Joe Schmidt will long be remembered when he packs his bags and leaves Ireland after next year’s Rugby World Cup, the New Zealander has brought an unprecedented level of success to the nation and raised the standard for all coaches across all sports.
However, there is one little pocket of Ireland that Joe Schmidt holds very close to his heart; Mullingar. Schmidt cut his coaching teeth in Westmeath long before he became known as one of the world’s best rugby coaches, and his legacy still lives on in the Westmeath town.
Patsy Fagan played with Schmidt when he was appointed player-coach of Mullingar Rugby Club back in the early nineties. He credits Schmidt with transforming how the club played rugby but admits that nobody could have predicted what he would go on to achieve within the game.
“I would’ve known Joe from the rugby club ‘cos I played rugby. In Mullingar he transformed the way we played and he got involved in training the coaches who took the underage teams. We probably played our best rugby ever whilst Joe was here.” Fagan said.
“Whilst nobody could have seen how far he’d go because that’s impossible, he was very well respected as a coach and as an individual.”
Schmidt has gone on to coach Leinster to two Heineken Cup victories as well as take Ireland from eight in the World Rankings to second. His impact on rugby on these shores cannot be overstated.
However, in Mullingar, it wasn’t just rugby that he will be remembered for. Back in 1992, before he was due to return to New Zealand, Schmidt pulled on the green jersey of Mullingar Shamrocks and lined out for the club in a Gaelic football game.
“Joe came and coached the Mullingar rugby club, and there were quite a few players who would have played rugby during the winter and then Gaelic during the summer.
“He wasn’t living far from Mullingar Shamrocks’ pitch, and the rugby season was just over when he came down one evening just to see what it was all about. He would have known some of the guys as well through their involvement in rugby during the winter.
“We had a junior game. We were trying to scrape a team together, and Joe came down and I asked him would he play and he said he would. So, we gave him the jersey and he went out and played.”
The Mullingar junior team overcame Milltownpass on a scoreline of 2-8 to 1-5 on that September day in 1992 and legend has it that Schmidt chipped in with a point of his own.
Patsy Fagan can’t fully endorse the legendary tale that Schmidt got himself on the scoresheet, but he does admit that the Kiwi played very well, finding a new lease of life as a wing-forward.
“Oh he played well, from memory I think he was playing in the half-forward line, he ran around, got the ball, ran past the players and then passed it on again.
“He didn’t have much Gaelic skills himself, but I remember him saying to me that the skills were very helpful for rugby players and they carried over well.
“Three or four off our senior team at that time would have played with Joe for the Mullingar first team. He would’ve known a good few of the guys from the club playing with the senior team, and seen how their skills transferred over.”
Fagan met his old pal Schmidt at a wedding recently and was delighted to inform Pundit Arena that Joe Schmidt does indeed remember that night very well. According to Fagan, a young Schmidt loved his foray into Gaelic Games.
“Now, I actually met Joe three or four years ago at a wedding, and I said it to him. He told me he remembered the game well and said it was an awful pity we didn’t have a photograph. That was Joe’s one game playing for Mullingar Shamrock’s but he remembers it.
“Ah he did, loved it, it was all a bit of fun, Joe was going back sometime after that so we got him a game more for the fun than anything else. He expressed an interest in trying it so we let him on.”
Joe Schmidt will forever be remembered as the guy who changed the landscape of Rugby Union in Ireland. In Mullingar, though he is seen as so much more than that.
“He’s extremely well thought of, Joe is a very personable sort of fella. He had a great quality in that if he met you once he knew your name, not many people have that quality but Joe had that.
“He was a great man for communicating. When he was talking to you, you felt that he was only talking to you. He was very well got with the rugby club and Wilson’s hospital. He was just one very sound guy.
“Last year he returned for a fundraiser that we were doing, first of all it was a great gesture by him to come back to the club, but not only did he come down and spend the evening with us, he wouldn’t take the payment we had arranged to bring him here, he demanded it go to a better place, that was just the mark of the man.”