As is increasingly the norm in World Cup years, a cycle comes to an end today when Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland oversee their last Six Nations game, and against each other.
As well as longevity, each man has presided over extraordinary success, with Schmidt enjoying a 72 per cent winning ratio with 21 wins, one draw and seven defeats, and Gatland 70 per cent, with 35 wins, a draw and 13 defeats. The one draw was also against each other.
Ireland have never known an era like it, save for the three titles including a Grand Slam in a four period from 1948 to 1951. In Schmidt’s first five seasons, Ireland won two Six Nations titles and just a third Grand Slam in history.
What’s more, in arguably the most competitive era in Six Nations history, Ireland have again ensured a top half finish in each of the six seasons under Schmidt, something no other country has managed in the same time period, with even England (last season) and Wales, two seasons ago, finishing in the bottom half.
Opinions may vary as to which constitutes the best six of Ireland’s 21 wins under Schmidt’s watch, but pride of place has to go to last season’s St Patrick’s Day win in Twickenham, given the prize and the performance. Likewise, rare indeed is the day when the title Super Saturday is justified, but it was on that unforgettable, probably never-to-be-repeated day in Murrayfield when Ireland thrillingly retained their title.
The dramatic, last-day win in the Stade de France to secure the title the year before comes in third, with last year at the same venue and ‘that’ drop goal forever etched in the Irish sporting psyche. Days at the Aviva Stadium cannot be completely overlooked, and the two wins over England were special.
Conor Murray has started 28, and Rory Best 27, of the 29 matches in the last six seasons. Johnny Sexton has scored 266 points, while Jacob Stockdale is the leading try scorer in that time with eight tries in his nine appearances, followed by Keith Earls and Murray on eight.
As well as the 13 wins in the Aviva Stadium over the last six seasons, along with one draw and one defeat, there have been two wins apiece in the Stade de France and Murrayfield, one in Twickenham and three in the Stadio Olimpico. The only venue where an Irish team of Schmidt’s has yet to win is the Principality Stadium. It is set up rather nicely to tick that one missing box.
Sunday, February 2nd, Aviva Stadium
Ireland 28 Scotland 6
Schmidt’s first Six Nations game followed the gut-wrenching 24-22 defeat to New Zealand and captain Paul O’Connell withdrew with a chest infection the night beforehand. But an Andrew Trimble try ensured an 11-3 interval lead and further tries by Jamie Heaslip, skipper on the day, and Rob Kearney secured a comfortable victory.
Saturday February 8th, Aviva Stadium
Ireland 26 Wales 3
Six days later, with some old British & Irish Lions scores to settle, O’Connell was back and Gordon D’Arcy restored, as the Irish pack dominated and Peter O’Mahony ruled the breakdown. Chris Henry’s first-half try, 14 points from Johnny Sexton and a late converted try by Paddy Jackson scarcely reflected Ireland’s superiority.
Saturday February 22nd, Twickenham
England 13 Ireland 10
Ireland’s Grand Slam hopes were dashed in a high quality clash. Rob Kearney’s try off an inside pass by Jamie Heaslip - which came with the stamp of Schmidt all over it - and a Sexton penalty put Ireland 10-3 ahead, but after Owen Farrell’s penalty Mike Brown set up Danny Care’s match-winning try.
Saturday March 8th, Aviva Stadium
Ireland 46 Italy 7
To chants of ‘one more year’ Brian O’Driscoll marked his world record 140th cap and Lansdowne Road farewell by setting up tries for Andrew Trimble and Johnny Sexton, who added a second in a 17-point haul. Importantly, the bench weighed in with 19 points at the end to boost Ireland’s points’ differential.
Saturday March 15th, Stade de France
France 20 Ireland 22
In O’Driscoll’s final test, 15 years on from his hat-trick, and a year on from finishing fifth, Ireland repelled France’s best. Sexton contributed another two try, 17-point haul before being knocked out by Mathie Bastareaud and Trimble added another try before Jean-Marc Doussain missed a penalty and France had a try ruled out.
Saturday, February 7th, Stadio Olimpico
Italy 3 Ireland 26
Unveiled in the autumn, the Robbie Henshaw-Jared Payne midfield partnership made its Six Nations bow and with Sexton completing a 12-week concussion lay-off, Ian Keatley kicked three first-half penalties before tries from Conor Murray and Tommy O’Donnell, a late call-up after Seán O’Brien’s hamstring tightened in the warm-up, completed an unremarkable win.
