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COMMENT: In trading Greatest Showman for 'boring' and 'pragmatic' Sleepy Joe, RA gambling with game's future

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19th January, 2024
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The Wallabies parted ways with the Greatest Showman and have replaced him with Sleepy Joe Schmidt, a “boring pragmatist” so laidback and softly spoken he makes Dave Rennie look like, well, Eddie Jones.

“Boring” and “pragmatist” are Joe Schmidt’s own words – not mine, but after 30 minutes of watching him try to outdo RA CEO Phil Waugh and High Performance director Peter Horne for nothing answers and meaningless word salad in his introductory media conference – and totally succeed – all you can do is agree with him, while desperately fighting the urge for a nap.

With the bland leading the bland one thing’s for certain: Schmidt better be a winner or Australian rugby’s steady descent from public consciousness is going to be fast tracked.

RA CEO Phil Waugh speaks to media during a Rugby Australia media opportunity at Allianz Stadium on January 19, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

RA CEO Phil Waugh speaks to media alongside Joe Schmidt. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

The decision to choose Schmidt as Jones’ replacement has been widely hailed throughout the rugby world. He has his fans in Ireland and New Zealand, and his impressive CV clearly makes him a strong choice for the job.

But rugby is facing an existential crisis in Australia and we absolutely need Schmidt to hit the ground running on the scoreboard, if he’s not going to fire up in the public arena.

Jones had Waugh safely covered for charisma but Schmidt and the Rugby Australia CEO are much closer in delivery style. A penny for the thoughts of the “horse guy” Peter V’landys if he bothered to watch Schmidt’s muted unveiling.

Australia might have jumped in on the intriguing and bonding narrative of a Dan McKellar or Stephen Larkham, and the short term nature of Schmidt’s contract means it’s likely one of those or an another Aussie will take Australia to the World Cup anyway.

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Schmidt has a child with serious health issues and thought he’d retired a couple of years ago, and was not inclined to suggest he’d be powering through beyond the next two seasons.

So is he a firm hand on the tiller required after the unhinged Captain Queeg character previously at the helm? Or will he be a lame duck skipper drifting on a great sea of indifference?

This could be be a very long two years for the code if he can’t get a tune from his players – because all signs point to a complete lack of interest in being out on the stump.

It would appear that Schmidt is a placeholder. And if that World Cup fiasco left you feeling numb below the waste, it’s hard to see this short term appointment firing up your mojo.

This debut press conference was as far away from a passionate rallying cry or call to arms as you could imagine.

“I’m probably a little bit surprised that I’m here. I thought I’d retired when I went back to New Zealand but I’m very poor at doing that,” Schmidt acknowledged. “Obviously, being involved with the Blues and the All Blacks since then and I’m pretty excited. This is a really unique challenge.”

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And where Jones got animated on an Australian style of rugby 12 months ago, Schmidt was non-committal to the core.

Of course, this cardie and slippers approach to his job probably thrills many readers of The Roar, suffering PTSD from Eddie’s streams of gibberish and his two wins from nine. These will be banner days for the boring and pragmatic in our midst as they get their own leader to relax with after 12 months of Eddie-mania.

Let’s hope they’re spot on. The comments on today’s news about Schmidt’s appointment are overwhelmingly positive – which makes a pleasant change to be sure. But today is not one for the dreamers – or the believers that Australia’s head coach role should be held by an Australian.

New Wallabies Head Coach Joe Schmidt speaks to media during a Rugby Australia media opportunity at Allianz Stadium on January 19, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

“I’m not great at selling dreams. Dreams are not tangible,” Schmidt said.

“I’m a pragmatic sort of individual probably characterised as boring, I don’t have probably the charisma that Eddie (Jones) has fired up but I’m really keen to get into clubs.

“With the Irish model, you’re competing with soccer, but the biggest games in Ireland are Gaelic football and hurling…Rugby is only the fourth sport so there are a few similarities and trying to grow the interest in the game and one of the best ways to grow the interest is is win games. 

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“People love to get along when they believe their team are going to be really competitive so I’ll probably be a little bit narrow, focused on trying to get to know the people, get to help them perform at their best, combine it as the best that we can as a team, because again, I just think the flagship will drive some of that interest and then interest will get kids aspiring to be part of what they see.

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“That can take a while but it certainly happened in Ireland in a very competitive place for players and I think it is even more competitive here. It’s tougher, but I still think there’s a chance that we can attract enough positive attention that people will be positive about being involved in the game, supporting the game and hopefully you’re back in a team that’s really competitive.”

New Wallabies Head Coach Joe Schmidt poses during a Rugby Australia media opportunity at Allianz Stadium on January 19, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Although Waugh and Schmidt did their best to dodge questions over the length of his contract – there is hope for us all.

If he loses and bores the daylights out of us, at least there’s time to change tack and whip up some fervour ahead of the home World Cup. If he wins and bores the daylights out of us all, at least we’ve got a winning team.

Eddie Jones was a megalomanic. Some would even suggest he outright lied to the Australian fan base.

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He came storming back on the scene as if ready for a drunken gun fight. He said the Wallabies would win the Bledisloe Cup, and heck the World Cup too. Then proceeded to pick a nonsense squad full of flaws – inexperienced players in key roles, some injured family friends.

Schmidt comes across like Sleepy Joe to Jones’ Donald Trump. There will be nothing outlandish, no promises, and that will be of great comfort to many. Do not expect Joe Schmidt to fire up his own self serving podcast, or bait the “horse guy”.

Heck, don’t even expect him to greet a question with relish or certainty.

“I can’t say that I’ll succeed or otherwise at the moment. I’m just getting my feet under the desk and trying to get a better measure of who’s out there and what capability they have,” said Schmidt when asked why the thought he could succeed with the Wallabies.

“I’ve certainly observed a lot with Australian players obviously preparing to play against them. By getting to know the people behind the player. And if we can get the right people and they can perform on the field, I do think we can build things.

“But I do think it’s also a rebuild that will take a little bit of time and I’m probably a pragmatist. I can’t promise anything other than I’ll be working really hard to try to make it as successful as it can be and try and get some early wins on the board. And those wins may be just that we perform better, even if we don’t quite get the outcomes we’re looking for. I’m also realistic that you’re judged on your outcomes and you live or die by them.”

Perhaps it’s overstating it to say that the sport in Australia could well live or die based on the next two years. Perhaps they had no choice but to take this road.

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But make no mistake, this is a massive gamble by Waugh and Rugby Australia. Fingers crossed they pull it off.

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