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Why Ireland's memorable Chicago night didn't change extraordinary Joe Schmidt

Forever wanting to retain control, Joe Schmidt has written his own book in his own way, but it's what he left out rather than what he included that interests Brendan Fanning

In control: Joe Schmidt
In control: Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt with Ireland captain Rory Best and the Six Nations trophy
Head coach: Joe Schmidt
Head coach: Joe Schmidt
Joe Schmidt

By Brendan Fanning

It's appropriate that a book that will be filed out of place under sports autobiographies should have a title that is well wide of the mark. Joe Schmidt is to the ordinary man what Yogi was to the average bear. He is unique in Irish sport; he enjoys widespread respect across the rugby world for his achievements at club and international level.

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Joe Schmidt is extremely bright, and as you can tell from his earliest years on the planet, his metabolism zips along like the racehorses that used to cross his path on the paper round: big, snorting speedsters for which he developed a love that lingers.

He doesn't mind a bit of physical hardship, yet in Ordinary Joe he presents the occasional exposure to corporal punishment in school as notable. To anyone raised in the Irish education system pre-the early 1980s, getting whacked by teachers was a regular feature. And if there were priests involved then there was occasionally the chance that it would go further than that. But the barefoot bit in Schmidt's story is alien to us.

The only time he was sent off a rugby field was when his old man was the ref. The offence was to delight in the misfortune of a rival, coincidentally another kid with a Prussian name. And when the young Schmidt questioned the decision he was told to walk home for good measure. Off his own bat he completed the journey barefoot rather than scuff the studs on his boots. Painful, but makes sense if you had worked your butt off to buy the boots in the first place. In any case, respect. And it's a long way from ordinary.

The idea for the title Ordinary Joe came from an email he sent to a childhood friend who had written to him, wondering if it was the same Joe Schmidt after Ireland had beaten the All Blacks in Chicago in 2016. Yep, just the same Ordinary Joe was the reply.

"What people don't realise is, I'm no different from that kid," he says now. "I've learned a lot along the way but I'm still the ordinary person that I was then. And people have this perception. Even my family - my wider family I mean - they perceive you as someone slightly different. I'm just the same guy."

It's not credible.

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"You might say that but I don't see it and I don't feel it. Sometimes I see it - the New Zealand job at the moment, and there's a lot of talk around and one of my mates sent me this article yesterday saying that NZ rugby desperately needs Joe. I don't see that. I see the headline but I don't feel it. They'll do really well without me. They have great coaches and great people involved. So part of it is I'm trying to tell people I'm no different from what I was. And if I was intelligent I was lucky. I feel my mum was very intelligent, she read widely."

Christina Schmidt would read to the kids while preparing meals for them, an exercise that kept them in some sort of order, and, for Joe (left), it passed on a love of books. Much of that reading has been around the job: first as a teacher, who took his career very seriously and was tipping away successfully at it until rugby dragged him away; and latterly on leadership and how it could improve his coaching and motivation of people.

As Ireland coach he also consumed a fair amount of the written word on rugby, either directly or through his PR man who, he says, would filter a fair bit.

Schmidt's first bruising contact with the fourth estate was when he was assistant coach at the Auckland Blues, his second pro coaching gig after packing in teaching. His son, Tim, came home upset one day that the kids in school had been slagging him for his da's part in the Blues' ordinary season. You can imagine the pain that would cause, and the guilt. Over the years that would have been wiped out by the reams of newsprint devoted to his many successes. Anyway, he includes a chapter in the book on the media. Why?

"You know what, because they had an impact on me. And I'm only just being honest. They have an impact on my family. The media chapter (originally) was longer than that because I started off saying how the world has changed for the media and I had a couple of things about the big takeovers - not your one (Mediahuis buying Independent News & Media) which is too recent - but more in the last couple of years, and how tough it is in the current environment where change is almost a constant. You're being sold to people or there's a change in emphasis. I talked a little about the pressures (on journalists) to get something."