Saturday, February 14th, Aviva Stadium
Ireland 18 France 11
Despite all the forebodings, on his return in a bruising encounter with the beefed-up French, Sexton stood up to a buffeting from Bastareaud - the two temporarily departing together after another collision - to kick five from five, with Ian Madigan landing another. Pascal Pape was binned for kneeing Heaslip in a ruck.
Sunday March 1st, Aviva Stadium
Ireland 19 England 9
Another high quality clash. Jordi Murphy replaced Heaslip and Sexton landed four penalties out of four before a touchline conversion after Henshaw brilliantly gathered Murray’s clever chip into the in-goal area with an advantage. Sexton (hamstring) then departed the key win in this title success.
Saturday March 14th, Millennium Stadium
Wales 23 Ireland 16
Wayne Barnes pinged Ireland repeatedly for not rolling away as Leigh Halfpenny kicked Wales 12-0 ahead, and leading 15-9 they pulled clear after a try-line stand and a Scott Williams try before a penalty try for Ireland. The result ended Ireland’s Slam hopes and tarnished O’Connell’s 100th cap. Yet it begot Super Saturday.
Saturday March 21st, Murrayfield
Scotland 10 Ireland 40
In a three-way tussle, Wales’ rout of Italy set Ireland a target of a 21-point win. Tries by O’Connell, O’Brien (2) and Payne, and Heaslip’s key tackle on Hogg set England a target of a 26-point win over France. They won 55-35. Cue an Irish party in the Murrayfield gloom.
Sunday February 7th, Aviva Stadium
Ireland 16 Wales 16
With CJ Stander making 23 carries on debut, Ireland stormed into a 13-0 lead through Conor Murray’s try and Sexton’s boot, but without Mike Ross, the scrum creaked for a try by the outstanding Taulupe Faletau. A 74th minute Sexton penalty salvaged a first draw between the two sides since 1991.
Saturday, February 13th, Stade de France
France 10 Ireland 9
Ireland held a hard-earned 9-3 lead well inside the last quarter but without Cian Healy, Mike Ross and Marty Moore - ever presents in the back-to-back titles - the scrum creaked again for Maxime Machenaud to put Maxime Medard over. A gloomy day all round all but ended Ireland’s title hopes after two games.
Saturday, February 27th, Twickenham
England 21 Ireland 10
With Billy Vunipola rampant, and Maro Itoje impressive on his full debut, Ireland withstood intense English first-half pressure to lead through Conor Murray’s try, rewarding a policy of going to the corner. But tries from Anthony Watson and Mike Brown left England on course for a Slam, and the injury hit champions winless.
Saturday March 12th, Aviva Stadium
Ireland 58 Italy 15
Ireland vented their frustrations on the hapless Azzurri with a nine-try rout. Trimble, Payne, Jack McGrath, Stander, Sean Cronin, Ian Madigan and Fergus McFadden all touched down, with Heaslip’s brace also including the pitch-length try of the year instigated by the returning Zebo.
Saturday March 19th, Aviva Stadium
Ireland 35 Scotland 25
Stander set the tone with some barnstorming carries and the first of four tries, three of which were scored while Scotland were twice down to 14 men. Ironically, 15 tries in the championship almost doubled the precious season’s tally of eight, leaving them wondering what might have been. But successive wins ensured a top half finish.
Saturday, February 4th, Murrayfield
Scotland 27 Ireland 22
Missing Sexton and Peter O’Mahony, the bus infamously arrived late and Ireland started on the back foot. Down 21-5 by the half hour mark, they lead on the hour through tries by Iain Henderson and Paddy Jackson, but unusual sloppiness in possession and two late Greig Laidlaw penalties did for them.
Saturday, February 11th, Stadio Olimpico
Italy 10 Ireland 63
The ideal Roman antidote in 18 degrees, Jackson converting all nine tries. Stander again set the tone with a hat-trick, and 22 carries for 78 metres. Replacement Craig Gilroy scored a last quarter hat-trick but Schmidt questioned his positional play and it would be the last of Gilroy’s ten caps.
Saturday, February 25th, Aviva Stadium
Ireland 19 France 9
On Best’s return the line-out, and breakdown word, laid the platform for Murray, who scored the game’s only try and Sexton. Returning from his calf issues, he survived another French buffeting, including a late hit by ex-Racing teammate Eddy Ben Arous, with a match-defining trio of three-pointers in the third quarter.
