Belfast Telegraph

I learned so much from Joe, reveals Hurricanes coach

 

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

The little things stand out for John Plumtree as he reflects on his season with Joe Schmidt and the Ireland team. Sure, there was Six Nations glory, but some of the most memorable moments came away from the pitch.

The genial New Zealander served as Schmidt's forwards coach during his first season in charge and, while his stay ended prematurely when he was offered the opportunity to move home, he has fond memories.

There was the night he and Schmidt got lost en route back from the Kingspan to Dublin and ended up driving along the border, scared stiff.

"We had a lot of fun," he said as he recalled his first trip to see a game with the boss. "We went up to Belfast and Joe was chatting away… I thought he knew how to get back down to Dublin, but we missed the turn-off.

"We ended up going inland and it was late, it was after 11pm because Ulster had just finished playing, and Joe is going through these little towns and country roads and we're s******g ourselves.

"We only got home about one in the morning, having gone the long route - and, of course, he blamed me! We still laugh about that.

"Those trips were great with Joe. He's serious about his business, but he's got another side to him that's witty and that's why he's so popular. He doesn't take it too seriously all the time."

Plumtree took charge of the Ireland forwards in 2013 and left at the end of his first season when the opportunity to come home and coach at the Hurricanes came up.

He was a popular man among the players, helping the side to the Six Nations title and a series win over Argentina before heading for Wellington.

The Kiwi, who won two caps for his wife Lara's native South Africa in the 1990s, is an influential figure at the franchise - who secured a first Super Rugby title under his guidance last season.

He'd been away for a long time, coaching the Sharks of Natal in South Africa from 2008 to 2013, until he was ousted by World Cup winner John Smit when he was appointed chief executive of the region. Smit has since admitted his mistake.

Wellington was the place he wanted to settle, and when the opportunity to work as part of Chris Boyd's team with the Hurricanes came up, he couldn't turn it down.

"I thought I would stay in Ireland for three years at least," he said of the move. "Who knows where it might have gone from there, but I always had my eye on doing the Hurricanes at some stage.

"I was getting my kids back into New Zealand rugby because they're promising young players, so the temptation was there. There were tough decisions.

"My long-term goal is to coach this team. I'd like to be head coach of the Hurricanes in the future, but I had to get back into New Zealand rugby.

"So I had one eye on the future, to be involved at a higher level back in New Zealand, and I guess the opportunity to do that came earlier than I thought."

And the experience of working with Schmidt has helped him since he returned.

"Just around his preparation and the detail he goes into," he explained. "When I got back here I saw more of that as well from the other coaches so that was great.

"I learnt from them and brought back what I knew. Now we're finding ways to get our messages across and put plans in place to hopefully get better results.

"Joe will go through the same thing when he comes back."

The prospect of the Ireland head coach heading home has hung over him since he took the job in 2013.

Last year he signed a new deal until the 2019 World Cup and he is widely expected to move home to New Zealand after that. Plumtree is not sure what his old mate intends to do.

"I don't know what's happening, he had a big choice to make whether he was going to extend his contract out until the next World Cup," he said.

"Him and Warren Gatland, Vern Cotter, the Kiwi coaches overseas are always talked about in terms of coming back and I'm sure that'll happen.

"It's just whether Joe ever leaves Ireland, I don't know, maybe he's too Irish now. It will be interesting to see."

His boys Reece (18), a full-back, and Taine (17), a second-row, are in the Wellington Academy, and it seems Ireland didn't just lose an influential and respected coach, but a pair of highly promising players who were enjoying their time at Blackrock College so much they didn't want to leave.

"They've got fond memories of Blackrock," he recalled. "My middle boy (Taine), when they were all going to say goodbye to their mates, about 20-odd girls came out to the house and I didn't even know he had a girlfriend.

"There was tears and all that, the whole classroom of girls came out and Lara, my wife, was going, 'What's going on here?' I'd warned them, 'Don't get a girlfriend because we're leaving', but one of them did and didn't tell us.

"That was emotional - no wonder I wasn't number one in the family!"

The move has worked out for them all and this morning his Hurricanes side face the Lions. Beyond that, their Super Rugby title defence remains alive.

Plumtree left his mark on Irish rugby and Ireland made an impression him, but he's happy with his decision to leave.

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