Back in June, Highlanders CEO Roger Clark confirmed he had made contact with Joe Schmidt, amongst a number of Kiwi candidates, about the Super Rugby franchise's head coaching vacancy. A couple of weeks later, it was Chiefs top dog Andrew Flexman who cheekily cited an interest in accruing the services of Schmidt.
A move back home to New Zealand had seemed increasingly likely over the past couple of months for the 50-year-old, who has guided Ireland to two Six Nations championships during his three-year stint in charge.
The benefit in a move to Super Rugby for Schmidt is clear: The contract of All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen was originally to expire after The Lions tour next summer, but the iconic coach had spent the last couple of months dropping hints that he was set to extend his deal by a further two years. As such, a successful couple of club seasons back in his native land would see Schmidt propelled to the front of the queue to replace Hansen and coach his country into the '20s. In essence, any contract extension for Hansen would afford Schmidt two seasons to further prove his mettle in New Zealand club rugby - a right of passage in his native land - before ascending to the hot seat following the World Cup.
This morning, New Zealand announced that Hansen has indeed extended his deal through to the end of the World Cup in Japan.
Hansen, seemingly with no regard for the future of Irish rugby whatsoever, said:
It was never going to be an easy decision nor a foregone conclusion that I would extend my contract. As I’ve said many times before, it had to be right for my family, for myself and for the team.
In speaking to my family, they’ve all given me their wholehearted support and I’m very thankful for that, because you just couldn’t do this job without that.
In asking the important questions of myself, I had to be confident, firstly, in my own mind that I still had the passion, drive and commitment to keep pushing this team to improve and be better. The recent Steinlager Series against the Welsh confirmed to me that I still had that internal motivation.
The second question I had asked myself was: could I improve as a coach? And I believe I can, and must, as I will be asking others to do the same.
With regards to the team, I spoke to a number of players and management to get their thoughts on what would be right for the team going forward and I received unanimous feedback from them that it was right for me to continue.
Once I had confirmed all three of those considerations, it really was a ‘no brainer’ to continue, because, as a coach, there is no better job in rugby than coaching your own national team, particularly one that is as successful as this All Blacks team has been.
The 57-year-old's new deal is unfortunate news for Ireland in that had he not extended (as suggested following his side's second consecutive World Cup victory), the NZRU would likely not have turned to Schmidt as his immediate successor; the ideal template for a New Zealand coach is one who spent time coaching abroad before returning home to coach within the All Blacks' structures before ascending to the top job (see Hansen himself, or his predecessor Graham Henry).
The NZRU now has two extra years to embed Schmidt into said structures accordingly in preparation for life post-Hansen, and it seems increasingly likely that any strong move for Ireland's coach from his homeland next summer won't be rebuffed.