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Joe Schmidt makes surprise return to Super Rugby with the Blues

By Alex McLeod
(Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

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Former Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt will make a surprise return to the Blues next year by joining the franchise’s coaching staff in a supporting role.

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The 56-year-old Kiwi was unveiled as two new coaching additions by the Auckland-based franchise ahead of the 2022 Super Rugby Pacific campaign on Tuesday, with Craig McGrath also joining the side as defence coach from the Auckland NPC team.

Schmidt hasn’t coached since Ireland were knocked out of the 2019 World Cup quarter-finals by the All Blacks, as he moved into World Rugby’s director of rugby and high performance role in the wake of that tournament.

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Schmidt left that position earlier this year to relocate from Ireland to New Zealand to be closer to family, but stayed on board with World Rugby as a member of the High Performance Rugby Committee and Laws Review Group.

However, he will move back into a coaching position with the Blues as a part-time support coach as an assistant to head coach Leon MacDonald.

The move back to the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman champions comes a decade-and-a-half after he last worked for the Blues as an assistant coach under Peter Sloane and David Nucifora between 2005 and 2007.

Schmidt then moved to France to work as Vern Cotter’s assistant coach at Clermont, where he won a Top 14 title in 2010, before taking on the head coach role at Leinster later that year.

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During his three-season spell at the Dublin-based club, Schmidt won two Heineken Cups, one Challenge Cup and one Pro12 title in a trophy-laden stint that eventually won him the Ireland head coach job in 2013.

Ireland enjoyed unprecedented success under Schmidt’s guidance, as they won three Six Nations titles, one Grand Slam, beat the All Blacks for the first two times ever in the nation’s history and climbed as high as first on the World Rugby rankings.

Schmidt was rewarded for his efforts with Ireland by being crowned World Rugby Coach of the Year in 2018.

McGrath, meanwhile, has held various roles as a coach since finishing his playing career in 2008 after having appeared for the Blues, Auckland, North Harbour and Maori All Blacks, among other teams.

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The 47-year-old’s coaching experience includes a four-season spell as an assistant coach at the Melbourne Rebels, as well as a three-year stint with the Honda Heat in Japan’s Top League, before joining Auckland last year.

Blues chief executive Andrew Hore said he was delighted with the experience both coaches will offer the Blues following the departure of assistant coach and former head coach Tana Umaga from the franchise.

“Our strategic plan is clear. We need to develop success for today and develop success for tomorrow,” Hore said.

“In this role, Joe will be able to support Leon and also Craig, as our new defence coach, given Joe’s own expertise as a defence coach over many years. It is an ideal blend of youth and experience, and we are rapt to be able to have both join our camp.”

MacDonald echoed Hore’s sentiments as he said he is eager to extend the personal relationship he has developed with Schmidt in recent times.

“Joe has been mentoring me the last 12 months, which has been incredibly helpful. Having him as part of the coaching team will give us a different voice in the mix and he can also look at things through a different lens and really challenge us,” he said.

“Craig brings that fresh approach and adds to the group of young coaches we have here now, who we are really keen to develop and grow as part of building strong foundations for ongoing success.”

Schmidt said he is excited to join the Blues as Umaga’s replacement and work alongside MacDonald and McGrath in the franchise’s coaching ranks.

“I’m really looking forward to coming back and helping out the coaching staff at the Blues. I know pretty much the whole crew and it’s a nice fit stepping in for Tana, who I greatly respect,” he said.

“I have really enjoyed getting to know Leon. He is doing a great job and has got the team in a really good place after their success this year. I’ve also got a lot of time for Ice (McGrath) and look forward to linking up with him again.”

McGrath, meanwhile, said he will look to lean on Schmidt’s vast coaching experience after having served under him as a player during the pair’s initial stint at the Blues during the mid-2000s.

“I’m really grateful to The Blues, Auckland and to Leon for this opportunity – and having Joe involved means I get the opportunity to have access to all his experience, especially in defence, and get world-class professional development every day,” McGrath said.

“Having been a player and then in my work with Honda we had an association with the Blues, so it was always at the back of mind that I wanted to come back to Auckland and the Blues at some stage.”

Both coaches will take up their new roles in the coming weeks as the Blues move into pre-season training ahead of next year’s season.

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