Standing at opposite ends of a Celtic rivalry that stretches back more than 130 years, Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt have walked curiously similar paths during their time on British shores. Meticulous architects in their own unique ways, both men have revitalised two teams that, prior to their arrival, lacked the heavyweight status they now command. Indeed, under Gatland and Schmidt, Wales and Ireland have emerged as two of the game’s very best.
The influence of the two New Zealanders has been monumental, crystallising in the various idiosyncrasies that have come to define their teams over the years: dogged resilience, clinical precision, swashbuckling bravado, self-belief and composure in abundance. Yes, there have been setbacks and hiccups along the way, moments of disappointment that have drawn introspection and raised questions. But these fade into insignificance when compared with what has been achieved.
So, with their time as the head coaches of Wales and Ireland set to draw to a close, Gatland and Schmidt find themselves under the microscope like never before as they prepare for what could be their final World Cup campaigns. The questions they now face are ignore to hard. What will their legacies be once they step down? Will Japan 2019 determine the way in which they are remembered? Can their respective sides shake the burden of history that has hung over them on rugby’s grandest stage?
In Schmidt’s case, the numbers are hard to ignore. Since taking charge in 2013, he has brought home three Six Nations titles to a country that had won one in the previous 28 years. Further afield, he engineered a maiden win against New Zealand as well as a first series win over Australia in 39 years, with his men showing they were capable of mixing it with the big beasts of the southern hemisphere. A second victory over the world champions followed last year – confirmation that the famous win in Chicago wasn’t merely a fluke.
But for some, such feats can’t hide the fact Ireland have never progressed beyond the quarter-finals at a World Cup. “The terrible thing is Schmidt’s legacy will absolutely be affected one way or another by what happens [in Japan],” Ireland great Brian O’Driscoll said this month. “Irrespective of the Grand Slams and the series wins and the All Blacks victories, everything is hitched on this World Cup, go one step further at least than any other Irish side previously and get to a semi-final.”
For a man who described Schmidt as “the best coach” he ever worked under, O’Driscoll’s assessment seems a tad myopic. Others will point to the coaching legacy the Kiwi has nurtured. “When you look at what he’s done, you’d like to think that in the next couple of years there’ll be coaches that have worked under Joe Schmidt as players that will come through and who will bring that attention to detail, that drive to be the best in the world,” said captain Rory Best last year. Schmidt’s attention to detail and the demands he makes of his coaches and players is legendary – understandably the hope is high that such methods will be passed down throughout the Irish game.
“The fantastic thing about Joe is that he’s leaving Irish rugby in a much better place,” said full-back Rob Kearney when it was first announced Schmidt would be stepping down after the World Cup. And this, you feel, is the forward-facing, gracious outlook many will take when the Kiwi departs. The worry, though, is how this sentiment changes should the worst happen in Japan.
As for Gatland, his numbers paint a similar picture. With four Six Nations titles to his name since taking the reins, the Kiwi has overseen Wales’ most prolific era in the professional game. From a team that was unceremoniously dumped out of the 2007 World Cup at the group stages, with rumours rife of player power and mutinies within the camp, to one that now radiates with cohesion, harmony and an unbreakable sense of self-assurance, the transformation has been a unique tale of evolution.
That first Six Nations-winning team of 2008 was built on raw fitness and centred around the flair of Gavin Henson and Stephen Jones and link play of Martyn Williams. This later morphed into the physicality of “Warrenball” which sought to use size to force opponents into submission. Such an approach reaped rewards but, in marking a distinct divorce from Wales’ free-flowing, adventurous ways of the past, did little to endear Gatland to the masses.
As defences improved and opponents learned to read Wales, fresh change was ushered in. Gatland adopted a more expansive approach. Patience in possession was encouraged while a new air of confidence emerged, embodied in the shape of star players such as George North. The optimists among the Welsh fanbase will argue that slowly but surely Gatland has tinkered the national side with all the precision and care of a watchmaker, preparing the team for a final assault upon World Cup glory before he leaves.
Naturally, the cynics will point to his poor record against the southern hemisphere trio. Although Wales have never beaten the All Blacks under his watch, they have notched up four victories over South Africa and two over Australia. Having struggled to repeat this success at a World Cup is justifiably of concern – but the Welsh have shown enough progress since 2015 to seize the money on their back and cast it aside.
But for those who have played under Gatland, the Kiwi’s greatest legacy lies in something far more unquantifiable and intangible than sheer stats. “He has changed the perception of the Welsh public from being underdogs, which they were used to in the 1990s and 2000s,” said former captain Sam Warburton earlier this year. “It is normal now to expect to win a Six Nations campaign year in, year out. He has changed the psychology of the Welsh team and public. You work hard to be the top dog, and he has got the boys and the public in that state of mind.”
This psychological durability will certainly be put to the test in light of the recent Rob Howley scandal, but such is the thick and fast nature of a World Cup it won’t be long before thoughts turn to more pressing matters.
Because make no doubt, the coming weeks present one last opportunity for Schmidt and Gatland to consolidate their places in the history of Irish and Welsh rugby. Both nations have scaled new heights under the two coaches but while progress is one thing, legacy is another. And after all, there’s nothing more eternal than the immortality that comes with World Cup glory.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies