I was awake at 3am on Tuesday morning in Dublin. Just to get good at it, I was up again at 5am and 6.30am. First day as a coach in the Irish camp was like first day at school. Who’d have thought it?
The stomach-turning mix of uncertainty and excitement was something I wasn’t geared up for. I met Simon Easterby on Monday night. We agreed on one thing: If you are not excited heading into a coaching opportunity like this, you are in the wrong game.
My insides settled as the week progressed, but first impressions are never too far off the mark. My initial one was this: There won’t be any Saipans in Irish rugby anytime soon. Everything is unbelievably organised and structured, with every hour of every day for the next three weeks accounted for. No wonder players struggle so much with the dry cleaning when we come out of the bubble!
On Tuesday, I was catching flies, with my mouth open, watching the maestro in action. First impressions of Joe Schmidt? Impressive. His delivery is very impressive, and that is so important as a coach. The clarity of the message, the expectation and the solution. Everything is the solution and making good decisions as individuals on the pitch. It’s all very simple, too. There’s nothing there that you haven’t seen, nothing from the bottom of the deck, but it was evident from the first hour of the first session this week that it’s a well-oiled machine.
Anything that challenges you as a coach is good. It’s a fresh perspective, a new take, and another layer of my coaching education. On Monday night in Carton House, I got a notepad and wrote bullet points following the conclusion of my fourth season with Racing 92. Our campaign ended, like Munster’s, last Saturday in the Top 14 semi-final. Even from an ultimately disappointing season, there are always positives to be taken, however unusual. For instance, the human capacity to overcome uncontrollable distractions. At times, this season, I thought I was in Beverly Hills with the dramas on and off the pitch at Racing — drug issues and allegations, players walking out of the club, inexplicable dips in form. A 54-3 defeat thrown in there.
We overcame all that and a 19-6 half-time deficit to Clermont last Saturday to put ourselves in touching distance of back-to-back Top 14 finals. We made it 19-12, then Clermont had a man sent off, and Racing had a lineout five metres from their line. A try there, we’re level, there’s a final on the horizon. Instead, they go 90 metres down the pitch and get the five-pointer. It gave Clermont the oxygen they needed, and we crumbled.
The trouble with the business end of the season is no second chances. There’s no next game to put it right, and it always burns your stomach like acid, knowing you have to wait 12 months for this championship rugby again. Say what you want about the Top 14, but the French play-offs are brilliant; you play 26 league matches, which I accept are often average, but then the Top 14 explodes when you get to the knockout stages.
I made another note: Progress. With a question mark. I’ve two more years under contract in Paris, that’ll bring me to six as a coach, but I am still learning my trade. I can see now that the correlation between playing and coaching rugby is marginal at best. Any advantage in having over 100 international caps is marginal, too. They are different professions. I arrived in Paris four years ago as a just-retired player. It was like starting my career again, and even now I am only four years in. Slow and steady wins the race.
There will also be pause for reflection this week in Munster. Necessary reflection, if I am being honest. Last Saturday’s PRO12 final indicated that they’ve made a lot of progress, but it’s blatantly obvious, too, that they’re not there mentally, yet.
Rassie Erasmus’s players have impressed, going from outsiders to contenders, but to take the next step, I think they are still some way off. If that seems harsh, it’s no more so than the squad should be on themselves. At the business end of the season, against Scarlets and Saracens, they failed the serious tests of their mettle.
People will justifiably balance those poor results against the progress made since last October, but they are still Munster. And that next step to a title is clearly a greater one than this group of players seem to grasp. You can try to reach for patronising sops after Saturday, but it’s very hard to have any positive reflections when you go 29-3 down in a final in Dublin. I’ve never had that feeling, so I can’t describe it, but I imagine it’s disheartening to produce their worst performance on the big day. Whatever about producing your best, Munster certainly shouldn’t be producing their worst for finals, which Conor Murray accepted they had.
The foundations in place this season are sturdy, and might even survive the loss of Erasmus back to South Africa. There’s a long-term game plan at play here which I’d have big confidence in, but the players — as opposed to management — must cotton on fast that cup rugby, and the final weeks of the campaign, are a bit different to the average Saturday, when you are always in contention. Considering where Munster have come from, it was going to be difficult to go ‘jump-jump-jump’, then success, but they should be looking for clear indicators that they have an appreciation of what’s required. Clearly, Erasmus being in situ next season would help. Losing him would be destabilising in the short term, even if it’s widely accepted he will return home at some stage, but the show will go on. That is the great thing about sport. The rugby world is getting smaller, and there’s a new wave of top coaches in both hemispheres who could come in and earn the respect that Rassie now commands in the Munster dressing room.
The Graham Henrys, Andy Robinsons, Ian McGeechans etc, have been replaced by Gregor Townsend, Andy Farrell, Wayne Pivac. Farrell is just turned 42, on his second Lions tour as a coach, and has set the standard for the rest of us, in some respects.
I can already see this week with Ireland how good Simon Easterby is. It’s of massive benefit to him also to be working hand-in-glove with Joe in the Irish set-up. Before we ever take off for America, the value of Schmidt to Ireland is plain to see.