Sport Rugby

Thursday 18 September 2014

We can't rest on our laurels, warns perfectionist Schmidt

Ireland coach insists major improvement will be required ahead of World Cup

Published 17/03/2014 | 02:30

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Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, left, and captain Paul O'Connell with the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship 2014 trophy on the team's return to Dublin
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, left, and captain Paul O'Connell with the RBS Six Nations Rugby Championship 2014 trophy on the team's return to Dublin

PAUL O'CONNELL was still searching for perfection in the bowels of the Stade de France, while Brian O'Driscoll admitted he was happy that retirement meant he wouldn't have to sit through the review.

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They had the trophy in their arms, but they weren't entirely happy with how they had achieved it. Ultimately, the end outweighed the means, but the drive within the senior Irish players was evident.

Their team-mates were posing for selfies and getting stuck into cans in the dressing-room, but the old guard who have soldiered so often together have been conditioned to drive for more by the man who led them to their second title.

For the former captain, there is no more. This is his lot and it was a fine way to go out.

O'Connell, however, has signed up for the ride and he wants to make the most of it.

Finally, he has ticked winning away to France off his bucket list at the eighth attempt, and the hours after the game were to be enjoyed – the review could wait.

COLLECTIVE

These days don't come around too often and just 12 months ago Ireland lay in ruins in Rome.

On Saturday, Joe Schmidt was at pains to stress that it had been a collective effort, naming almost every member of his back-room staff and emphasising how "player-driven" the environment is in the Ireland camp.

However, there is no hiding the fact that the commander-in-chief has had a huge role to play in transforming Ireland's fortunes.

"It has been a massive impact, no doubt about it," O'Connell said. "There's no doubt we had a very poor season last year. A disappointing, frustrating season – albeit injury-plagued as well.

"I suppose Joe has brought a lot of what you would hear Leinster players saying in the media for the last number of years.

"There's real clarity about what we're doing. People are in no doubt of their role, how well they need to do their role and how well they need to know their role.

"When you have a good team and you can give players that kind of clarity, it allows them to be good players. I think that's what we've had in the last few months."

The over-riding emotion for the coach who made it happen?

"I'm just incredibly relieved," Schmidt said. "There was a growing expectation since that last game in November that maybe we could do something a little bit special, and it was a massive relief to get to do it.

"Losing in Twickenham was a bit like winning here. We lost by the skin of our teeth and we won by the skin of our teeth here and that's the nature of playing big teams away.

"But to come to France having won once in the last 42 years, to win a championship, it seems a bit of a dream come true really."

Expectation is a theme Schmidt has returned to ever since taking over as Ireland coach. Having delivered a trophy – or two – in every season since arriving at Leinster it comes with the territory, but it doesn't necessarily fit comfortably on his shoulders.

Seventeen of the match-day squad won their first championship on Saturday, while Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris, Sean O'Brien, Simon Zebo, Luke Fitzgerald and Donnacha Ryan were all either injured or not selected and can bolster the ranks.

As fans optimistically look towards next year's World Cup, Schmidt had a word of warning.

First, he must replace O'Driscoll and he warned that the iconic centre might not be the only senior player to hang up his boots over the coming months.

"It is fantastic to have got what we've got but we know that progress is never linear, there are always peaks and troughs," he said.

"We're talking about young players coming through and it is fantastic, particularly the guys coming off the bench – we do have faith in them and they were the closers tonight.

"We're going to miss some of these experienced players over the next 18 months. Brian is obviously one of them but there is a couple of other guys who – if they do decide to give it up – well ...

"That experience on the field, decision-making, staying calm in the really tough moments, staying tough in the really tough moments... they're really good at doing it, that example gives confidence to those around them.

"So, I'm delighted with where we are, but we can't stay here, and there will be other teams trying to get past us so we have got to try and keep progressing."

The players could enjoy their night in the limelight, but there is no relaxing with Schmidt around.

"We've just got to make sure that the players go back to their provinces and they'll roll their sleeves up. We're very open selection-wise and we have an expectation that they'll continue the form that they've shown the last eight weeks for their provinces," he added.

Another trophy for the cabinet, the quest for perfection continues.

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