Joe Schmidt at the Aviva Stadium: The pleasure, the privilege was ours

Today marks the end of an era with the Kiwi's last home game in charge of Ireland

 Joe Schmidt:  “I think the great days have been the ones where the players have done something a little bit special, and you’ve seen players grow.”

Joe Schmidt: “I think the great days have been the ones where the players have done something a little bit special, and you’ve seen players grow.”

 

Today really does mark the end of an era. The Joe Schmidt era at the Aviva Stadium. Previous eras have taken in a detour to Croke Park and the increasingly dilapidated old Lansdowne Road. But this one, fittingly, is the first to have originated and now concludes this afternoon in one of the capital’s legacies of the Celtic Tiger.

And how Ireland have roared in the last six and a half years. The bald facts show that in 33 home matches with Schmidt as head coach, Ireland have won 27 games, drawn one and lost five.

Lest we forget, it wasn’t always like this. Despite Ireland’s rejuvenation from the tail end of the 1990s onwards, in the previous 33 home games, Ireland won 20, drew two and lost 11.

In many ways too, it’s been even better than those bald facts suggest, and this after a difficult start when Schmidt took over the reins for the autumn series of 2013 following his gilded three seasons in charge at Leinster.

After an opening win over Samoa, early optimism came to a shuddering halt with a 32-15 defeat by the Wallabies, albeit the atmosphere has probably never been more electric at the Aviva than the following Sunday for that heartbreaking last play defeat by the All Blacks.

Since then, Ireland have won 26, drawn one and lost just three of their last 30 home matches, all at the Aviva.

Along the way there was a record-breaking, 12-match winning run at the stadium which came to a halt last February in perhaps the most jarring home defeat under Schmidt’s watch.

Augmenting the historic win over the All Blacks in Chicago in November 2016, that previous loss and subsequent defeat two weeks later was redressed by that 16-9 win over the back-to-back world champions in November 2018.

Coming at the 17th attempt on Irish soil, dating back to 1905, that victory probably represents the high point of the Schmidt era.

It ensured that all-comers have been beaten at the Aviva in the last six and a half years.

Australia have been beaten twice since, in remarkably similar style. South Africa have been downed twice, one of which shattered the record books. England were also beaten twice and France three times. Wales, who visit here for the fifth time in Schmidt’s time, have also been beaten twice, while drawing once, and Scotland have been beaten four times.

Apropos of nothing really - well, no actually, with that momentous pool opener against Gregor Townsend’s dangerous Scots specifically in mind - as an aside, while Ireland were unbeaten against a host of teams under Schmidt’s watch, ie France, Italy, South Africa, Argentina and Scotland, those dastardly Scots have been tricky.

That jarring defeat by England ended a 13-game unbeaten run with Schmidt as head coach, but in his half dozen Six Nations campaigns Ireland won 13, drew one and lost just once at home.

Making the Aviva into a fortress provided the foundations for those successive Six Nations titles in 2014 and 2015 and, of course, the Grand Slam in 2018.

In a way, the shame is that neither the Grand Slam, nor the other two Six Nations titles were ever rubber-stamped in the Aviva, not that those days in the Stade de France, Murrayfield and especially Twickenham, weren’t utterly memorable.

By contrast, on each of the three occasions Wales secured the Grand Slam under Gatland, the concluding wins were at home, against France in 2008 and 2012, and Ireland earlier this year. Even then, when Gatland was asked last week in the aftermath of his final home game what were the highlights, he immediately singled out the England games.

When asked the same question earlier this week, Schmidt was less sure.

“Ah, it’s a bit of a blur, to be honest. I think the great days have been the ones where the players have done something a little bit special, and you’ve seen players grow.”

Similarly though, as an example of this, the first that sprang to his mind was the 13-9 win on St Patrick’s weekend in 2017 which denied England consecutive Grand Slams and ended their 18-game winning run.

“A few years ago, when England were on the cusp of breaking the record for the most consecutive wins and they were on the cusp of going back-to-back Grand Slams, and Kieran Marmion started at ‘9’ and did such an phenomenal job for us.

