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Standing at opposite ends of a Celtic rivalry that stretches back more than 130 years, Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt have walked curiously similar paths during their time on British shores. Meticulous architects in their own unique ways, both men have revitalised two teams that, prior to their arrival, lacked the heavyweight status they now command. Indeed, under Gatland and Schmidt, Wales and Ireland have emerged as two of the game’s very best.
The influence of the two New Zealanders has been monumental, crystallising in the various idiosyncrasies that have come to define their teams over the years: dogged resilience, clinical precision, swashbuckling bravado, self-belief and composure in abundance. Yes, there have been setbacks and hiccups along the way, moments of disappointment that have drawn introspection and raised questions. But these fade into insignificance when compared with what has been achieved.
So, with their time as the head coaches of Wales and Ireland set to draw to a close, Gatland and Schmidt find themselves under the microscope like never before as they prepare for what could be their final World Cup campaigns. The questions they now face are ignore to hard. What will their legacies be once they step down? Will Japan 2019 determine the way in which they are remembered? Can their respective sides shake the burden of history that has hung over them on rugby’s grandest stage?
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In Schmidt’s case, the numbers are hard to ignore. Since taking charge in 2013, he has brought home three Six Nations titles to a country that had won one in the previous 28 years. Further afield, he engineered a maiden win against New Zealand as well as a first series win over Australia in 39 years, with his men showing they were capable of mixing it with the big beasts of the southern hemisphere. A second victory over the world champions followed last year – confirmation that the famous win in Chicago wasn’t merely a fluke.
But for some, such feats can’t hide the fact Ireland have never progressed beyond the quarter-finals at a World Cup. “The terrible thing is Schmidt’s legacy will absolutely be affected one way or another by what happens [in Japan],” Ireland great Brian O’Driscoll said this month. “Irrespective of the Grand Slams and the series wins and the All Blacks victories, everything is hitched on this World Cup, go one step further at least than any other Irish side previously and get to a semi-final.”
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