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More 'Scary Schmidt' than 'Sleepy Joe': Ireland tales that show the new Wallabies coach could be a polarising figure

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25th March, 2024
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Joe Schmidt’s appointment as Wallaby coach has been widely acclaimed.

Here is a coach who is world class offering to take on the poisoned Wallaby chalice.

Lucky, right? The consensus seems to be ‘right man, right place, right time’.

But having spent a considerable time in the Northern Hemisphere, following European Rugby, I can safely say it isn’t quite as clear cut as that.

There’s little doubt the mild-mannered, gentlemanly ex-school teacher Schmidt, was a respected but polarising figure during his tenure in Ireland.

In 2018, the Belfast Telegraph observed Schmidt’s coaching, reporting that players have described his training methods on and off the pitch as “tough”, “unpleasant”, “ruthlessly honest”, and even “brutal”.

The former Irish International Stephen Ferris confirmed that Schmidt provoked contrasting emotions within the playing group when in 2022 he told NZ Rugby scribe Paul Cully:


“Look, some players absolutely loved him, some players couldn’t stand him… he got stuck into players. Sometimes, a player might have been a little vulnerable, and to Joe, that was maybe a sign of weakness. You’ve got to have a strong mentality to be able to live with Joe Schmidt. Somebody like Johnny Sexton obviously thrived under him because he’s so confident and believes in his own ability.”

Another Irish great, Paul O’Connell was said to be among Schmidt’s biggest fans. It’s no coincidence that there are similarities between POC’s mindset and Sexton’s: supremely confident, uncompromising and hard-as-nails.

Wallabies Head Coach Joe Schmidt at a Rugby Australia press conference. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

One of the players who didn’t thrive under Schmidt was the now-retired Ulster lock Dan Tuohy who played 11 times for Ireland. Tuohy dreaded getting the Irish call-up:

“He [Schmidt] is a pretty scary character… I didn’t react well to being belittled or feeling scared. It wasn’t a good thing for me. I didn’t enjoy that. I know a lot of other players didn’t as well. Some people thrive on that. But he wasn’t a warm character.”

Belittled and scared? Brutal and ruthless on and off the pitch? Strong language to say the least and perhaps reminiscent of another ex-school teacher turned coach.

Schmidt achieved much of his success by making Eddie Jones look like a Pomeranian.


Even fellow coach Vern Cotter was quoted as saying “Joe is a smiling assassin. He seems genial, but there is no one more hard-edged and competitive… He’s very, very tough”.

The question has to be asked, how many of the current Wallaby generation have the relentless drive and unshakeable self-belief of a Johnny Sexton? How many possess that hard, hard edge that defined Paul O’Connell?

We are about to find out.

Among all the congratulatory back-slapping, and the relief to be rid of Jones, there is the possibility that Schmidt’s appointment could go horribly wrong. Especially, if the methods don’t produce the performances.

Some Irish players speculated that Schmidt had stifled creativity and spontaneity. Off-loading for example was said to be frowned upon under Joe.

Towards the end of Schmidt’s reign, there was also rampant criticism of the bland style of Rugby his team played, especially when thrashed by the All Blacks in an RWC quarter-final.


Players like Andrew Kellaway for example, who were not so long ago on the brink of quitting Australia, might find Schmidt’s style the ‘final straw’.

Noah Lolesio is another one who is disillusioned and seems to require a little hand-holding and a little positive reinforcement. That’s not Joe Schmidt’s style by all accounts.

Of course, it could go the other way. One of Schmidt’s strengths is said to be communication. His players were seldom in doubt about what was required and why they were dropped or retained.

One thing is pretty certain, we are unlikely to see a repeat of late-night excursions to Maccas during next year’s Lions series.

Mike Ross, who played prop under Schmidt at both Leinster and Ireland was quoted saying: “If you were one of the heavier lads and he caught you going up for seconds at the dessert trolley, he would ask if you really needed it.”

Tuohy provided a similar food-related account:

“I’d use Chris Henry [former Irish back row] as an example. A lot of time he was in shape but he didn’t look in shape. He was fit as anything, but he looked like a bag of s–t. Chris was not sure if he could have ketchup with food. There was always an element of hiding things or having a desert and wondering if Joe was watching you.”


Wallabies coach Joe Schmidt speaks to the media. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Certain players obviously respond better to the head teacher, strict disciplinarian approach than others.

Will Taniela Tupou, for example, be redirected from the ice cream cart or will he tolerate having a meat pie without sauce?

I say that with absolutely no tongue in cheek. If as has been speculated, Tupou thought Brad Thorn was tough, Schmidt sounds tougher. A lot tougher.

Conversely, certain players may well thrive in a strict, structured environment where cotton wool wrapping is nowhere to be found just like many did in the Irish experience.

For one, I’m picking Ryan Smith the Reds lock as a Wallaby bolter this year. He is the exact type of hard-nosed, hard-knocks ‘cake baker’ that Schmidt wants.

Schmidt himself gave an insight into what he looks for, and what he demands even when he emphasized, once saying: “A lot of the things that you do in rugby, don’t take a whole lot of talent. They take a whole lot of effort.”


That approach is to be both praised and admired. In many ways, it echoes the Les Kiss mantra of ‘be useful’.

Reds players are probably reciting that this week especially just as Irish players under the Schmidt regime recited: “We are what we repeatedly do; excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

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Right now, Schmidt hasn’t put a foot wrong since being appointed Wallaby coach.

There’s no doubt that he’s a calm, considered and polished media performer with runs on the board. He’s got nothing to prove. He’s already a great coach.

But beware, when it comes to coaching all reports point more to Scary Schmidt than Sleepy Joe.