Auckland Bunnings NPC defence coach Craig McGrath will be stepping up to join The Blues as defence coach for the Super Rugby Pacific campaign in 2022. He will retain his role with the Auckland NPC team.
Meanwhile, experienced international coach Joe Schmidt is returning to The Blues in a part-time role as a support coach and will assist Head Coach Leon MacDonald. Schmidt was formerly Assistant Coach with the Blues from 2005 to 2007, finishing with a close fought semi-final loss to the Sharks in Durban. During that time, McGrath also joined the Blues as a replacement halfback.
Schmidt went on to coach in France with Clermont Auvergne, winning the Top 14 Championship and then in Ireland with Leinster winning the Heineken Cup twice as well as a European Challenge Cup and Pro 12 League before becoming Ireland’s Head Coach from 2013 to 2019. After his record-breaking stint with Ireland, Schmidt was appointed World Rugby's Director of Rugby and High Performance.
McGrath, like Schmidt, had a stint as a player-coach in Ireland after playing in Italy, before switching full-time to coaching. He was an assistant coach with the Melbourne Rebels for four seasons and then with the Honda HEAT in Japan for three years, joining the Auckland NPC coaching staff with responsibility for defence and skills development in 2020.
The additions to the coaching staff follow the departure of Tana Umaga who stepped down as defence coach to focus on his family business after the Blues’ successful 2021 Super Rugby season.
Blues CEO Andrew Hore says bringing Craig McGrath into the Blues environment would build on and continue to develop the excellent work of Tana Umaga, while the addition of Joe Schmidt gave the coaching team access to a vast bank of knowledge and experience that would help all the coaches.
“Our strategic plan is clear. We need to develop success for today and develop success for tomorrow,” says Hore.
“In this role, Joe will be able to support Leon and also Craig, as our new defence coach, given Joe’s own expertise as a defence coach over many years. It is an ideal blend of youth and experience, and we are rapt to be able to have both join our camp.”
Head coach Leon MacDonald says the additions will strengthen the coaching team and sees an evolution of his own dialogue and relationship with Schmidt.
“Joe has been mentoring me the last 12 months, which has been incredibly helpful. Having him as part of the coaching team will give us a different voice in the mix and he can also look at things through a different lens and really challenge us.”
Adding McGrath as defence coach is also part of future-proofing the Blues.
“Craig brings that fresh approach and adds to the group of young coaches we have here now, who we are really keen to develop and grow as part of building strong foundations for ongoing success,” says MacDonald.
Schmidt says the support coach role will see him come full circle in his coaching journey having started in fully professional rugby with The Blues, after a successful tenure as Bay of Plenty’s assistant coach.
“I’m really looking forward to coming back and helping out the coaching staff at The Blues. I know pretty much the whole crew and it’s a nice fit stepping in for Tana, who I greatly respect.
“I have really enjoyed getting to know Leon. He is doing a great job and has got the team in a really good place after their success this year. I’ve also got a lot of time for Ice (McGrath) and look forward to linking up with him again,” says Schmidt.
For his part, McGrath remembers getting coaching notes from Schmidt after his first week of training with The Blues and says it gave him an insight into what was required at the professional level.
“I’m really grateful to The Blues, Auckland and to Leon for this opportunity – and having Joe involved means I get the opportunity to have access to all his experience, especially in defence, and get world-class professional development every day,” McGrath says.
He also sees the appointment as closing a loop.
“Having been a player and then in my work with Honda we had an association with The Blues, so it was always at the back of mind that I wanted to come back to Auckland and The Blues at some stage.”
Both coaches will take up their new roles in the coming weeks as The Blues move into pre-season training ahead of the new Super Rugby Pacific 2022 season.