Henry on Schmidt: Why the Ireland coach is driving standards

Henry on Schmidt: Why the Ireland coach is driving standards

Sir Graham Henry, the World Cup-winning coach, pauses a second before delivering this praise on his fellow countryman and current Ireland coach Joe Schmidt: “I think he’s special. He’s a very special coach.”

When Henry says that about a coach, you listen.

As has been the case for 13 of the past 16 Six Nations, there is a New Zealand-born coach in charge of at least one of the home nations, with two this year in Schmidt and Scotland’s Vern Cotter.

Though they are coaching in a different hemisphere and just about the most awkward time difference possible, Henry, who coached the All Blacks to the 2011 World Cup, keeps a watchful eye on those spreading the New Zealand way of rugby to different corners of the rugby world with Schmidt at the forefront of his coaching intrigue.

Henry has never coached with Schmidt but the now Ireland coach has been on his radar for over a decade. The true esteem in which Schmidt is held by his Ireland team was showcased to Henry during his short stint at Leinster – the team Schmidt coached prior to taking the Ireland job – in a consultant role in the close season.

“I spent some time at Leinster in August and Joe and I had crossed swords a few times, we know each other reasonably well,” Henry tells ESPN. “The Irish boys just think he’s fabulous. They just think so highly of him.

“He’s into detail, he’s very good at coaching the detail and the players have a huge amount of respect for him and play for him. I think he’s very special. He’s a very special coach.

“There are a number of those, but he’s certainly done exceptionally well with Ireland.”

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Schmidt first came to prominence in the New Zealand coaching circles when he and Cotter led Bay of Plenty to their 2004 Ranfurly Shield triumph, the first in the side’s history. From there Schmidt went to the Blues in an assistant capacity and then joined up with Cotter at Clermont in 2007 through to 2010 when he landed the Leinster job.

His coaching stock rose year-on-year and in 2013 he was handed the Ireland job, replacing Declan Kidney. The 2014 and 2015 Six Nations titles followed and in 2016 he masterminded Ireland’s first ever win over the All Blacks.

They had come close against New Zealand back in 2013, but suffered the last-minute heartbreak of an All Blacks fightback but in Henry’s mind, they were two seminal matches in Schmidt’s coaching development.

In 2013 Ireland built a lead which they failed to protect; in 2016 they again stormed ahead against the All Blacks but instead of defending it, they attacked.

“He [Schmidt] learns from those situations,” Henry says. “I remember that scrum in the left hand corner when the No.12, [Robbie] Henshaw scored off Jamie Heaslip’s pass. Everybody was thinking they’d go for the eight-man shove and aim to draw the penalty but they played, scored and finished up getting seven rather than three.

“He learned from that game in Dublin. It’s a sign of somebody who is constantly on the job, always trying to get better and learning from each situation. It’s impressive.”

Henry has also been impressed by Cotter — “he has got respect, he can do the job and he has great success” — who leaves Scotland after this Six Nations to take up a role in Montpellier.

Cotter will be replaced by Glasgow’s Gregor Townsend, with Chiefs coach Dave Rennie filling his shoes at the PRO12 side. With Todd Blackadder having joined Bath last summer, the numbers of New Zealanders in European rugby will stay at a steady level.

It is a well-trodden path as Henry well knows. He coached Wales from 1998 to 2002 and was then replaced by his eventual All Blacks successor and fellow World Cup-winning coach Steve Hansen.

“It is a national sport in this country. It is hugely important,” Henry says. “The two things I think that go hand in hand are the right competitions and the right coaching. If you get those two things right, you can produce something special.

“We are fortunate in this country to have very good competitions and very good coaching.

“The other thing is that we share ideas. The coaches don’t become insulated, and keep all their ideas to themselves. The All Blacks coaches share their ideas with the franchise coaches. There is a transfer ideas from one to the other.

“And you’ve got all those coaching philosophises, and coaching know-how and game plans are shared among coaches in this country. The All Blacks are the pinnacle, the flagship and everything is geared for them to try and be the best they can be and the levels below understand that philosophy and work towards that.

“When you are coaching in that environment, these guys learn from each other. It’s hugely competitive as well but they are hugely open in the main to sharing those ideas. We have an environment in this country which is fabulous for developing players and coaches.”

While that development continues to drive standards in rugby coaching the world over, New Zealand’s great coaching minds will continue to be offered opportunities to migrate north.

On Saturday Ireland start their Six Nations campaign against Scotland. Henry will be watching on with intrigue from his Waikehe Island home as Schmidt faces Cotter, the two old friends who first coached together back in 2003.

Murrayfield is a world away from Bay of Plenty’s ground on the east coast of New Zealand’s north island, but as New Zealand’s coaches continue to drive worldwide standards, the Kiwi influence on the Six Nations is not likely to end any time soon.

(Why?)

Published at Tue, 31 Jan 2017 00:46:14 +0000