“Nobody goes for pints with Joe,” I was told by someone who knows what she is talking about. “But he will teach. He has soft-spoken power. He will bring discipline. If you are on time with Joe, you are late.”
The Wallabies have been stymied by seven cardinal rugby sins for a decade or more. A high penalty and card count, poor referee relations, a shapeless attack, poor ball retention, overreliance on a few stars, a tendency to play to the level of the opposition (tight losses to top teams, narrow wins versus weaker team), and a disconnect from fans and their proxies in the media.
Joe Schmidt is tailor made to address the first six issues, and if he can restore Australia’s national team to the top three or four in the world, make the Lions tour a thriller, and go deep at a home World Cup, Joe Q. Public and the pressroom will reconnect, because winning answers a hundred questions. Schmidt builds structure, installs ironclad discipline, and loves to bring order to chaos.
Unlike his predecessors, Schmidt has a quiet persona, but he will leave no doubt as to who is boss.
To understand how Schmidt might fit into, and resolve, the Australian rugby soap opera, I spoke with an organisational psychology expert who has written on career transitions in rugby, who happens to be an erudite Leinster and Ireland supporter with a lower deck upfront view of Schmidt’s handiwork for a decade in Dublin: Catherine Kavanagh.
Why will Schmidt succeed?
“He has the raw material he needs in Australia. He will harness that material fast. He’ll get buy in because he is genuine, he is a leadership guru, and is a cult-like figure. He makes systems function. He has a formula. He has done this before. Ireland, like Australia, has two provinces or states, who both think they are top dog. By the end, we called him Uncle Joe. He was beloved by fans, if not media.”
Why might he fail?
“His style is exhausting. He is not an innovator. He will recreate what he has already created before, but he will not deviate or innovate. When it goes bad, as it did in the 2019 Six Nations, he may not be able to change course. A didactic power man channels one way; it’s not even binary. He will not tolerate dissent.”
Thus, a highly intelligent and independent player like Shane Horgan who studied law at Trinity College had trouble with Schmidt, who demands control of the team in every way.
However, on balance, Kavanagh sees Schmidt as a turnaround artist: “He’d like to fix this. He’s not cheap, but I don’t think he is motivated by money, primarily. He will want to show Razor that the old master is still on top. The teacher and the student.”
The epitome of Schmidt’s schoolteacher roots apparently will be seen in the first Monday video session. “He will make sure nobody thinks they played a perfect game. He chases perfection.”
Ronan O’Gara accompanied Schmidt on tour in 2018 and noted the former principal had “made a personal video for every player in camp, a work on video or his moment video as he called them.”
Irish international Andrew Trimble spoke of a “mind gym” Schmidt enforced, involving visualization techniques. Nothing was aimless and Trimble stated in 2019 that Schmidt had an alter ego, “a nice man in press conferences, just always saying the right thing” but “a very different character” in his short, sharp, preplanned training sessions.
Brian O’Driscoll spoke of the intensity of Schmidt’s 1-2-3-4 drill being tougher than a Test match.
This led to the perception, by 2019, that players were too structured and could not create a way out of a hole by themselves; in particular, offloads became as scarce as a Schmidt smile on game day. Schmidt is demanding. Each player must fully know their role, whether it was centurion Johnny Sexton or a debutant; but this crystal clarity “works until it doesn’t,” notes Kavanagh.
A tried and trusted way is tried and trusted for a reason. Schmidt values consistency more than peaks, which create the valleys he abhors.
The Schmidt cycle of success may drop almost perfectly on the timeline of the Lions tour and a home Cup. He will, unlike his immediate predecessor, know precisely what type of scrumhalf, flyhalf, and fullback he wants, the ratio of kick to pass to run he demands, where he wants rucks set on his starter plays, the cleanout patterns he needs to maintain five or ten phases, and the phase count and width he wants in any given scenario. This will dictate selection, then the skills quotient.
Only after Schmidt has his expectations, personnel, roles, skills, and plan in place does he “fire them up.” His goal is to create a cycle that runs smoothly; almost polar opposite to how Eddie Jones sought animal energy and raw power which could smash convention and grab the goods.
The similarity between these two teacher types may be how much they enjoy young, new players. “He brought them into him,” comments Kavanagh. Indeed, players like Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan, Josh van der Flier, Andrew Porter, Jack Conan, and Garry Ringrose were used by Schmidt when young and six years on, they are still in the core group for Irish hopes in the next World Cup.
His six seasons with Ireland and at Leinster and Clermont before that are marked by the sign of a good coach: his teams did not fall apart when he left. He used 103 players in his time at Ireland, far fewer than Jones ran through at England over a comparable period, capping 56 debutants.
Perhaps the most vital feature of a Schmidt regime is that he typically ends up improving his group. A 30-year old Rory Best found more in his tank when Schmidt arrived and had his best after then. Tadgh Furlong was not the ballplayer in 2016 he had become by 2019. Ryan and Jamie Heaslip went up levels under Schmidt’s tutelage. Bundee Aki did not learn rugby in 2023: he was Schmidt’s defensive leader and backline captain.
The biggest question is whether a tempo-setting lieutenant, like Sexton, actually exists in Australian rugby, which tends to breed more creative mavericks at ten. Without a Sexton type, Schmidt will likely narrow the Wallaby attack and ironically select big ball carriers to steamroll over smaller teams, a narrative which begins to sound much like Dave Rennie’s and Jones’ approach. The difference is in ball retention, with each arrival at a breakdown knowing precisely what is required in terms of shifting the furniture, landing the plane, and picking up and going.
What drives Schmidt now?
Kavanagh points to the juicy narratives of the older man showing Andy Farrell and Razor Robertson that he can still outsmart them, even with less resources. “He is aloof and quiet. Nobody goes for pints with Joe. But he has a generosity of spirit, even so.”
I noticed when looking at Schmidt’s biography he was born nine days after me, but unlike me grew up in small towns, took his gap year in Ireland, and has essentially stayed a small-town boy. Yet, I detect a generational similarity in the simple elegance of his game plans, his adoration of pressure rugby, the power of rehearsal, and his acceptance of pain.
He does not seem like a man who quits easily or at all.
There will be no Japanese zoom semantics in press conferences.
But I for one have an ambition now: go out for pints with Joe, preferably after a series win over the Lions.