Joe Schmidt relaxes in the relief of Grand Slam glory
Ireland manager and captain Rory Best pointed to the injection of youth as the key
Joe Schmidt said he didn’t dare to dream in advance of the game but he no longer has to deal in the hypothetical as his Ireland team claimed a third Grand Slam in an emphatic fashion at Twickenham. The Ireland coach guided his charges to a third Six Nations Championship with the ultimate addendum, an unbeaten passage through the tournament.
He let out a sigh as he sat down and considered the magnitude of what his team had achieved before measuring his thoughts. “It’s more relief than anything else. It always is in these kind of moments. You are willing it to happen so much. You want players to go out and deliver what they are capable of. There is a mix of pride as well.”
On a bitingly cold afternoon in south west London, Ireland produced a performance that warmed the cockles, in emulating the achievements of the 1948 and 2009 Irish cadres.
Only twice previously in Irish rugby history had an Ireland team returned from Paris and London with victories in the same season, 1948 and 1972, and in the case of the latter group of players, the non appearance in Dublin of Scotland and Wales, denied them a tilt at joining a very select green-shirted band of brothers.
Speaking of niche landmarks, Ireland fullback Rob Kearney and captain and hooker Rory Best stand alone as two Ireland rugby players with a brace of Grand Slam triumphs; how apposite that they produced a monumental input, into not just ensuring the team won at Twickenham but during the whole tournament.
Best admitted: “For me personally, it’s a little bit more special (than 2009, when he was on the bench behind Jerry Flannery), not only starting every game but captaining the side.
“Every kid grows up dreaming of playing for Ireland and when you do that the next thing you want to do is win something for Ireland. To win something as captain in that special green jersey, it’s something that dreams are made of.
“It’s up there as the biggest highlight of my career. To do it with this bunch of players and staff, it’s a really tight-knit group. I know a lot of teams say that if they do well or win games but it’s a special bunch.”
Schmidt spoke about his pride in and admiration for his players and when asked for perhaps one characteristic, spoke about the incredible resilience shown by the players, initially in France to rescue victory in that nerve shredding 41-phase end game with Jonathan Sexton’s drop goal but also the eight minutes after half-time at Twickenham, when Ireland’s ferocity in defence, kept their line intact.
“The first eight minutes after half-time, you are up 21-5; you know that you can’t let them get a score early in that second half. I thought the defence there was immense. We really had to fight our way out of the 22. They laid siege to our 22, during that period of time.”
He also spoke about the young players and how they stood up in adversity in the imperfect world of injuries, where the designated role is not the one that’s occasionally asked of an individual. “There was a heck of a lot of character shown. I am also proud of the way guys got thrown in there and survived.
“Kieran Marmion, it is not the first time that he has ended up on the wing. It’s not his position of choice. Jordan Larmour hadn’t trained at 13 for us at all. We were going to Joey (Carbery) on at 10 so we knew we couldn’t put him at 10 and 13. He’s quite talented but he’s not two people.
“Jordan had to go to 13 and I thought he found his feet incredibly well. Keith Earls might disagree, he might have gone over in the corner (a reference to a pass that might have come the Limerick man’s way if Larmour had elected shift the ball after his run into the English 22). It’s a great learning opportunity for Jordan.
“At that same time you had Garry Ringrose really grown in stature and boss that backline with young Joey inside at 10 and Jordan outside. And even Jacob (Stockdale) he is still a kid but because he has played every game very well and he’s growing and learning people maybe take for granted he actually hasn’t had that much rugby at this level of even provincial level for that matter.”
Schmidt confirmed that he delved into the back catalogue for the move that led to CJ Stander’s try, in which man of the match Tadhg Furlong and Bundee Aki were pivotal components. “We played the identical move against England three years ago in Dublin.
“Robbie Henshaw went through and fell over. He got ankle tapped and Billy Vunipola managed to drag him down. They are the only two times we played it. The way they come up defensively we thought it might work again and the way they place their forwards.”
Everything fell into place literally and figuratively on the day, slivers of good fortune here and there including the fact that England coach Eddie Jones asked for the in-goal areas to be extended when the pitch was being lined that morning. Jacob Stockdale’s record-breaking try would not have been under the old markings.
But before he left to resume the celebrations in a dressing room he described as “wet” and a mood therein as “exuberant” he was asked to describe what made him most proud of his players.
He ventured: “I think it’s probably their resilience. I felt that we were really struggling in France in that last eight minutes when Teddy Thomas scored.
“That’s tough when you’ve controlled the game and missed a kick to go 15-6 up to make the game safe. And suddenly you’re 13-12 down, to show the steel that they did, to show the commitment and just plain ordinary rugby ability, to keep the ball, to connect up, to win ball in the air, and then the exceptional Johnny has to put the ball between the uprights, finished it off.
“As frustrating as it was when Wales got back close to us after we had a 14-point lead, again, it never really felt like we would give that up. For Jacob to race away and score at the end, Jacob was totally in control of the edge of the defence.
“And today, that eight minutes after half time sums up this team. Yes, they can put together some really good moments and score tries. We probably totaled more than we’ve ever scored in a Six Nations. They delivered on that side, but that pure resilience, that ability to get back up and get back in the defensive line to protect that try-line in the eight minutes after half time, was exceptional.”
Much like the achievement, Six Nations champions, Grand Slam and Triple Crown the whole shebang.