Italy vs Ireland: Joe Schmidt plays role of ‘smiling assassin’ to perfection

Defending champions Ireland start this year's Six Nations as tournament favourites

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When Vern Cotter chose the description “a smiling assassin” for his old mucker Joe Schmidt in midweek, it was an affirmation, not a revelation.

There is plenty of available evidence that Schmidt, for all the geniality that dominates the Ireland coach’s public persona, is as tough as old rugby boots.

Having won the Six Nations’ Championship at the first attempt last year, the slightly-built New Zealander sat through his team’s November win over Australia with a wincingly painful appendix that needed removing by surgery hours after the final whistle. “Nobody’s more competitive than Joe or has a harder edge,” said Cotter, the Scotland head coach and a Kiwi built more obviously for combat.

The 49-year-old Schmidt has been busy piling up titles and trophies since he became head coach of Leinster in 2010, moving up to Ireland in 2013. His team also beat South Africa last autumn, and came within a few fraught seconds of downing the All Blacks the year before. Mind you, Schmidt is quick to point out that if a late French pass had stuck last March, when Ireland won 22-20 in Paris to take the Six Nations on points difference from England, his side would have finished third, not top.

Whatever the case, with Warren Gatland in charge of Wales there is a better than 50 per cent chance that the Six Nations will be won by a coach from New Zealand (it is impossible to tip Italy, coached by a Frenchman in Jacques Brunel, whereas Cotter has wrought enough improvement in his eight months with the Scots to give them a minor shout). And seven of the 20 teams at the World Cup will have the boss barking in a Kiwi accent: New Zealand (like South Africa, England and France, they have never asked a foreigner to take charge), Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Fiji, Georgia and Canada.

“I’m not sure what it is,” Schmidt told The Independent on Sunday, “other than we live and breathe rugby in New Zealand, and we are open about trying to progress whatever we are doing. I grew up from the age of four playing barefoot rugby. I can remember as a kid listening on the radio to All Blacks matches overseas.”

The bigger picture opened up for Schmidt with the classical Kiwi overseas experience; he and his wife, Kellie, then a PE teacher, now a mother of four, ventured to County Westmeath in the Irish midlands in 1991, long before Joe gave up a successful teaching career to get into rugby full-time as Cotter’s backs coach and studious right-hand man with Bay of Plenty and the French club Clermont Auvergne, either side of three years as an assistant at the Auckland Blues.

So what is this smiling assassin’s creed? Raised in Woodville, near Palmerston North, Schmidt was a will-o’-the-wisp wing for his native province, Manawatu (he scored a try against France in June 1989). Dabbling in coaching with the amateurs of Mullingar, Schmidt banned smoking in the showers. Later, with the pros of Leinster, he reprimanded the Ireland hooker Sean Cronin for tossing the ball into the crowd after a try. Cronin, nicknamed Nugget, claimed he was saluting his family. “I don’t believe you, Nugget,” said Schmidt, “and we don’t do that kind of thing in this team.”

Most persuasively, Brian O’Driscoll is a huge fan. In spite of – or because of – the fact it was Schmidt who was the first to drop O’Driscoll, against the great centre’s expectations, from a Leinster team to play Munster in 2011, not Gatland on the 2013 Lions tour.

In his recent autobiography, O’Driscoll paid tribute: “He’s a player’s coach… if you do something seven phases before a try is scored, he gives you credit. [He brought] new ideas, new plays, subtleties that demand absolute attention to detail… He makes little tweaks in a back-line play and all of a sudden an opposition defence opens up in front of you. And you look over at him, and he’s smiling.”

Ireland may have to face Italy in Rome without their first-choice half-back pair, Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray, next Saturday. O’Driscoll, though, has the utmost faith in genial Joe. “He’d be an unbelievable poker player,” he points out. “He projects with such positivity that it’s hard to know if he believes all of it, but everyone buys into what he says.”