Team spirit the key as Ireland take title in their suits
Joe Schmidt pointed to injured players and how his squad have rallied for each other
Merci France, although in truth it was all Ireland’s work really. A third Six Nations title in five years marks a period of success in the history of Irish rugby the like of which hasn’t been known since the late 40s and early 50s, and to do so they had to win four matches out of four. Some going. No-one else came close, each of them losing two matches out of four. Ireland are the 2018 champions and, as in 2014 and 2015, deservedly so.
That France beat England 22-16 in Paris following Ireland’s 28-8 victory over Scotland leaves no room for argument. Regardless of bonus points, Ireland would have been champions anyway with a round to spare. It takes away that caveat, and leaves no room for bleating from any other quarter.
The head coach who presided over all three titles has been Joe Schmidt, and after this one was confirmed, he returned to the press conference room in the Aviva Stadium.
Asked if it felt like a special achievement, Schmidt said: “From a wider squad perspective it is, because Josh van der Flier will be delighted, and the players have worked hard to get a medal for Josh. The players have worked hard to get a medal for Robbie and for Chris Farrell. There are a number of guys that won’t be playing in Twickenham but are certainly right behind the squad. And at the same time there are some players you haven’t seen on the pitch who have worked incredibly hard.”
Now the shoe will be on the other foot, with England at home on the final day endeavouring to atone for two away defeats and in the process deny their visitors a Grand Slam on their home patch, as Ireland did to England in 2001, 2011 and last year.
Yet, in beating Scotland, not only did this remorseless Irish machine register an 11th successive win at Test level and a third successive bonus point win at home despite not firing on all cylinders, but they extended their unbeaten home record over five years under Schmidt to 15 matches. And as the last four weekends have increasingly underlined, away wins are harder than ever to come by.
As was the case last season, when ultimately Elliot Daly’s late match-winning try in Cardiff accounted for the only away win outside of Rome and was the primary reason England retained their title, so Ireland are champions by dint of thus far securing the only away win outside of Rome courtesy of Johnny Sexton’s 83rd minute drop goal in Paris.
“Like we said after, it was a very special moment for the team,” said Sexton, who confirmed that the players were, understandably, in far from celebratory mood.
“We’ll look back at that, yea, when we lift the trophy next week, hopefully a Grand Slam, we can look back at that five minutes and say that was a huge moment in our success. But look, it’s very muted upstairs, it’s a very strange feeling to win the championship with a game to go and so much still to play for, and we know how difficult it’s going to be with England.
“Credit to the management team for being able to prepare us with so many changes. I think at the start of the season if you’d said “You’re going to win a championship without Josh, Sean, Jamie Heaslip, Rhys Ruddock, Robbie Henshaw, and then to lose Chris Farrell as well, and there are others on that list as well, it’s great building forward into World Cups and before that as well, the championship next year, because we’ve built a bit of depth. That’s been done over the past couple of years and it’s great that it’s so seamless at times.
“But we know that the biggest challenge is ahead, still. The shoe is on the other foot now after last year and I’m sure they’ll be licking their lips.”