An intriguing sub-plot in Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final with New Zealand is Joe Schmidt and his former assistant Andy Farrell pitting their wits against each other.
Can the latter’s gentler touch take the Irish to heights the former’s more austere approach failed to?
For it was Schmidt who set the Irish on the path that has ultimately led them to being regarded as joint favourites, with France, to become only the second world champions from the northern hemisphere.
New Zealander Schmidt, though, fell short twice, exiting in the quarter-finals to Argentina in 2015 and four years later getting whipped by the side whose attack he now directs, the All Blacks.
Schmidt, 58, deserves credit for bringing Farrell into the coaching team in 2016 when the 48-year-old Englishman was at a low ebb after hosts England, with him as assistant coach, had exited in the first round of the 2015 World Cup.
The coaching duo combined to beat the All Blacks twice – in Ireland’s historic first ever win against them, in Chicago, and then their maiden victory on home soil – and secure the Six Nations Grand Slam in 2018.
Although the pair worked closely together, if people thought Farrell was the continuity candidate when Schmidt stepped down after the 2019 World Cup then – and not for the first or last time regarding the former rugby league legend – they were wrong.
While Schmidt was respected, he was not loved by the players in the way Farrell is. Under Schmidt there was an austere and regimented atmosphere, very much modeled on his former profession as a school teacher. He controlled everything.
Farrell is quite the opposite – he retains authority but is relaxed and ready to delegate to his coaching staff, trusting them implicitly.
“Andy takes a different approach to previous management that I’ve worked under, which I think is the right way to do it,” was the telling response from Ireland captain Johnny Sexton to what had changed under Farrell, after the Irish won the 2022 Triple Crown.
Former Irish flyhalf Tony Ward said the feedback he had received from the Irish camp was that it was much happier.
“There is no longer a fear factor and looking over their shoulder which all makes for a happier environment,” he told AFP.
For veteran prop Dave Kilcoyne it is Farrell’s “emotional intelligence” which sets him apart from the previous regime.
“He’s created an unbelievable environment,” Kilcoyne said. “When you’re on, you’re on and we love that about it.
“It’s such a high-octane, driven environment but when you’re off, people really enjoy each other’s company. Everyone is encouraged to be themselves.”
Perhaps the most important difference to the Schmidt years is that Farrell prioritised involving families and girlfriends, which created the more relaxed atmosphere Kilcoyne and others allude to.
Long-serving team manager Mick Kearney says understandably people have different “ways of coaching, of managing people and of managing organisations.”
“One of the key differences is that it’s probably a more relaxed environment under Andy than it was under Joe,” said Kearney on Monday. “Andy has introduced a lot of softer skills in terms of getting the families involved, a lot of down-time for players and staff.
“At the moment, the families are arriving on [the morning] of the game, have lunch and meet up with the players and enjoy a few hours with them.
“That again has been a huge help to the environment in terms of you can’t be ‘on’ all the time. We look upon the families as part of the squad.”
Schmidt, though, is not like old photographs of the Soviet-era Politburo where those out of favour were airbrushed out.
Kearney is certainly of the opinion that much has been retained from the Schmidt days.
“If you remember back initially when Andy took over we didn’t have Paul O’Connell at that stage,” said Kearney referring to Farrell bringing in Schmidt’s former captain Paul O’Connell as forwards coach.
“Paul came in and he was probably one of Joe’s biggest fans and, I think as a coach, learned a huge amount from Joe and I think he’s put into practice a lot of the habits that Joe instilled into the team.”
© Agence France-Presse
Photo: Patrick Hamilton/AFP