Later still, we entered Room 101 more fully, with inadvertently a critique of the flow New Zealand election policy:
“No matter how brutal that sounds, one of the things about a selector is if you commit the team to making a choice based on loyalty, or based on something that may not be in the best interests of a team, then the team members go through that. quickly and that can be complicated in an incredibly interdependent environment. “
Those comments bear all the hallmarks of a new broom cleaned, rather than a humble assistant adding the strange whisper or suggestion of an anonymous corner of the room.
Joe Schmidt once called himself a “very small tooth” in the wheel of Irish rugby, but the players themselves certainly did not experience it that way. Nor did the coaches and administrators in the four provinces of Ireland. His influence was felt in every aspect of development across the country – mostly for the good.
The players themselves were never in any doubt about who was in charge. They felt the full fury of the headmaster when things went wrong, or when not enough attention was paid to the little micro-moments, on and off the field. Like the ex-Leinster and current Ireland scrum coach John Fogarty commented:
“When Joe came in, the team felt pretty good about themselves, we won [the Heineken Cup] and reached the semifinals the following year. We were inferior at the end of the previous season, despite reaching the Pro 12 final, but we were lacking. Johnny Sexton so there were a few excuses we could use, and we did use those excuses.
Schmidt’s obsessive attention to detail would be appreciated and feared in the same breath by Irish squad members of the recent past.
“Joe smashed all that nonsense. He was very direct in how he spoke and everyone understood really, really quickly what he was talking about and that you would not leave with that attitude around him. Very, very early on you had a clear understanding of what kind of person he is and how he will treat you – very straightforward and straightforward. “
It was Joe Schmidt’s road or highway, and that would mean a ferocious new energy introduced into New Zealand’s national rugby environment. The process of adjustment will be transformative rather than progressive, and it may be the case that Schmidt finds it difficult to insert himself anywhere but near the top of the pyramid.
“I would use it [openside flanker] Chris Henry as an example. For a long time he was in shape but he did not look in shape. He was capable of anything, but he looked like a bag of shit.
“Chris would be at dinner and not sure if he could have ketchup with his food. There was always this element of hiding things, or having dessert and Joe would always look at you.
“One thing I’m going to say is that he prepared his teams incredibly well. He prepared his teams up to the ninth grade, but I do believe he stifled some creativity.”
My own experience to help prepare England for Joe Schmidt’s assault on Ireland under Stuart Lancaster was certainly interesting. We won four of the five games played between the countries between 2012 and 2015, but there was always a clear taste, and an unusual intensity associated with those matches.
It was like playing rugby in a pressure cooker, with one mistake likely to make the pot boil. There was a constant air bombardment in the shorter contested zones, and between 75-80 per cent of the Irish attack game was 9, rather than 10 or 12. In one season we counted only five downloads across Six Nations, with a hyper. -accuracy at the ruck the preferred method of recycling the ball.
“I remember him at one meeting [Joe Schmidt] said “Don’t download, you don’t have the download capabilities”. And it’s not just me, it’s the whole squad [that Schmidt was talking to].
“‘ You can’t download it unless it’s 100 percent, don’t bother doing it. Just get the ball back and we’ll keep the ball. ‘ So, guys just stoned to download the ball. “
On attack, Ireland was only really dangerous during the first four or five phases, with Schmidt devising a sophisticated network of moves designed to expose the internal defense near the side of the ruck.
Let’s take one example of a multi-purpose vice package that Schmidt loved to run with Leinster and Ireland. It comes from the classic year-end tour game against the All Blacks:
From a lineout launch near midway, the ball is brought into midfield on a No. 8 carry. Jamie Heaslipand there is an extra late swelling Aaron Smith on the side of the back ruck of Mike Ross. Schmidt’s teams put a lot of care into using the cleanup at the ruck to split the defense into two parts, and all of the subsequent play will be done along that narrow green funnel between the next 15-meter line and midfield.
A second phase returns to the next side, with scrumhalf Conor Murray using forward (hooker Rory Best) as the “post” with a few passing options around him
In this case, Best pirouettes before delivering a pop-up pass to backup Cian Healy outside him. The unloading is only done from the ground when it is 100 percent sure to succeed, with the ball carrier well past the tackle. When Heaslip gets the ball for the second time, he doesn’t think about moving the ball wide, he goes back to that same narrow channel of attack.
The main note is, again, work on corners at the ruck, with Healy not content with neutralizing his man at the cleanup, but taking him in and out of the intended channel of attack, while Paul O’Connell advances in front of the ball on the . another side of the break. The scene is set for another bust straight up the middle of Sean O’Brien, and Ireland won a few stages later on the same channel. Six phases in all, all in the creative “funnel” between midfield and the 15m line.
A few months later in the Six Nations, Ireland again won a variety of the same move:
It’s the same move used against the All Blacks, but this time with Heaslip as the “post” when Murray revolves around him. The chosen option is the pass to defense Rob Kearney, coming from a hiding place right behind the ruck, where O’Connell cautiously positions himself between Kearney and the most likely taker Joe Launchbury. We knew it was coming, but the accuracy was such that we couldn’t stop it.
All black supporters will notice much more attention to that channel of attack five meters on either side of the ruck later in 2022. This is where Schmidt’s influence will be most sharply felt during an attack. Probably a factor as to why they’re doing so poorly.
Great sidekicks like it Julian Savea or Caleb Clarke (here, for the Blues in their game against the Brumbies) will come straight ‘up the pipe’ in the first phase. They will track their number 9s religiously through phases, to direct the attack with short busts up into the gut:
The wing of the highlanders Scott Gregory sits on the inside shoulder of his number 9 Folau Fakatavaand he reaps the reward in the second clip with a helping hand from his cleanup, with an O’Connell-like intervention splitting the defense straight up in the middle.
There will also be more emphasis on dragging the internal defense out to the first receiver before moving the ball back to the attack channel near the ruck:
In both cases the number 12 of Hurricanes Jordie Barrett is a key player, and he is likely to be just as important to All Blacks’ attacking success in the second half of 2022.
There is no doubt that it will be impossible for Joe Schmidt to keep a low profile as a New Zealand selector. Everything about his history in Ireland speaks out against it, and suggests that he will become a significant, if not controlling, influence in the All Blacks hierarchy. There will probably be an increased volume of kicking, more ball control at the ruck and better detail at the cleaning; less automatic play to width, and much more dirty work in between.
It may take Kiwi supporters some time to get used to the “new way”.