As we wait expectantly on the cusp of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations, the final round of the self-styled Rugby’s Greatest Championship seems an awfully long way down the track.
Yet when the final whistles blow in Rome, Cardiff, and Twickenham on March 16 it will sound the Last Post on not just this year’s Six Nations but the involvements of at least two, and possibly as many as four of the competition’s head coaches.
That is a considerable amount of intellectual property exiting the championship and in the case of the two definite departees, a wealth of high-achieving experience.
Wales boss Warren Gatland and Ireland’s Joe Schmidt will face each other at the Principality Stadium on that final, Super Saturday, both New Zealanders having decided the 2019 World Cup in Japan will be their swansongs after hugely successful tenures with their respective teams.
Gatland, 55, took the Wales job in 2008 and this year will mark his 10th Six Nations having taken sabbaticals in 2013 and 2017 to lead the Lions tours to Australia and then New Zealand.
In those 10 championships he has delivered two Grand Slams while his team — under caretaker boss and regular backs coach Rob Howley — also brought a title back to Wales in 2013.
Schmidt’s impact on the Six Nations needs no embellishment, his five seasons since his 2014 debut as successor to Declan Kidney having reaped back-to-back championships in ‘14 and ‘15 before last season’s Grand Slam confirmed the 53-year-old’s status as Ireland’s greatest head coach.
The hope is that 2018’s World Rugby Coach of the Year will leave having added further glory and another historical feat if he can guide Ireland past the World Cup quarter-final stage for the very first time with his second and final attempt.
The Ireland boss confirmed last week that he will stick to the promise he made to wife Kellie and walk away from coaching for at least 12 months.
“That’s certainly the short-term plan,” Schmidt said. “I hadn’t made too many plans but the short-term plan is not to be involved in coaching, certainly not for 12 months and I’d say quite likely longer than that. We’ve got a couple of projects that are family-related that we want to work our way through. And I don’t spend a lot of time at home already so I think it’s probably high time I did.”
He did, however, in response to his availability to coach the Lions and prepare for the 2021 tour to South Africa, report some scepticism on the part of Mrs Schmidt at his ability to stay true to his word about that much-discussed year off.
“I wouldn’t be available if asked at the moment, and I said to my wife that we’d get these 12 months done and she said, ‘Yeah, look, you’ll last 12 days, potentially, without needing to do something’. And I wouldn’t say that I’m looking to do any coaching so it’s not something that’s at the forefront of my mind.”
Schmidt added it was not appropriate for him to look too far into the future, however tempting.
“I think one of the things I decided in probably a conversation with myself, for want of a better word, is that whatever does happen after that, I want to make sure these next 10 months are as good as I can help the players be and put as much effort into achieving that. I think that’s where your energies go.”
Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend is at the opposite end of the Six Nations experience spectrum as he faces into his second championship at the helm having lifted the Scots to third in 2018, matching their best finish since Italy joined the tournament in 2000.
He and Italy boss Conor O’Shea are the two coaches who can confidently predict they will still be in charge of their teams beyond the World Cup this autumn but the former Scotland fly-half expects those teams with different arrangements in place to be fully focused on the task at hand.
Townsend sees it in simplistic terms. “You play for your country and do as well as you can for your country.”
But he does believe first-round opponents Italy, who visit Murrayfield on Saturday evening can get some motivation from the possibility it may be the last hurrah for their talismanic skipper Sergio Parisse.
“They’ve got one of the best ever players to play in the Six Nations and maybe it could be his last Six Nations. He’s a talisman, a player that would walk into any other nation’s team. With him available they are a more dangerous team.”
No. 8 Parisse has played more Six Nations minutes, 5,141, since his 2004 debut against England, than any other player and will this weekend make a record 66th championship start to eclipse Brian O’Driscoll should he, as expected, lead the Azzurri in Edinburgh.
Sitting next to O’Shea, the fifth Italy head coach he has played under and whose contract runs to end of next year’s Six Nations, he echoed Townsend’s view that knowing a coach or player is leaving will not have a detrimental impact on the team.
“It’s really personal for every single coach. The last World Cup I played we knew before that that the coach (Jacques Brunel) was going to leave but it doesn’t change our approach. The coach shows he’s still involved even if he knows he’s going to change job after the tournament and leave the national team.”
Whether Eddie Jones remains in charge of the England team beyond this upcoming World Cup is less certain, despite the two-year RFU contract he signed a year ago through to 2020. Yet the Australian who led the Red Rose to a Grand Slam in 2016 and successful championship defence in 2017 said his future or that of any of the other coaches would have no impact on their players’ mindsets.
“I don’t think so. All the teams are focused on training well and how they can be at their best for the first game,” Jones said. “No-one is thinking about ‘this is going to be his last game, what are we going to do special for him’.
“We’re talking about the most highly motivated, most professional players in Europe playing for their countries. They don’t need special things to want to be better.
“There’s a sign out there saying it’s the greatest tournament in the world. Four years ago I wouldn’t have said that but having been involved in it there’s nothing like this tournament. The intensity, the contest, how much it means to people, it’s a real honour to be involved in it.”
If that sounded wistful and hinted at an early exit, Jones quickly snapped out of the moment, adding: “I might be in it for another 10 years, who knows? I don’t know what I’m going to do. That’s not a concern for me or the team.”
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