‘It’s almost like he’s a voice in my head’: Schmidt and Sexton, the hand in glove

EVERY GREAT GENERAL needs a most trusted lieutenant.

Standards must be upheld, confidence in the ethos maintained and plans must be executed.

Eyes on the front-line, a voice on the field.

There are very obvious examples in the sporting context, those who have enjoyed rarefied air at the top of the tree.

Ferguson and Keane, Brady and Belichick.

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Sergio Aguero and Pep Guardiola can perform their sideline slow set all they like, their showy Sunday embrace cannot hold a candle to the one Jonathan Sexton and Joe Schmidt flung themselves into in 2012.

Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

A Heineken Cup semi-final that had reached boiling point in Bordeaux, the full-time rejoicing came after the relief of seeing Wesley Fofana miraculously fail to seal a Clermont victory. Schmidt and Sexton had planned and plotted Leinster’s way into control of the tie through the Kiwi’s trademark powerplays and the number 10′s inimitably sharp skills.

Love and harmony is not a prerequisite in a relationships like these, only respect for the qualities each party brings to their role. Past examples have shown that the marriage can sometimes live on long after the former traits fizzle out. But once the trust and respect fades, road quickly runs out.

Four years ago, Brian O’Driscoll captioned an image of the two JSs, ‘I’ve missed you dad’, and that lens of a filial dynamic between the pair is not lightly cast aside.

“At times,” Sexton says in Tom English’s compendium No Borders, “it’s almost like he’s a voice in my head. When I’m analysing my own game and I spot myself doing something wrong I can hear him pointing it out to me.”

Schmidt demands the apex of standards from Sexton while also being fiercely protective of his chief playmaker. In his own autobiography, Becoming a Lion, the Dubliner describes how he contacted his then Leinster coach when on the verge of agreeing a move to France after it became clear that the IRFU were not going to budge from their low-balled contract.

‘Don’t sign anything,’ Schmidt implored, but the union would announce their star player’s departure the following day. By the time Sexton donned Racing 92 colours, Schmidt had joined in the parade of farewells after a Challenge Cup success at the RDS.

As Ireland coach, Schmidt made Sexton an exception to the unwritten no-foreign-based- player selection criteria and he has started as number 10 in 46 of Schmidt’s 68 Tests in charge.

Tellingly, the first of the dozen Tests Sexton did not not kick off in that time off was the Kiwi’s first night in charge against Samoa. In the lead up, the head coach began sounding almost like a classic movie mom – you look tired. You work too hard! Are you eating enough? – as he expressed his concern over the workload being placed on Sexton’s shoulders now that he had moved away from home.

“We’re trying to limit the amount of time he has on his feet so that he gets a bit of recovery time,” said Schmidt.

“It is one of those unfortunate things that we’ve lost control of the player. We don’t control his game management or his minutes.”

The Prodigal Son has always acutely understood where Schmidt’s rapier-like criticism comes from. He has bemoaned with frustration the occasions when Declan Kidney chose to swap him out of the starting line-up and pleaded for more clarity. Schmidt certainly never disappoints on that score.

Indeed, Sexton has found himself playing the role of go-between for players feeling crushed by criticism.

“He always seems to be in good form and players feed off that,” the out-half noted, “it creates a very positive atmosphere. At the same time, he’s ruthless. He’ll slate you with a smile on his face.”

He added in No Borders: “Somebody like Andrew Trimble, Joe gave him a hard time at the start and Trimbs was a bit down about it. I said to him, ‘he’s not on your case because he doesn’t like you. He’s on your case because he sees something in you and wants to bring it out.’”

Schmidt and Sexton in Chicago. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The footage and pictures of the head coach gritting teeth and pointing fingers in training and warm-ups are manifold. Come matchday, they are replaced by zoom-ins and slow-mos of Sexton pushing, cajoling and extolling team-mates while waving them into position. It has become a trademark for the Leinster captain, the intangible point of difference in his game that sets him apart.

The Ireland vice captain has been the conduit for information flowing the other way too, though he would not be the lone voice as the team sought to ensure they were aiming for the absolute pinnacle in early 2018.

“You need to go in numbers to Joe, you can’t go as one. Five or six of us said it to him — ‘look, we have been targeting championships and that is great, but what is really special in Ireland is a Grand Slam.’ There had only been two before us. We really wanted to win one.

“He allowed us one meeting where we said to the younger guys that everything this year is about the Grand Slam. From that moment on, we took it one game at a time and we weren’t allowed mention it again.”

Schmidt casts a long, often inescapable shadow over Team Ireland, yet he has acted like a man who knows the family business will live or die by the capability of his number 10.

It is for that reason that Sexton starts matches like February’s loss to England six weeks after his last match, the reason Schmidt and Ireland coaches are asked about the fitness of Sexton more often than any other issue and the reason Schmidt has often preferred to maintain a veil over any niggling injuries the Dubliner is dealing with.

Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“When he’s in there he does allow us to get a little bit more organisation, and his decision-making is usually spot on,” said the head coach when rare question marks over Sexton’s form appeared during the Six Nations.

They have won trophies apart, as separate entities. But together the hand and the glove have taken three Six Nations crowns, two Heineken Cups, a Challenge Cup and the Pro12.  They have changed the outlook and inward attitude in Irish rugby and, fittingly, they were both on the roll of honour when it came time to hand out world player and coach of the year awards in 2018.

“Joe’s legacy will live on no matter what,” says the player of the outgoing coach, “he has had the best record by a mile of any Irish coach. No matter what happens between now and the end of his tenure, no one’s come close.”

The lieutenant is an irrefutable core element of the general’s success.

Read more from The Team That Joe Built series here>>