Backs to the future for Joe Schmidt

Story by Tom Kelly

Wednesday, 4th August, 2010 5:30pm

Backs to the future for Joe Schmidt

Way back when: a youthful Joe Schmidt and his wife, Kelly are pictured in the grounds of Mullingar Rugby Football Club at Cullion in the early 1990s.

For many Leinster rugby fans, the announcement earlier this year that Clermont Auvergne's backs coach Joe Schmidt was to replace head coach Michael Cheika, was greeted with the words "Joe who?"

Not so, however, some 50 miles west of Dublin, where the very affable Joe made an enormous impression when he spent "a fantastic 18 months in Mullingar" almost two decades ago.

The effervescent, fair-haired Joe both played and coached in Cullion and, while his youthful good looks may have enabled him to pass as a student in Wilson's Hospital School, he confined himself to an invaluable role as assistant to the late, great Joe Weafer as the 'two Joes' guided the Multyfarnham school to a historic first-ever success in the Leinster Schools senior 'A' rugby cup.

In a previous existence, this columnist was Bursar in the famous old school (which celebrates its 250th birthday next year) and the unconfined joy on the faces of long-time staff members on that never-to-be-forgotten December day in 1991 in Donnybrook and, later that evening in the school, when the Warden/Headmaster, the late Robert Whiteside (who brought the term 'gentleman' to a whole new level) welcomed home the all-conquering heroes, remains firmly etched in the memory of this all-round sports fanatic (a term which could easily be applied to Robert also).

So, there were no mutterings of "Joe who?" when the New Zealander formally returned to Cullion on the August Bank Holiday Monday in his aforementioned new role.

A few grey hairs may have appeared in the intervening 18 years (some of us would be grateful for hair of any colour now!), but the same bubbly Joe was as approachable and cooperative as ever when he mingled with familiar faces after his squad had gone through a rigorous one-hour training session. This new initiative to spread the rugby gospel throughout the entire province, thereby belying the notion that Leinster represents Dublin 4 only, is proving to be an unqualified success.

Indeed, giant lock Devin Toner (who is much nearer seven than six feet tall) is a native of the Hill of the Down and was one of many stars to be the centre of attention for star-struck teenage girls (and a few 'older' teenagers!) when Brian O'Driscoll and co. rode into town on Monday. With Brian's recent well-publicised nuptials in nearby County Leitrim ruling him 'out of bounds' ('over the dead-ball line'?) for his legions of female fans in Cullion, others such as Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, Jamie Heaslip and Shane Horgan were being frantically eyed up from all gain-lines!

However, while Monday was a formal visit, Joe confessed that "I actually snuck back into town last weekend and, over a few pints of Guinness, caught up with the vast majority of old faces. We had a fantastic night. It was very much enjoyed by my wife Kelly and I. "Sadly, one man who was not there to greet Joe was the 'other Joe' ie Joe Weafer, aka 'the Weaf', who sadly passed away, aged only 45 years, after losing a typically-brave fight with cancer in May 2007. Schmidt spoke emotionally when recalling the Mullingar native, who made an incalculable contribution to the academic and sporting life of the renowned co-educational school in Multy.

"Joe (Weafer) was a champion bloke. Nobody would have had a dry eye when he passed away. He was a fantastic fellow. I enjoyed his company. I enjoyed his expertise as a teacher and a rugby coach. We managed to get over the line in the cup and I caught up the other night with the captain, second row forward Maurice Cahill (a native of Moate), who is a great fellow." Remarkably, Schmidt was able to rhyme off many of the stars of that history-making side. "I have been meaning to catch up with Andrew Thompson," he stated, alluding to the gifted sportsman from Borris-in-Ossory, who was generally accepted as the team's real star, playing at out-half. Indeed, Thompson went on to have an illustrious career as one of the Irish club game's most prolific points-scorers with Shannon RFC. Joe also fondly remembered "Liam Plunkett as a great full back on that team, he did some really nice straight lines and a young French lad, Nico Drion was a fine try-scoring winger. We threw the ball around which I think caught other teams on the hop. Wilson's was a great school and there was a great bunch of boys when I was there and I've no doubt that there is a great bunch out there now."

It is clear that Joe has retained a genuine fondness for all-things Mullingar since he went on to other overseas roles. Schmidt worked with Clermont for three years having cut his teeth alongside Clermont head coach Vern Cotter at Bay of Plenty. He also had a stint coaching at the Auckland Blues, but the Leinster job is his first senior head coach position. "Mick and Eileen Lynn have been out to visit us and we caught up with them the other night. We've had a few others over in New Zealand and I think 12 of them were booked to fly over but, with the volcanic ash problems, that was cancelled, which was very disappointing. In the last couple of years, Clermont have played Munster and a bunch of Mullingar lads have come down and caught up with us at Thomond Park. We've exchanged Christmas cards and the odd phone call and I got back about five years ago with Kelly for a five-day visit to Mullingar. Even now with Leinster commitments, I would love to get back for the odd Sunday match in Cullion and, if not for the match, certainly for a couple of beers afterwards," he said, with a twinkle in his eye.

As he surveyed the fine set-up in Cullion, I asked Joe if he ever envisaged himself revisiting as Leinster coach when he was here in the early 1990s. "It wasn't in the plans, but I can't say I've ever made too many plans for myself. You just keep an eye on what's in front of your nose and let what's a long way away look after itself. You look after what's immediately there and do a good job on that. Now I'm dealing with some of the best players in Ireland, if not in the world. We'll be ready to go in the early rounds of the Heineken Cup and I'm not looking too much further than that, to be honest," he said, with typical modesty. "I've signed for three years, which is pretty common these days. I did have one year left at Clermont, but I had the option to move on."

In conclusion, Joe laughed when stating that "I can now speak pretty good French, but I don't think I'll get to use it too often!" When a Frenchman, Arsene Wenger took over at Arsenal 14 years ago, cries of "Arsene who?" filled the Highbury air. Nowadays, the Emirates faithful continue to say a sincere "merci beaucoup" to their hugely-respected manager. No doubt, Leinster fans will echo those sentiments to "Joe who?", sooner rather than later. And all Westmeath folk who have had the pleasure of meeting Joe Schmidt will say a heartfelt "bonne chance" to the genial Kiwi as the rugby season prepares to get into full swing.

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