Joe Schmidt excited and daunted by what this squad might achieve
Ireland have cemented their status as world number two team, but they’re not sated yet
Johnny Sexton and Rory Best arrive home to Ireland with the Six Nations trophy and the Triple Crown. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
When the golden generation of the Noughties – messrs O’Driscoll, O’Gara, O’Connell et al – finally sealed the deal in Cardiff in March 2009, we wondered if we might ever have it so good. A core group helped pass the baton with the titles of 2014 and 2015, and, buoyed by those successes, virtually an entirely new squad have actually taken things to a new, almost dizzying level by sealing another Grand Slam.
Irish rugby has never had a better day than St Patrick’s Day at Twickenham, 2018, and Irish rugby has never had it so good.
Furthermore, this group don’t look remotely sated yet. With the demanding Joe Schmidt at the helm, they are led by an equally demanding cabal of players, who keep on pushing each other to achieve more. They’ve cemented their status as the second-best team in the world, and justifiable status as second favourites for the next World Cup, on the back of 12 successive wins over 12 months.
Schmidt himself is loath to place this team above the team of 2014/15, which he largely inherited, and, in advance of a three-test tour to Australia in June, even he admits the prospect of what this current group – which he has largely reassembled – might achieve is a little daunting.
“Look, it’s hard to assess different groups. The first one was special, winning in Paris as we did. As I said during the week, I felt that when we lost 13-10 back in Twickenham it was a massive Test match and I just think that we managed to get the right side of the ledger today and we didn’t that time.
“It was a different generation of players, the quality of the Paul O’Connells, Brian O’Driscolls, the Gordon D’Arcys. That generation was a little bit special. Now, to dovetail into a cross-over of a newer generation is a little bit exciting, it’s a little bit daunting because where do they go next?
“But the one thing that you are guaranteed in sport is that nothing is linear and for a team to be a champion team one year, as England were two years ago with the Grand Slam and last year they were championship winners, they finished fifth this time, that’s a very big swing – but it’s not actually a massive difference in margins because they are so fine.
It’s hard for it not to be the high point, because right here, right now, it’s a little bit of history for us
“They lost by three points to France and they lost momentum in Scotland.
“I’d just say I’m delighted with today, we are where we are and when they come back in 2½ months’ time to get together we will know where we need to go next.
“We’ll play in very different conditions in Australia. Australia will be hugely motivated to bounce back from what’s been a relatively tough time for them and get a really good start in preparation for their Rugby Championship.”
Forever seeking to raise the bar, winning a series for the first time in Australia since the Ollie Campbell-inspired 2-0 coup of 1979 is the next goal, even if, on Saturday night, not much on the horizon between now and the World Cup appears capable of trumping this.
“It’s hard for it not to be the high point, because right here, right now, it’s a little bit of history for us,” said Schmidt. “We started this a calendar year ago in the last round of the Six Nations. It’s a really neat story of a year that has managed to see us win every game that we played, which is incredibly special. It’s also seen us go 12 games breaking new ground consecutively.
“We’ll get ourselves back together. That’s the other thing, you don’t quite know what condition or how many you’re going to get together to go to the next place anyway,” he added, citing how the quartet of Dave Kearney, Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton and Luke Fitzgerald were all casualties of the Pro12 final before the tour to South Africa two summers ago.
There might, for example, be a case of resting up Johnny Sexton from the Australian tour and affording Joey Carbery more game time, with the bigger prize of Japan 2019 further down the track. But, true to form, Sexton himself spoke of the tour like someone who was very much intent on being part of the squad.
That this third Six Nations title has been signed off with Ireland’s third Grand Slam in history makes it look like the pick of the eight trophies which Clermont, Leinster and Irish teams coached by Schmidt have won in nine years.
“I suppose the first one was a Ranfurly Shield in New Zealand. Growing up in New Zealand that’s really special. I think Bay of Plenty had been trying to win it for over 100 years and so that was the first really special one.
“Yeah, it’s hard to equate anything with this. When I was a kid I used to watch Five Nations on TV and think these places were on a whole different planet with those massive crowds. It’s pretty hard when you’re born in Kawakawa, 1,400 people and you’re shifted to the metropolis of Woodville, 1,600 people. It’s huge.
“This is massive and it’s massive for the group of players that we’ve got. I’d have to say I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be involved in some great management groups and some great coaching groups, and even more so the players themselves.
“No matter what you try to do as a coach you can’t create courage. You can try to add to character or build on character, but there’s got to be the character there to start with and they definitely demonstrated that today.”