Ireland and O’Driscoll save the very best for last
Joe Schmidt cites work ethic and unity as champions’ decisive qualities
The final table tells no lies. Ireland are Six Nations champions for only the second time in 29 years. The margin may have been miniscule to the dramatic end, but this was their reward for seeing out games to the last minute, ensuring they both scored the most tries and conceded the least. Champions of Europe alright.
After finishing runner-up on three occasions on points difference, in 2001, 2004 and, most cruelly of all, by a late French try here against Scotland in 2007, there was a further element of justice. They produced their best performance of the championship in Paris against a French team that also reserved their best till last.
Asked what qualities had made Ireland champions, Joe Schmidt cited two main factors.
“Work ethic. Unity. I think they’re just a great group that worked really hard and I thought we saw some trust in each other tonight that’s developed with the group that’s been there. They’ve very much earned the right to be champions, I think. I don’t think they ever sat back and just said ‘look, we’ve got a talented group, we’re capable’. They said ‘we’ve got to work hard and get our nose over the line’.”
Ultimately, there had to be an element of doing it for him as well as themselves and for the country. Schmidt disputed whether he had brought Brian O’Driscoll to tears in the dressing-room before the game, but did reveal he had played the O’Driscoll card beforehand.
“I don’t know if he cried. I just tapped him on the shoulder and said [to the dressing-room]: ‘It’s a special day, you don’t know how many special days you’re going to get in a career or in a lifetime. This guy’s had some special ones but he’d love for this one to be particularly special and let’s make sure we do the best we can to make sure that happens’.”
“That was probably the only reference all week. Apart from that it was just making sure we knew what to expect from France and unfortunately they didn’t disappoint. We felt that there would be a fairly formidable response from some pressure that they were under and I thought they played incredibly well and they were very hard to contain.”
Schmidt had no doubt that O’Driscoll had all the qualities to be a good coach, even if he was likely to be a “house husband” for the next while.
“He’s intelligent, he’s got great values, he’s hard-working, he’s a great role model for people and he knows the game inside out. Certainly I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Ireland had been reminded of the perils of defending a one-score lead against the two best come- from-behind teams in the world, both last November and in the 79th minute here, when Pascal Pape’s pass to Damien Chouly was ruled forward. But a second heartbreak would have been altogether too grim to bear.
With Brice Dulin in the pocket, France were one recycle away from having a drop goal to win the match when Chris Henry, in the 81st minute of his unstinting effort, and Devin Toner held up Sebastien Vahaamina.
Cue the arrival of Superman himself, Paul O’Connell, and Iain Henderson to effect a choke tackle and a turnover scrum, prompting wild celebrations on the pitch, in the stands and in homes and pubs throughout Ireland.
On a day of many fitting finales, that Ireland should seal the deal with a tactic they’ve cultivated into something of a trademark under the watch of Les Kiss was also apt.
“I’m just incredibly relieved,” admitted Schmidt. “I’m incredibly relieved because there was a growing expectation through probably that last game in November that maybe we could do something a little bit special and it was a massive relief to get to do it.
“Losing in Twickenham was a bit like winning here. We lost by the skin of our teeth and we won by the skin of our teeth here and that’s the nature of playing big teams away.”
“But to come to France, having won once in the last 42 years, to win a championship, it seems a bit of a dream come true really. I know the players, and speaking to the players that they’ll go back to their provinces and they’ll roll their sleeves up and we’re very open selection-wise and we have an expectation that they’ll continue the form that they’ve shown the last eight weeks for their provinces.”
With three provinces in the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup and atop the Rabo Pro12, there’s life in this season and the O’Driscoll farewell tour yet, and the feel-good factor from this should filter through.
But on this night of nights in Paris, and for a few days to come, all that could wait.