail and the pre-requisite that players know their stuff inside out in order for them to be in the head coach’s reckoning for selection. There’s a reason for this which is often overlooked as McCarthy explains – if you know the system 100%, then you have less to worry about on matchday.
“Joe is all about you need to know the gameplan, you need to know the menu, you need to know the exact clarity of your role by Tuesday at the latest, the week of a match. Whereas I played under coaches before where guys are still not 100% sure what they’re doing even on the Thursday or the Friday before a game on Saturday.
“With Joe, there’s a huge emphasis and pressure on both the coaches and the players to know the menu, know the plays, know exactly what they’re meant to be doing, where they are meant to be by Tuesday.
“What that means is that when it comes to gameday on Saturday, all you need to bring to the game is discipline and physicality because you know exactly what you’re doing. You can run on auto-pilot in terms of the plays because they’re engrained in you from early in the week. The two ingredients you need for the game is physicality and discipline.”
McCarthy explains further the reasoning behind this and also why Schmidt’s pitch sessions during the week are shorter when compared to the norm.
“Joe really looks after the players in terms of the physical side. That’s why there is so much emphasis on guys to know their detail and clarity around set plays. When you train, you train unbelievably hard and it’s very intense but on a Monday and Tuesday on the week of a Test, the pitch sessions, once you warm-up, they don’t go over 45 minutes.
“A lot of other teams will train for 60 minimum, an hour and a half, even. So Joe will look after you and keep you fresh but that’s why there’s so much emphasis to know your plays, know what you’re doing and know your roles, not only in your position but in any other position you may have to cover in the game is because Joe wants to look after you physically during the week to leave as much fuel in the tank for the game. You can understand why he does that.”
McCarthy’s Ireland career came to an end in the 57th minute at the Stade de France during the 2016 Six Nations when his head collided with Jack McGrath. He was ruled out for the rest of the season and then played 12 games for Leinster the following season before back and elbow problems put a premature end to his professional rugby career.
From Wasps to Connacht, to Newcastle, back to Connacht and finally to Leinster – McCarthy has played under a wide range of coaches throughout his career and Schmidt, without doubt, is top of his list.
“Personally, I wish I got the chance to play under him for longer. On the other side of it, I just have to be happy that I got to play under probably one of the best coaches in the world. From looking at it half-empty, I wish I had played under him more and I suppose glass-half-full perspective, I’m lucky enough to have played under him. He’s, without doubt, the best coach I’ve ever seen.”
The stage of McCarthy’s career which he first played under Schmidt offers him a unique insight into the high level in which the 53-year-old operates. McCarthy wishes he was able to play under him sooner and for longer while pointing out that Ireland’s latest generation of stars should count themselves lucky to have been operating under such a top-quality coach for the entirety of their international careers in addition to those who are currently in place at provincial level.
“I wish I had him earlier in my career because I certainly feel I could have achieved more had I known what I needed to prepare in terms of knowing exactly what the gameplan is. For me, until I was about 30, it was ‘when you have the ball, run as hard as you can and when you haven’t got the ball, tackle as hard as you can’. There’s obviously a lot more to it than that!
“So now, younger guys coming through the system in Irish rugby now, it’s absolutely incredible. Every coach at every province is absolutely brilliant. Andy Farrell, Stuart Lancaster, Leo Cullen. For young guys coming through, they probably don’t realise how lucky they are to have those coaches from a young age.”
While those players will only have another 11 months of working under Schmidt, the structures and philosophy which have come with Schmidt’s time in Ireland will likely be in place for many years to come.