Joe Schmidt is a name synonymous with high performance. His track record in New Zealand and particularly in Europe, with ASM Clermont Auvergne, Leinster, and more recently Ireland, means he has much to contribute to World Rugby as they seek to make the same, simpler, more attractive, accessible and player-centric.

It was announced last week that former World Rugby Coach of the Year Schmidt will be embarking on a new chapter in his life through the sport and joining World Rugby as Director of Rugby and High Performance. The role, which Schmidt will begin in November, will see him lead the new Rugby and High Performance Department, which will be responsible for World Rugby’s high performance, match officials and technical services functions, including player welfare as well as training and education.

Schmidt will also have a significant role to play in guiding the work of the new High Performance 15s and Community Rugby Committees and the Sevens Strategy Group, working with his coaching peers, players, referees, laws and welfare experts to ensure that the game is the best it can be. This is key to the sport’s future attractiveness and growth.

“I think what attracted me is the work that I have been involved with and the people I’ve worked with in recent times, whether it be initially with the TMO working group and then the player load working group,” says Schmidt, when asked what attracted him to the role. “It was an interesting change for me after almost 20 years of in your face coaching. So this is something that is contributing to a game I really enjoy, I’m passionate about, and with good people.”

In recent years Schmidt has played a key part in World Rugby’s game development efforts, through his time spent in working groups tasked with improving various aspects of the sport. More recently, the former Ireland head coach was involved in the specialist breakdown working group that developed rugby’s new breakdown law application guideline.

Developed to make the breakdown safer, fairer and simpler to understand, the guideline has since come into force and already made clear progress on achieving those objectives, as data from the recent Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU competitions showed.

Schmidt believes that the approach used to address and overcome issues around the breakdown can inspire how rugby overcomes other challenges it faces – namely the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think teams have done a fantastic job (dealing with the pandemic); some of the medical people in behind the scenes have set up a really robust protocol for trying to make sure that we keep players COVID-free as best we can. So that’s probably the immediate challenge, because the sooner we can get games played – ideally with crowds, because at the moment, just like any other business, sport is suffering.

“I guess on the back of that, out of every problem can come solutions with a few changes. Even with the breakdown (law application guideline) it was a little bit tough the first couple of weeks when we started with Super Rugby Aotearoa. But after a couple of weeks, you know, the ruck speed went from 3.1 seconds to 2.7 seconds, so we got a little bit of a quicker game, we had less injuries. The players anecdotally reported back that they felt less beaten up after games.

“It may not be a really big step, but the more courses we take I think further down the track we can get and make the best of some opportunities that may come up over this really tough period for any sport.”

As World Rugby’s Director of Rugby and High Performance, Schmidt will be overseeing what will be a newly-created department. His first task is therefore bringing in the individuals who can collectively help him take the game forward.

“I’m going to obviously learn a fair bit about it (the Director of Rugby and High Performance role) over the next few months. But at the moment it’s just looking to integrate some of the best practitioners we have, whether it be players, coaches, those in the game, and integrate them into some of the areas that we are already pretty well established, with the technical services led by Mark Harrington and the high performance by Peter Horne.

“It will really be linking some of the best people out there, the most current and also the people like the Players’ Association, trying to make sure that we’ve got their best ideas. And we can try to deliver best practice and put the best game together and the best guidance together to play the game that we can.”

Read more: Players, female leaders and greater global representation on interim World Rugby committees >>