JONATHAN SEXTON BACKS Joe Schmidt, wherever the Ireland head coach decides to make his living after next year’s World Cup.
The Ireland head coach’s contract with the IRFU will expire by the end of 2019, and with his counterpart Steve Hansen also vacating his post at that point, the NZRU have been keeping a close eye on Schmidt’s success.
Working together at Leinster since 2010 and at international grade since 2013, Sexton has been a long-term lieutenant of Schmidt’s. But the out-half isn’t fazed by the idea of the eight-year relationship drawing to a close.
“I think he is going to make the decision that is best for him at this stage and what he feels is right,” Sexton said as he unveiled a partnership with Mace this week.
“Whether he feels he can stay on with this group or that he needs to go onto the next challenge. But whatever he does decide… I think as players, we hope that he stays.
“He has done an incredible job. I have worked with him since 2010/11 and the success that he has brought to us with Leinster to get to the six finals in three years and then to go and win three (Six Nations) championships – and we have still got more to go – it’s been a special time and a lot of that has been down to him.”
In saying that, Sexton also suggests that progress and success needn’t end when Schmidt does eventually leave these shores. The Kiwi has helped to create structures with Leinster and then throughout the IRFU which will continue to bear fruit.
“He would have built from within,” adds the out-half, “we all know the standards that are set. You look at teams that are successful: the All Blacks, they develop standards and then… the senior players along with whoever is new, they try and drive the same standards. That’s what we will try and do if he does leave.
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“Whoever takes over, you know, will get with the senior players and say: ‘how are we going to do this?’ And we have to make sure that we do that.
“No matter what way you look at it, he’ll be a loss in some way. I think he is the best around. He will be a loss.”
Watching Schmidt develop and improve as a coach since 2010 has undoubtedly thrust a wealth of coaching knowledge onto Sexton and staff throughout Ireland, but the out-half reasons that there is always more that can be learned from a rugby mind as keen as the three-time Six Nations winner.
“The reason I think he is one of the best trainers is that he seems to improve every campaign.
“In this job he has a few months off, so he’s the type of guy that likes time off and he’ll probably make himself pretty busy.
“I am looking forward to November already in terms of something new that we are going to do. Whether it’s something new in training or something new from a preparation or mental point of view, something new in terms of a gameplan; there will always be something new.
“And it’s the same with the other coaches. Faz (Andy Farrell) will have something new in defence. That’s the best thing about them, they drive continuous improvement. I am excited about it already so I don’t think I have learnt everything.”
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Sexton’s view on the currently uncertain future of the head coach is broadly in line with the IRFU stance articulated by CEO Philip Browne this week.
The union also issued a clearly defined target for the men’s national team, a semi-final place at the next two World Cups. That sort of goal-setting doesn’t sit comfortably with Sexton, though not because it’s an added pressure.
“It’s hard isn’t it,” he says, “you never go into a tournament wanting to not win something, I’ve never gone into the Heineken Cup saying: ‘oh, I hope we get to the quarters or the semis.’
“But at the same time we’ve never got past the quarter finals. We’ve got to first of all figure out why that is.
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“We’ve got to say to each other there’s been reasons why and we’ve got to make sure we don’t play our final in the group. I think that’s (the message) coming from the IRFU.
“From a management point of view, Joe won’t set his targets. We’ll concentrate on our first game and, then, we’ll concentrate on the second game. Hopefully, things will go well and we can get to the stage where we’re concentrating on a quarter-final and see what happens.
“Every Irish team, in 2007, 2011 and 2015, had the same massive aspirations of doing something special and we’ve all come up short.
“We need to figure out why and put it right.”