“And Luke McGrath coming off the bench, he put that kick into the corner that just took that pressure off. And Peter O’Mahony had come in to the starting XV when Jamie Heaslip pulled out so late in the day, grabs the lineout right towards the end, plucks it away from Maro Itoje. There’s moments like that that obviously linger.

“There were the sad days, like 2013 against the All Blacks,” he continued, “but they’re counter-balanced now because whoever has come here we’ve managed to beat at some stage through the last six years so it’s been a privilege . . . I’ve got to say.”

But that historic win less than a year ago against the All Blacks win has to be right up there though.

“Yeah, it was huge. I think the glass is incredibly thick in the (Aviva Stadium) coaches’ box which is probably a good thing sometimes, but even then you could feel the atmosphere.

“It was phenomenal right up until that last play where the ball went down and we’re just outside our 22 and we’re coming off the line; those are moments that you do certainly cherish and, as I say, it’s been a privilege to have been involved in Leinster as well.”

Indeed, in Schmidt’s three seasons at the Aviva Stadium, Leinster won eight of nine matches, only Clermont beating them in the pool stages in 2010. Add in all their games at the RDS in his three seasons with the province, and Leinster had 47 home wins, with just five defeats. So, in total, over the course of 80 home games with Leinster and Ireland with Schmidt as head coach, they won 74, drew one, and lost just ten.

“Watching Isa Nacewa score that try against Leicester when we desperately needed that,” he recalls of that 17-10 win over Leicester in the Heineken Champions Cup semi-final in April 2011. “We’d butchered a try in the first half, Richardt Strauss gave it off and all the player had to do was catch it and put it down and we would have had breathing space and then when it became so tight for someone like Isa to go 45 metres, pretty much, was phenomenal.”

Remembering the 32-8 semi-final win over Toulouse which earned Leinster that epic comeback over Northampton in the final in Cardiff, Schmidt said: “The Toulouse game, where early in the game [DAVID]Skrela hits the post and we think, ‘oh that’s great, he’s missed’ except that they got seven points off it because then it bounces on the ground and they scored,” said Schmidt, recounting Florian Fritz’s freakish try in the fifth minute.

“I think the lead changed six times in a semi-final of Europe and to win that one was super as well.”

“The year of the big snow, the Clermont game - we’d lost away there (but) the following week Cian Healy had a big breakfast and he charged through most people who were in his way,” said Schmidt, referencing Healy’s virtuoso, two-try, Man of the Match performance in the 2010 pool win over his previous employers in December 2010.

“All those things kind of meld into a fantastic memory bank but we’ve had a few days where we’ve slipped up as well but they're very, very few which is has been a relief really because you’re emotionally connected, your head’s in the game and when the game goes good, it’s a massive relief.”

Few players have known Schmidt as well as Rory Best, given their coach/captain relationship of the last four years, and analysing Schmidt’s role in making the Aviva into something of a fortress, Best says: “He just makes you get the detail right.”

“He puts pressure on you. Any time we do simple drills he is screaming and shouting and the panic . . . You get the best 31 or, as it was, 41 last week and he starts to scream at us and it is amazing the mistakes that start to come on. And then it’s the lessons that you can learn from that.

“He is probably the first coach I have worked with that has been able to get . . . look you can never get the same level of pressure that you get on a Saturday afternoon at training. But he gets very close to it. And he gets very close to it by the way he is, the way he shouts, the way he moves around.

“I think if you can get close to that pressure in training then when you get to the games . . . you sort of talk about the games being easier than training and some people just say that, but I think sometimes that is the case with us because whenever Alun Wyn Jones or Maro Itoje start to shout, they never shout as loud as Joe does. You’re used to all of this distraction and it allows you to focus.

“Look, he has been great. I must say, from an Ulster point of view, I was delighted when he got the Irish job because it meant he wasn’t at Leinster anymore. We didn’t win anything more whenever he left Leinster, but we certainly had a slightly better chance,” said Best with a rueful smile.