He wants us to get it on his terms though.

In the book he mentions the story of All Black legend Brad Thorn coming to Leinster, and how Schmidt got a call from a journalist looking for confirmation of the story. It was an especially awkward time because he was waiting for his son, Luke, to have surgery for his epilepsy condition.

Long story short, it was this journalist who made the call and Schmidt asked that we hold off as the deal wasn't over the line, and he committed to giving decent background on it when the Japan element - where Thorn was still playing - was squared away. We agreed, reluctantly, fearing that someone else would get it and run with it. As it happened they didn't. Thorn signed and Schmidt was true to his word and gave us decent stuff on it.

That's how he'd like all his media stuff to work: a story easily enough confirmed, and put to bed with something for both parties. The best stories are invariably more awkward, and it's plain wrong to suggest coaches are glad to get those calls checking facts. Schmidt cites the cosy setting from his time assisting Vern Cotter in Bay of Plenty where a local journalist used to travel on the team bus and pop up regularly in the changing room.

He was local, trusted and positive by nature, and the access he had to the team and players was much greater than I've experienced since.

It sounds like the man was so deeply embedded he should have written his name on the soles of his shoes.

By a distance the most controversial story across Schmidt's career, from New Zealand to France to Ireland, was the Belfast Rape Case, in which Ulster and Ireland players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were found not guilty. It gets only a few paragraphs by way of explaining that Rory Best hadn't flown the coop in the lead-up to the France game last year to attend the trial, rather it was the usual midweek break when all the players head home for 24 hours. He doesn't get any closer than that.

"These guys (Penguin) thought it wasn't a good idea to go there," he says.

The bigger picture around that case is one he has opinions on, for sure, but if he's not wading in to those waters then it's understandable that the smaller one is not explored either.

And that featured the huge disruption to the nuts and bolts of squad development for Japan. His unpublished plan had been to get Johnny Sexton, Paddy Jackson, Joey Carbery and Stuart Olding all on the plane for the World Cup, with Olding as the ideal squad player who could fill 10 or 12.

Like a lot of other stuff in the Joe Schmidt story, it gets left out of the official version. There is lots of detail on the matches he played and the players he coached - an index would have been useful to keep track of this cast of hundreds, but evidently the publishers reckoned this should be a route map uncharted - and a good insight into life on the road through diaries written through the Grand Slam Six Nations of 2018 and the World Cup.

Unsurprisingly, there is no about-turn on the methods Ireland used to get into position for the great leap towards - and falling short of - a World Cup semi-final. That would have been out of character for a man so sure about pretty much everything he did.

Joe Schmidt's book is like the house party where you arrive and find the kitchen door locked. And the beer is in the fridge. So when he writes about the grief of not getting home from a rugby tour in South Africa when his dad was dying, it reminds you that he told us so little of the man who took such pride in his achievements.

Why did he issue the invitation at all? A few years ago he congratulated his predecessor with Ireland, Declan Kidney, on a book bearing Kidney's picture, which Schmidt saw somewhere and reckoned must be his autobiography.

Kidney alarmed him by saying it had been written by someone else, with zero input from Kidney. To Schmidt this sounded like having his house party crashed. "(I wrote it) partly because I wanted to keep some control of my own story," says the man for whom control has always been king.

Moreover he adds that a player subsequently contacted him to say an unofficial biography was being written on him, and he had been asked for a quote. "He asked: 'Hey are you okay with me talking to this journalist 'cos he's writing a book about you? I said 'go for your life but I'm going to try and beat it if I can'."

Not surprisingly, Joe Schmidt won that race. In the rush to get over the line, however, he left out so much we would have loved to know.

Ordinary Joe by Joe Schmidt is published by Penguin Ireland at €25. Schmidt will be in conversation in Dublin, Limerick and Belfast (Wednesday, November 4)and tickets for the events are available from www.penguin.co.uk/events/

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