Schmidt is no ordinary joe
New man an innovator, but he has plenty to prove
As disciples of Joe Dolan will tell you, like so many things in life, it all starts in Mullingar.
Manawatu man Josef Schmidt, then 26, beat six applicants to become director of rugby at the unfashionable Leinster junior rugby club in 1991, from an advertisement in a European rugby newsletter circulated in New Zealand.
Peter Leahy, the current Mullingar coach, was one of many forever changed by the innovation and imagination introduced to the traditional Midlands grinders by the unremarkable wing three-quarter.
"It was his first coaching job. He took us from being a very one-dimensional, ten-man style of club to being the most exciting junior club in the province, in so far as he played the game with enthusiasm and imagination," said Leahy.
"Joe became deeply involved at every level of the club from the under-8s right up to the senior side. He had, and still does have, an amazing way of getting on with people."
Schmidt lasted two seasons, revolutionising Mullingar from top to bottom and taking them to within one point of joining the All Ireland League, being pipped by County Carlow, who are about to lose their AIL status this season.
"We played the type of rugby we had never played in our lives. It wasn't just the results we achieved; it was the way we were winning. For instance, I played prop for him and, in his first season, I scored 26 tries.
"Joe believes every rugby player should be able to play positively and that the game should be fun. He played a very simple, correct, run-the-ball style of rugby," said Leahy.
"He also has an incredible memory for players, following their paths in the game into adulthood. It is not unusual for him to still ask about the whereabouts of young kids he coached as 12- or 14-year-olds. He has that deep and honest interest in individuals."
Since then the former teacher has embarked on a journey educating players under his care in a career that has seen him graduate from New Zealand Schools backs coach (1999-2003) into the professional arena in the same role at Bay of Plenty (2003-2004), where the Ranfurly Shield was won for the first time, Auckland Blues (2004-2007) and Clermont-Auvergne (2007-2010).
"When I visited him at Bay of Plenty, he was playing the same style; when I visit him at Clermont, he is playing the same style," said Leahy, who has maintained a solid friendship with Schmidt.
"Joe is a technician. He uses his imagination to take the best opposition players out of the game in the way he can play around them. He also has backs' moves that no one else has."
It was at the Blues that he came into contact with Leinster utility back Isa Nacewa, who had no hesitation in labelling Schmidt as "Mr Rugby" and as the man who taught him everything he knows about back play.
It is a relationship that cuts both ways as Schmidt admitted: "I certainly tried to get Isa to give up the Dublin life and come across to Clermont. I am pretty happy he stayed there now. I rate him as a real quality player in his versatility," he said in a recent radio interview.
Still, Schmidt has so much to prove as a No1. He has most of his time in the game as an innovator, but not a winner. He has visited the runners-up enclosure in the last three finals of the French Championship. "Having made three finals -- unfortunately without having taken the championship -- we have competed against the best teams effectively.
"In the past three years we have won eight of the 11 games we have played against Toulouse, including two at their home ground," he said.
He has already confirmed the extension of forwards coach Jono Gibbes' contract for another two years. He also welcomed the news of Isaac Boss's pending transfer from Ulster to Leinster. He knows both men from his former life in New Zealand.
The reality of the situation is that Schmidt will become a head coach for the first time in his career. It is a different kind of pressure as the front-and-centre face of the club.