“He has been phenomenal. I think it’s really hard to put into words how great a coach he is.”

The Highs

Jacob Stockdale scores against New Zeal last November.
Jacob Stockdale scores against New Zeal last November.

1 Ireland 16 New Zealand 9 (2018)

One to tell the grandchildren about indeed. Coming after the nail-biting loss to the All Blacks five years earlier, and coming in front of raucous full house for the first time on Irish soil, this felt even better than Chicago. Ireland went mano a mano, James Ryan, CJ Stander and Bundee Aki leading the charge. A monumental defensive effort kept New Zealand tryless, and strike move out of the Schmidt playbook, orchestrated by the conductor in chief Johnny Sexton and Aki, and finished by Jacob Stockdale, was the deserved difference.

2 Ireland 27 Australia 24 (2016)

Sexton and Robbie Henshaw had been casualties of the All Blacks revenge mission a week before, O’Brien was ruled out beforehand, and by the start of the second-half they’d also lost Rob Kearney, Andrew Trimble and Payne. With Marmion on the right wing and Joey Carbery winning his third cap as a replacement at full-back, Ireland went from 17-0 up to trail 24-20, only to conjure a stirring multi-phase try when Simon Zebo’s skip pass put Keith Earls over. In its way, Ireland might not have scored a better, or at any rate, a more resourceful try than that one.

3 Ireland 13 England 9 (2017)

The chariot rolled into town on the back of a record-equalling 18-match winning run and seeking back-to-back Slams. But, despite the absence of Conor Murray and Rob Kearney, while losing Jamie Heaslip in the warm-up and Keith Earls by half-time, England were derailed by a resourceful Ireland monopolised possession to pretty much lead all the way. Peter O’Mahony was inspired alongside the immense Sean O’Brien, Kieran Marmion and Jared Payne stepped up to the plate. One maul try by Iain Henderson was enough as Ireland bookended their season by ending 18-match winning runs. It also secured a top seeding in the World Cup draw.

4 Leinster 32 Toulouse 23 (2011)

There has to be a Leinster game. Joe would insist. And this is probably the pick given it was a semi-final and Toulouse were still in their pomp, having beaten Leinster in the semi-finals a year before en route to their fourth title. Leinster twice fell behind at the start of each half, to a freakish try by Florian Fritz and one by Louis Picamoles, but came back through tries by Heaslip and Brian O’Driscoll. Sexton landed 22 points before his virtuoso, 28-point haul in the final against Northampton.

5 Ireland 38 South Africa 3 (2017)

This was pre-Rassie Erasmus and the Springboks were wasteful on a dirty Dublin day. Ireland also had to put in plenty of hard graft, and didn’t create a huge amount until the final quarter. But their superior set-pieces, breakdown work and discipline was rewarded with converted tries by Rhys Ruddock, Rob Herring and Jacob Stockdale in the final 10 minutes. In the process, Ireland thoroughly eclipsed their previous record win over the Springboks, by 32-15 here in 2006. This kind of result was not part of Irish rugby’s DNA.

The Lows

1 Ireland 22 New Zealand 24 (2013)

A thrilling, throbbing yet cruel defeat. Ireland led 19-0 through tries by Conor Murray, Rory Best and Rob Kearney, and Sexton missed a 72nd minute penalty to make it a two-score game yet Ireland led 22-17 inside the last 30 seconds as they ran the clock down. Whereupon, Nigel Owens pinged Jack McGrath for sealing (another tough call Nigel) and Dane Coles and Aaron Cruden eventually worked Ryan Crotty over in the corner. Cruden sealed the win with a retaken conversion. “We survived a shit storm,” admitted Hansen. “It’s devastating,” said Schmidt.

