Kiwi Joe Schmidt has a chance of adding to Irish rugby’s storied history in the upcoming game against the All Blacks.
In 1922, the island of Ireland was split into the Irish Free State, subsequently the Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. The rugby authorities effectively decided to ignore this momentous development and Irish rugby has remained a single, trans-national entity ever since, notwithstanding religious division, political and geopolitical divergence – the republic was neutral during World War II – and the 30 years of sectarian strife euphemistically known as “the Troubles”.
The big picture intruded only a couple of times: when a test was staged in Belfast in 1954, players from the republic declared they wouldn’t stand for God Save the Queen. The British national anthem wasn’t played and 50 years would elapse before Ireland next took the field in Belfast.
In 1972, Scotland and Wales declined to travel to Dublin for Five Nations Championship fixtures in the city after players were supposedly threatened by the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA). England went ahead with their game, receiving a five-minute standing ovation from the Irish crowd, and obligingly losing the match. At the after-match dinner, England captain John Pullin said, “We might not be very good but at least we turn up.”
While Ireland hasn’t traditionally been one of the game’s heavyweights, Irish rugby has produced more than its fair share of personalities and notables. Among them are wild boys such as Mick English, whose party trick during the 1959 Lions tour of this country was belting out incendiary, anti-English republican songs, and Willie Anderson, who was arrested for souveniring a flag from a local government office while touring Argentina with a club side in 1978. He spent three months in prison but got off lightly given that some in Argentina’s ruling military junta reportedly wanted him put up against a wall. To give that context, the junta’s “dirty war” against domestic opposition accounted for an estimated 30,000 people, euphemistically known as “the Disappeared”.
When the All Blacks played Ireland in 1989, Anderson led a response to the haka that took him within kissing range of the visitors’ captain, Buck Shelford. Anderson said afterwards, “We won the dance but lost the match.”
Another larger-than-life figure is Tony O’Reilly, who played for Ireland and the Lions at 18, and at 33 and still playing the game turned down the offer of a senior position in the Irish government to become boss of American food giant HJ Heinz’s UK subsidiary.
O’Reilly went on to become Ireland’s first billionaire, but his fall was as spectacular as his rise: he ended up bankrupt and beleaguered by creditors in the various countries in which he had business interests and maintained grand residences. Before it all turned to custard, however, he’d taken the sensible precaution of marrying a Greek shipping heiress.
And is there anyone in rugby whose achievements match those of Syd Millar? He played 37 tests for Ireland and went on three Lions tours; in 1974, he coached Ireland to the Five Nations Championship and the Lions on their unbeaten sweep through South Africa; he selected and managed Irish and Lions teams, was president of the Irish Rugby Football Union and, finally, chairman of the International Rugby Board, now World Rugby.
Today, though, the pre-eminent figure in Irish rugby is Kawakawa-born, Woodville-raised Joe Schmidt, whose coaching journey began at Palmerston North Boys’ High School. After stints with Bay of Plenty, the Blues and French club Clermont, Schmidt succeeded current Wallabies coach Michael Cheika at Irish province Leinster. He became Ireland coach in 2013, in which capacity he has collected three Six Nations titles and an All Blacks scalp (Chicago, 2016.)
Schmidt, whose contract expires after next year’s World Cup, is the hottest coaching property in world rugby, a status underlined by Richie McCaw’s view that he should be the next All Blacks coach. At least, that’s how the headline writers interpreted McCaw’s comments; on close inspection, they proved to be somewhat less cut and dried.
The Irish are desperate to keep Schmidt; New Zealand Rugby is keen to have him in the mix. Schmidt says he’ll make a decision by the end of this month, which, coincidentally, is when All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will decide whether he wants to stay on beyond next year.
This article was first published in the November 24, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.