Friday, March 10th, Millennium Stadium
Wales 22 Ireland 9
Like Schmidt, the under-siege Rob Howley kept an unchanged side. Two George North tries and Wales’ defensive obduracy denied Ireland a title shoot-out with England. They scored ten points with Sexton, who also went off with an HIA, sin-binned despite a 10-4 penalty count to Ireland, while Murray went off with an arm injury.
Saturday, March 18th, Aviva Stadium
Ireland 13 England 9
Jared Payne, at full-back, Kieran Marmion, Henderson, scoring the only try, and O’Mahony all came in and contributed handsomely as Ireland, ala Chicago, bookended their season by ending another record 18-match winning run. And ala 2001 and 2011, left England to pick up a 6N trophy in being denied a Slam.
Saturday, February 3rd, Stade de France
France 13 Ireland 15
Having been in relative control, Ireland were sucker-punched by a Teddy Thomas try and another opening day defeat seemed set to scupper Slam ambitions. Cue the great escape. Anthony Belleau missed a penalty, Henderson reclaimed the restart and 41 phases later Sexton landed the 45 metre drop goal. Cue momentum.
Saturday, February 10th, Aviva Stadium
Ireland 56 Italy 19
Ireland fell one try short of the previous year but, similarly, converted all eight. The only blemishes were the dislocated shoulder suffered by Robbie Henshaw in scoring his second try, the slight hamstring tear suffered by Tadhg Furlong and the concession of three late tries, Keith Earls chasing back to deny Italy a fourth.
Saturday, February 24th, Aviva Stadium
Ireland 37 Wales 27
Andrew Porter and Chris Farrell came in and both had huge games. Ireland pulled clear with a 19 point salvo either side of half-time, and had a bonus point by the 55th minute, but ultimately they were indebted to Jacob Stockdale’s second try from an intercept to deny Wales another of their comeback wins and even a bonus point.
Saturday, March 10th, Aviva Stadium
Ireland 28 Scotland 8
Scotland blew a few chances, whereas Ireland didn’t overplay their hand from an abundance of possession. Two more Stockdale tries, the first another intercept, earned a 14-3 interval lead. Murray powered over for another before the pack mauled over for the bonus point. France’s subsequent win over England sealed the title.
Saturday, March 17th, Twickenham
England 15 Ireland 24
Neither England nor the Baltic weather could spoil the Paddy’s Day coronation. Ireland kept their best until last, opportunist first-half tries from Ringrose, Stander (off a sweet strike move when Furlong linked with Aki) and Stockdale, from his own chip, sealed a third Grand Slam. Something of a bloodless coup in the end.
Saturday, February 2nd, Aviva Stadium
Ireland 20 England 32
With Henshaw at fullback, a vengeful England caught Ireland cold with Jonny May’s second minute try. Thereafter Ireland were also rocked by the visitors’ physicality - 44 ‘dominant tackles’ to nine. Ireland were still in it until Henry Slade’s 66th minute try. His second, off an intercept, earned England a bonus point while ultimately denying Ireland one.
Saturday, February 9th, Murrayfield
Scotland 13 Ireland 22
After Murray snaffled one try and Stockdale finished a lovely strike move, a buffeted Sexton departed in the 24th minute and Ireland teetered after Joey Carbery’s pass was picked off by Finn Russell. Carbery handsomely atoned when creating Earls’ try, albeit Ireland couldn’t seal a bonus point in the last quarter.
Sunday, February 24th, Stadio Olimpico
Italy 16 Ireland 26
Schmidt rested a few frontline forwards, and Sean Cronin was granted a belated first Six Nations start, but the lineout malfunctioned and Ireland laboured. Ultimately, they had to complete a recovery from a half-time deficit for the first time in 11 attempts, Earls’ dancing finish and Murray’s try off a maul sealing a bonus point win.
Sunday, March 10th, Aviva Stadium
Ireland 26 France 14
France, having found their mojo against Scotland, ran into an Irish side welcoming back Healy, Best, Henderson and the workaholic duo of Ryan and Stander. Tries by Best, off a maul, Sexton, off his wraparound, Conan and Earls again secured a bonus point by the 56th minute. Two late tries flattered France.