'Pretty special coach': Halangahu lauds Schmidt, but Aussie return unlikely

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Dedicated and intensely driven, incoming Wallabies coach Joe Schmidt doesn't do half measures.

Daniel Halangahu, the former Waratahs playmaker turned Blues assistant coach, knew of Schmidt's standing long before he joined the Auckland franchise for a one-off stint two years ago.

As Schmidt prepared to join the Blues in 2022, in his first coaching role since concluding his seven-year Irish tenure, Halangahu sought intel from now Bordeaux attack coach Noel McNamara, who worked under Schmidt with the Ireland under-20s.

"I didn't know what to think because he has a reputation," Halangahu told ESPN. "Before I worked with him I sounded out a friend who said Joe was a force of nature and he will definitely get a shift.

"The first thing I noticed is how passionate he is around the game. He loves rugby; talking about the game, being on the grass. He creates that infectious culture where people get more and more into the game."

Schmidt's arrival helped spark the Blues to a 15-game unbeaten surge, before they crumbled in the finale against the Crusaders at Eden Park with their lineout picked apart at the seams.

"He was initially contracted for two days a week at the Blues," Halangahu recalls.

At the start of the season, though, when all New Zealand teams were forced to relocate to a Queenstown hub in order to play games during COVID-19 closures, Schmidt dove in headfirst.

Anyone who knows anything about Schmidt will tell you he never approaches any project on a part-time basis.

"Joe was the first guy packing his back for the plane. Two days a week turned into five weeks full time very quickly. We all learned a lot from him," Halangahu said.

"He has a very good way of reading people and knowing what they need. Whether to bring a harder tone or when some guys need a pick me up for a reminder of why they're here and bloody good players."

Renowned for this attention to detail, obsessive reviewing of footage, high standards and honing fine skills, Schmidt improved all those aspects in his short stay at the Blues.

"A lot of coaches do that but what sets Joe apart is how consistently he does it. His tenacity with creating world-class habits, whether it's a walk through or team on team training, is what I remember most.

"He's a pretty special coach. We've seen what he's done with Ireland and the All Blacks in his short period. He's taken over teams and improved them. I'm sure that's his mission for his next job."

That next mission -- after playing an influential role in guiding the All Blacks to last year's Rugby World Cup final -- is restoring credibility to the embattled Wallabies. And while Schmidt is no Tom Cruise, rebuilding the Wallabies in the next two years could well be deemed impossible.

From such a low ebb, and with the widespread financial problems confronting Rugby Australia, few would dispute Schmidt faces one of the most difficult tasks in world rugby.

"Joe has close people around him with really good relationships. Not just Peter Horne and David Nucifora, guys he knows really well, but also Les Kiss at the Reds is a link to the Super Rugby teams. I know Joe will be very driven to improve some of the Super Rugby teams as well.

"The issues around Australian rugby are well documented. It's probably more than what a coach can do. He's going to need a team with him trying to fix not just the playing group of the Wallabies but the wider issues."

Unwinding the unmitigated damage Eddie Jones caused during his abrupt, ill-fated tenure won't be easy. The Melbourne Rebels, faced with over $20m in debt, stand on the verge of folding, too.

Does Australia possess the talent pool to revive a competitive, credible Wallabies?

"When you look back at the great Wallabies teams of the late '90s, early 2000s, it's not like they had hundreds of great players. They had three good Super Rugby teams and they were able to pick from that. They don't want to dilute their quality too much. There's some really good athletes. The Reds have some quality players; the Brumbies have been strong for a while now. Joe will know what he needs and how to get the most out of the game."

Born in Belmont, New South Wales, and having played 74 games for the Waratahs from 2006-12, the natural assumption is Halangahu will support Schmidt's Wallabies.

Yet after emerging through the New Zealand coaching ranks with North Harbour and the Blues over the last decade, Halangahu's allegiance to home may be wavering.

"If I say one answer my [New Zealand] wife might kill me and if I say another then my family at home might as well. Rugby for me has always been around relationships and friendships.

"When I first came to New Zealand I didn't know the All Black players and some of my good mates were in the Wallabies. As I get older - it's a while now since I've been in Australia - my mates aren't playing for the Wallabies and I work day in, day out, with some of the All Blacks.

"Mark Tele'a was around in my first year of coaching in 2016 in the Harbour academy. To watch him go to the World Cup and pull on the black jersey it's very special to see the effort and sacrifice they put in. "I'll let you draw the conclusion."

A return home anytime soon isn't on his radar, either, with a title in the Blues' sights under new head coach Vern Cotter this season.

"Someone speculated that something like that might happen but that's the first I've heard of it. I'm really committed here - I even got my citizenship. I'm now a dual citizen. I'm loving this environment and how it keeps evolving. I love the mission at the Blues and it's far from done."