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Joe Schmidt's new deal may lead to Lions tenure

By Ruaidhri O'Connor

Joe Schmidt held all the aces when it came to his contract talks with the IRFU and the end result means he remains in full control of his own destiny.

The new deal he signed yesterday extends his stay in Ireland by 12 months and opens up his options in 2017, a year in which there is likely to be plenty of opportunity on this side of the world and in his native New Zealand.

The Lions travel to the home of the current world champions in two years' time and there remains a possibility that Schmidt will be involved with the touring side in some capacity.

Bookmakers have installed the Ireland coach as odds-on favourite to lead the men in red, even if the incumbent Warren Gatland remains the likely choice after his success in Australia.

That the tourists travel to both men's homeland adds to the mix, while All Black coach Steve Hansen's own contract comes to an end at the end of the international season.

New Zealand don't usually promote from outside their system, but a strong World Cup showing and a stint with the Lions could continue to turn heads in a place where Schmidt is steadily building his reputation and turning heads from abroad.

While there is nothing to suggest that Schmidt is set on leaving once his new contract comes to an end, he will simply have options when it does.

While the Kiwi has been undoubtedly good for Irish rugby, the country has in turn provided him with the conditions in which he has prospered.

If the Lions come calling, there could be scope to renegotiate beyond 2017 and add a sabbatical, while he could combine forces with Gatland as part of a dream ticket to take on the best team in the world.

For the IRFU and their performance director David Nucifora, Schmidt's contract has been a high priority issue since he delivered a second successive Six Nations crown last March.

Given his remarkably successful term to date, you can be sure they'd have liked him to commit for the duration of the next World Cup cycle, but he will instead see out a four-year term before deciding what's next.

Indeed, by signing on until 2017, he relieves the obvious pressure that would come from any under-performance in England and Wales this autumn.

In contrast, England's Stuart Lancaster has committed his future beyond the 2019 tournament in Japan despite a relatively underwhelming record, adding to the pressure he is under.

Schmidt will be happy that the deal was squared away long before the World Cup warm-ups begin in three weeks' time, allowing him to focus on preparations.

In yesterday's press release confirming the new contract, Nucifora paid tribute to his old Auckland Blues colleague, pointing out the work Schmidt has done with "indigenous coaches" as well as the women's and under-age teams.

Working in tandem, the duo exert a huge amount of influence over every layer of the professional game in Ireland, which has led to tension with the provinces and Leinster in particular, but has generally been a positive development.

The coach is driving standards across the game, demanding that players come up to his level and stake a claim while rewarding hard work.

Most importantly, he gets results. Fourteen wins in 18 Test matches and wins over all of the major nations bar the world champions is a remarkable record of success for anyone.

Over the two seasons Schmidt has been in charge, Ireland have improved drastically and made history with back-to-back Six Nations titles. With that comes expectation that they can reach new heights at the World Cup.

If they do, the clamour to hand Schmidt another new deal will begin in earnest, especially with big jobs coming on stream at the end of his current deal.

By signing the New Zealander up for one more year, the IRFU have merely postponed the big decision. With competition for his signature set to be fierce in 2017, the union will have a fight on their hands to keep hold of their man with the Midas touch.

Belfast Telegraph


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