Joe Schmidt says Paris battle will strengthen Ireland
Coach says it was a feeling of relief more than anything else when Sexton kicked over
Ireland outhalf Jonathan Sexton celebrates with Ireland centre Bundee Aki after scoring a drop goal to beat France 15-13 in their Six Nations opener at the Stade de France in Paris. Photograph: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images
Johnny Sexton had two contrasting seasons at Racing but hereafter, no less than Ronan O’Gara in Cardiff in 2009 and countless other moments in his stellar career, Sexton will always have Paris on February 3rd, 2018. His sheer bloody-minded competitiveness, physical and mental strength, and quality, shone through the Parisian gloom. It’s amazing how one kick can utterly transform the narrative.
Were it not for Sexton landing that remarkable drop goal from over 40 metres out in the 83rd minute, a deflated Irish squad would have been kicking themselves all the way back to Dublin for letting slip a game they largely controlled. Any notions of the Grand Slam would have been shredded, leaving them to play catch-up with Wales and England for the rest of the tournament.
Instead, buoyed by the manner they dug deep to salvage only a third win in Paris since 1972, all of them by two point margins, Ireland can instead aspire to kick on from this. They host Italy, who have only a six-day turnaround after a 46-15 loss to England in Rome yesterday after conceding three tries in the last 13 minutes, in the first of three successive home games next Saturday. England and Wales, who also enjoyed a bonus-point win over Scotland, meet in a huge game at Twickenham next Saturday, before Ireland host Wales in a pivotal game two weeks later.
For sure Ireland will have to play better then, not least in translating almost 70 per cent possession into line breaks and tries, of which there was neither in the Parisian rain on Saturday.
Gamut of emotions
Joe Schmidt looked like he had been through the gamut of emotions for much of this taut and dramatic 15-13 win, after which he was left with only one: pure unbridled relief.
“Massive. No [not ecstasy], just relief, because if you lose your first game, you are playing catch up the whole way and it is so tough. We have a little bit of security being at home and getting through something like that, I think it helps build the group together.
“It does strengthen the team bond and hopefully that will give them the resolve and the resilience that is required, because it is such a tough competition, that we know we are going to be in similar situations, maybe not right at the end of the game, but similar situations that we are going to have to fight our way through.”
At an advanced stage of that 41-phase drive Sexton, orchestrating it all like a quarterback from the moment his 22 metre restart was claimed by the outstanding Iain Henderson, was lying on the ground and stretching out his left leg with cramp. It looked like he was lost to the move, and certainly the odds on him landing a 45-metre drop goal at that juncture were remote in the extreme, but no less than the physical strength to pick himself up. He had the mental strength after missing a 62nd minute penalty to call for the pass from Conor Murray 45 metres out, and the ability to land only his fourth drop goal in 69 Tests.
“Ah he just had some cramp so he has no issues with his calves now,” said a smiling Schmidt. “I don’t think he can feel too much of his body!”
Yet Schmidt also admitted that the Irish management had been on the verge of replacing him with Joey Carbery, who has had 20 minutes of rugby at fullback since the Fijian game in November.
“We had Joey up ready to go. I mean Joey steered the ship at home in the past,” said the Ireland coach in reference to Carbery seeing out the endgame to Ireland’s historic win over New Zealand in Chicago in November 2016.
“Maybe not on as big a stage as this but it was still a fairly big stage for us. So it is one of those things where you say we are on the cusp of it ‘give us a moment’ and then the physio said ‘Johnny feels good, he feels he can continue’, which was a relief for us.”
Schmidt had said the younger players might feel less vulnerable, and there was a fair smattering of relatively inexperienced players helping to engineer that match-winning drive, albeit there was also a sprinkling of experienced players off the bench as well in Jack McGrath, Devin Toner, Sean Cronin and Fergus McFadden.
“Yeah, by a whisker,” said Schmidt, adding: “It is those moments that are so skinny that you can win or lose by such narrow margins and to win by that narrow margin – I am not really talking about the score, I am talking about the moments.
“It had ticked over the 80 minutes and the game was all but dead and buried and so I felt it was unbelievably accurate, hard working and skilful to achieve what they did. To work from a drop-out 22 where you are about 16 metres out from your own line, for Iain Henderson to take that and for us to build the phases from there, to have the audacity to have a crosskick involved and for Keith Earls to make no contest of it – he was going to claim that no matter what – that showed clarity of thought.
“Then some of the appeals to the referee when guys were lying in the way, made it look to me that it was going to be impossible. My thoughts were that we could not score with seven/eight/nine-second rucks. We could not score a try but that did not stop Johnny knocking over a drop goal.”
Asked if he’d ever been involved in a finish like that before, Schmidt thought long and hard, but couldn’t really think of a comparative one. “Mmmmmmmm, that is a really good question. I have certainly been involved in some skinny results. Four years ago when we won the Six Nations title here, it was the other way round, where we were hanging on for the win. To actually leap up and claim the win like we did certainly has not happened, not in recent times anyway.”
The win invariably came at some cost, with the results of a scan on Josh van der Flier’s suspected medial knee ligament injury expected to rule him out of the Italian game, meaning a probable start for Dan Leavy, who had a big impact on Saturday, and a promotion to the bench for either Jordi Murphy or Jack Conan. Jordan Larmour could well come into the equation too.
When Ireland last won the title in 2015, they beat France in the second round at the Aviva Stadium by 18-11, with Sexton kicking five of Ireland’s six penalties when France also scored the only try of the game.
“I’ll take that one,” said Schmidt. “I’ll take it. I’ll take any omen we can get right now. I know how tough it can be.”