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Schmidt is walking into a shakier rugby island than the one he shook up

Joe Schmidt was born two years after and four hundred kilometers away from Warren Gatland.

Tiny Woodville in Tararua has about a thousand inhabitants but none more famous than Schmidt, teacher, coach, author, and thinker. Hamilton may have a thousand times more residents but has never been the hotbed of anything except rugby.

The two men played one match together but all thirteen of their opposing games have been as coaches far from their North Island: as honorary Celtic chiefs.

Schmidt went so far as to place citizenship in Ireland. Gatland may remain solely Kiwi but he is the colossus of Wales rugby. Even after he was gone, he came back, having outlasted Alun Wyn Jones, which takes some doing.

Each sharpened their rugby minds by narrowing them first. Their worst argument, which became more passive than aggressive and simmered on for three years as Schmidt smarted under an insult, was fittingly about which of the two men had spawned the more boring rugby.

As potbellied Gatland (he of “Warrenball”) called the Schmidt kettle black for kicking the ball away and “not playing much rugby” Schmidt (famous for not allowing offloads) scathingly appealed to that noted third party judge, woeful Springbok Allister Coetzee (victim of a record loss to Schmidt’s Ireland, and everyone else): “Allister thinks we play rugby.”

Former Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt will resume his head-to-head back with Wales’ head coach Warren Gatland when he leads the Wallabies for the first time with Sydney. Photo by Sportsfile/Corbis/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Wales-Ireland always had an edge, but these two flinty New Zealanders brought sibling rivalry to the party and added spice; perhaps mustard seeds, because they do not seem like exotic foodies.

Schmidt has a long memory, as does Gatland. He will know there is a personal ledger where he has a credit.

He will want to keep that intact and widen the gap.

Do not mistake restraint in press conferences for a lack of zeal or competitive fire. Schmidt has points to prove: that he is the better coach over both Gatland and Scott ‘Razor’ Robertson, just as he took justifiable pride in playing a part in sending Ireland home early from France, demonstrating with his deadly starter plays that Andy Farrell is still the apprentice in their relationship.

The news that Schmidt has found his first captain, no-nonsense, Durban-born, Queensland-educated Liam Wright is not as surprising as first it seems. Schmidt was a giant and refining force in the career of Peter O’Mahony, who also played all three loose positions and lock in a pinch, was not seen as a strong carrier earlier in his career, but hit rucks like he hated the idea of them and is tough as teak.

There is forever a bit of the schoolmaster in Schmidt, born in a harsher time (1965) and a teacher when the cane was not spared. He will not want to massage egos or spend time or money on shrinks. He will shrink egos and spend the money on ingenious drills, gear, and the best presentations in the change room the Blues or All Blacks had ever seen.

Liam Wright takes the ball to the line against the All Blacks at Eden Park on October 18, 2020 in Auckland. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

From schools rugby to the Bay of Plenty to Clermont to Dublin, where he became the headman, he came to stick only with the non-complainer (CJ Stander, Devin Toner, Tadgh Furlong, Rory Best, Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Robbie Henshaw) unless there was superseding skills (Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray) he needed to implement his plans.

Even then, he forced the Murray-Sexton combination to gel across a Leinster-Munster divide and “get over” personal preferences on attack and style.

Did he evolve?

One sees a change in what he did in 2022 and 2023 at the Blues and All Blacks, once again as an assistant but highly influential.

Joe Schmidt poses during a Wallabies Portrait Session on June 26, 2024. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images for ARU)

The offload was not an orphan.

Starter plays were augmented by counterattacks from deep, which ended up saving Ian Foster.

But he is walking into a job on a shakier rugby island than the one he shook up.

In his path stands the grating, gravelly Gatland, who has the Lions legacy Schmidt might have craved, but now gets to attack as host.

Schmidt will have looked closely at Gatland’s disappointing Chiefs shift, as well as the 40-6 shame of Lyon. He is famous for going back deep into the files for small moments and edges to exploit.

Perhaps he will recall the ten Tests between him and his old foe, Gats.

In 2014, Ireland spanked Wales 26-3 at Lansdowne Road, the match in which Brian O’Driscoll had his revenge for Gatland dropping him for the Lions decider in Sydney. (1-0)

What a difference a year makes: in 2015, Wales took Ireland 23-16 in Cardiff. Joe Schmidt’s kicking patterns did not come off, with Irish chase lines easily shepherded. (1-1)

Later that year, Wales and Ireland squared off in a World Cup preparation series. Ireland won the first in Cardiff 35-21 (5 tries to 3, but only 5 offloads) using dominant set pieces against a Wales B side. (2-1)

Wales would have their revenge (16-10) in Dublin as Justin Tipuric had his breakdown masterclass. (2-2)

In 2016, the sides drew with a late, long Sexton penalty. (2-1-2)

In 2017, even though Ireland only committed 4 penalties, Wales won easily 22-9 in Cardiff, stealing 3 lineouts. (2-1-3)

In 2018, 5-try Ireland took it going away, in Dublin (37-27). The rivalry was in a home-and-away rhythm. (3-1-3)

In 2019, Wales won 25-7 (up 25-0 before a consolation try by Jordan Larmour) in Cardiff. (3-1-4)

But Ireland did win a World Cup prep Test that same year in Cardiff (22-17) spoiling what was thought to be Gatland’s last ever match in the Principality as Welsh coach. (4-1-4)

Ireland finished the series by winning 19-10 in Dublin. (And Schmidt now sits a narrow edge over Gatland at 5-1-4). Schmidt said he was “relieved” at getting through “unscathed” as they led into what would be yet another disappointing World Cup in Japan.

Schmidt’s last match as a head coach was an ignominious 7-try quarterfinal capitulation to his original home country.

Now he has taken a different approach: try to fix a disappointed World Cup nation where nothing is unscathed: reputation, budget, nor confidence. If he does, there could be no better story to live as a coach.

Proud old rugby power Wales is either at a nadir of rugby fortunes or near it. Seven points and two wins adrift of Italy; wooden spoon holders Wales oddly are not agitating for Gatland’s ouster, because nobody seems to believe Wales can do better.

Being an underdog is the most prized position of any coach, if he thinks his team can embrace the lack of crippling pressure.

Warren Gatland at Twickenham Stadium on June 22, 2024 in London. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

But averaging four tries conceded in the Six Nations this year, and giving up five to a Springbok team with a debutante flyhalf, is no illusion.

This is a Welsh team historically poor, and has only a few veterans of the 40-6 hammering: Liam Williams, Nick Tompkins, Gareth Davies and Aaron Wainwright among them.

Schmidt’s well-drawn attack plays, should the Wallabies make their way into the red zone a handful or more times, reap three or four tries.

The issue for the Wallabies is the same as for Wales: can they slow rucks legally, cover kicks, and repel attacks?

Schmidt will be as happy as he allows himself to appear if the answers to all of those are yes.

All of rugby in Australia, and Rugby Australia, will likely explode in relief.

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