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RUGBYPASS+ Has Santa brought an early present for the All Blacks?

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Has Santa brought an early present for the All Blacks?
5 months ago

New Zealand rugby fans with an All Blacks Christmas wish list would no doubt have had a fresh voice on the coaching panel near the top, and Santa hasn’t bothered waiting until the 25th for that one, with NZR’s appointment of Joe Schmidt to the brains trust.

Officially, Schmidt has not been appointed as a coach, taking over from the departing Grant Fox as an ‘independent selector’ but it’s inconceivable that his influence won’t extend beyond that.

Already the talk is of an analytical role, using his high rugby IQ, a wealth of IP, and considerable powers of recall to try and, above all, come up with ways of unpicking the cloying defences that have proved the undoing of the All Blacks over the past few years.

Joe Schmidt greets Hansen
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt chats with and All Black coach Steve Hansen in Dublin in 2016 (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

You do get the feeling that New Zealand has finally got its man, albeit via a circuitous route.

Despite an outgoing Steve Hansen giving full backing to his understudy Ian Foster, and with it a hefty dig in the ribs of those making the appointment, many Kiwis felt that Schmidt’s success with Ireland should have warranted stronger consideration.

It was not straightforward, however.

Schmidt’s own personal circumstances meant that there was a great deal of uncertainty about his next move after 2019, including the possibility that he could step away from the game completely. Any such thinking could only have been exacerbated by the churlish noises coming out of Ireland.

It was Schmidt who copped it from players, pundits and public alike, and it took the acerbic Neil Francis, of all people, to remind the mob of Ireland’s “unparalleled success” under the New Zealander.

Common amongst the criticism directed at Schmidt following his departure were a reluctance to open up to the media (a bog-standard complaint) and the intensity he brought to the role with Ireland that had the capacity to wear players down.

The rest of it came down to the sort of reaction you get when people’s own lofty expectations of a team haven’t been met, expectations that had been elevated after Six Nations success and two wins over the All Blacks, only to be dashed by Ireland’s traditional quarter-final exit at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

It was Schmidt who copped it from players, pundits and public alike, and it took the acerbic Neil Francis, of all people, to remind the mob of Ireland’s “unparalleled success” under the New Zealander.

Instead of another team, Schmidt took on a high performance role with World Rugby, before a change of circumstances made possible a mentoring role with the Blues for next year, and now this.

Ireland were bundled out of the most recent World Cup by the All Blacks at the quarter-final stages. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Hopes are being voiced that Schmidt will offer an influence along the lines of Wayne Smith. That’s a lot to ask for, almost unfair when Smith remains one of rugby’s greatest thinkers, but there are some similarities.

Like Smith, Joe Schmidt is not a huge fan of the limelight. Like Smith he has a great processor for a brain, and like Smith he will be forever trying to think of ways around a challenge.

He was no doubt looking forward to working in a background role at the Blues, and you can imagine that his role with the All Blacks, out of the direct firing line, will be very much to his liking, at least for the time being.

There are some selection dilemmas lying in wait, but what most people are hoping for is that Schmidt will be able to provide some new angles on some old problems.

Post his 2011 Great Redemption, Graham Henry reflected, with glorious hindsight, that dropping three games to the Springboks in 2009, just two years out from the World Cup, was in some way a good thing.

The man doesn’t bring a magic wand. He can’t suddenly pull a Jerome Kaino or Ma’a Nonu out of a hat, or a hard-charging prop who can also dominate a scrum, and he can’t make Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick three years younger.

What he does have, and what has been missing from the current All Black panel is a proven record as an international head coach, and a profound knowledge of the game in the Northern Hemisphere, where multiple threats are emerging ahead of the next World Cup.

Post his 2011 Great Redemption, Graham Henry reflected, with glorious hindsight, that dropping three games to the Springboks in 2009, just two years out from the World Cup, was in some way a good thing.

Good, because it made them think. Think about their shortcomings, think about their tactics, think about their selections, and think about their own roles, which they ended up shuffling for a time, just to change things up a bit.

The loss of Grant Fox as a selector will be keenly felt by the All Blacks, even if the man coming in to replace him has a great rugby mind on him. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

That’s the big challenge facing the current All Black panel. A few things need changing, and a lot need some serious thought.

Foster’s critics have swelled in number, more so now than at the start of his tenure, but he has good people around him, and he’s just had another added.

Of course, he loses one too. Grant Fox has once again served his country with distinction, and that needs to be remembered.

He steps aside two years after he was originally going to, post 2019, only for Foster to persuade him to stay on.

When you consider where Joe Schmidt was at in those intervening years, the timing now seems impeccable.

Two years out from the World Cup – and just in time for Christmas.

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