2 Ireland 20 England 32 (2019)

This time Ireland, having won 18 of their previous 19 tests, were the hunted ones as they sought back-to-back Slams, and England came out snorting in seeking revenge for Ireland’s coronation at Twickenham the previous season. Ireland were off colour, slow out of the blocks and bullied, England making 46 ‘dominant tackles’ to Ireland’s nine, eight of them by Mako Vunipola, who made 31 tackles, and was a wrecking ball with his brother Billy and Manu Tuilagi. The ripple effects are still being felt.

3 Ireland 9 New Zealand 21 (2016)

The worst time to meet the All Blacks is assuredly a fortnight after beating them for the first time in 111 years. Despite Ireland carrying and clearing out tirelessly - Heaslip and O’Brien leading the way - multiple attacks of multiple phases were withheld. The All Blacks were at times brutal, and Aaron Smith and Malakai Fekitoa were both binned, but Jaco Peyper let plenty go, as CJ Stander and Robbie Henshaw departed with concussion. Amid all the ferocity, man of the match Beauden Barrett glided over the pitch as if playing a different sport.

Ireland Under Joe Schmidt At Home

Joe Schmidt high fives a fan before a game against Fiji in 2017.
Joe Schmidt high fives a fan before a game against Fiji in 2017.

Sat 9 Nov 2013: (GS) Ireland 40 Samoa 9.
Sat 16 Nov 2013: (GS) Ireland 15 Australia 32.
Sun 24 Nov 2013: (GS) Ireland 22 New Zealand 24.
Sun 2 Feb 2014: (6N) Ireland 28 Scotland 6.
Sat 8 Feb 2014: (6N) Ireland 26 Wales 3.
Sat 8 March 2014: (6N) Ireland 46 Italy 7.
Sat 8 Nov 2014: (GS) Ireland 29 South Africa 15.
Sun 16 Nov 2014: (GS) Ireland 49 Georgia 7.
Sat 22 Nov 2014: (GS) Ireland 26 Australia 3.
Sat 14 Feb 2014: (6N) Ireland 18 France 11.
Sun 1 March 2014: (6N) Ireland 19 England 9.
Sat 15 Aug 2015: (RWC w/up) Ireland 28 Scotland 22.
Sat 29 Aug 2015: (RWC w/up) Ireland 10 Wales 16.
Sun 7 Feb 2015: (6N) Ireland 16 Wales 16.
Sat 12 March 2015: (6N) Ireland 58 Italy 15.
Sat 19 March 2015: (6N) Ireland 35 Scotland 25.
Sat 12 Nov 2016: (GS) Ireland 52 Canada 21.
Sat 19 Nov 2016: (GS) Ireland 9 New Zealand 21.
Sat 26 Nov 2016: (GS) Ireland 27 Australia 24.
Sat 25 Feb 2017: (6N) Ireland 19 France 9.
Sat 18 March 2017: (6N) Ireland 13 England 9.
Sat 11 Nov 2017: (GS) Ireland 38 South Africa 3.
Sat 18 Nov 2017: (GS) Ireland 23 Fiji 20.
Sat 25 Nov 2017: (GS) Ireland 28 Argentina 19.
Sat 10 Feb 2018: (6N) Ireland 56 Italy 19.
Sat 24 Feb 2018: (6N) Ireland 37 Wales 27.
Sat 10 March 2018: (6N) Ireland 28 Scotland 8.
Sat 10 Nov 2018: (GS) Ireland 28 Argentina 17.
Sat 17 Nov 2018: (GS) Ireland 16 New Zealand 9.
Sat 24 Nov 2018: (GS) Ireland 57 USA 14.
Sat 2 Feb 2019: (6N) Ireland 20 England 32.
Sun 10 March 2019: (RWC w/up) Ireland 26 France 14.
Sat 10 Aug 2019: (RWC w/up) Ireland 29 Italy 10.

Overall record with Ireland at home

Played 33. Won 27. Drawn 1. Lost 5.

Leinster under Joe Schmidt at the Aviva

Pl 9. Won 8. Lost 1.

Leinster at home under Joe Schmidt

Pl 52. Won 47. Drawn 0. Lost 5.

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