'It is the most spectacular brainwashing in our sporting history'
After opening the scoring Ireland’s opening try after little more than four minutes yesterday, Paul O’Connell raced back to the halfway line.
Not a single glance was given to the referee, who wasn’t so sure of the score and required assistance, while congratulatory high fives from team-mates merely turned his sprint into a sprightly jog. The captain was instead focused on the restart, which naturally he claimed with aplomb.
The captain, like coach, is almost fixated by the processes that form the 80 minutes of Test rugby. Schmidt’s attention to detail is well documented at this stage, with Keith Earls recently likening Ireland camp to “going back to school” such is the studious nature of the former Leinster coach. Brian O’Driscoll gave an insight on Friday as to a possible reason why Simon Zebo was deemed surplus to requirements for the grand finale after the disappointment of Cardiff.
The Munster utility player has forced his way into the first team after failing to make a single match-day squad during last year’s victorious campaign. Like many of his team-mates, he was below par in the defeat at the Millennium Stadium. O’Driscoll suggested that Zebo’s “body fight in the tackle”, where the player tackled works to make it presentable to the scrum-half, was not what it should have been during a number of rucks against a ferocious Welsh defensive line.
“He spilled one, another got ripped and ended up on his back once or twice,” he said on Newstalk’s Off the Ball. “It’s a real pet hate of Joe’s, don’t ever end up on your back. You should be able to fight your way back up to your front to present the ball.”
In a campaign where there have been precious few opportunities for the back three to showcase their attacking talents, one imagines Zebo was looking on enviously as his replacement Luke Fitzgerald was attacking from deep on a number of occasions in the opening 20 minutes with the Scottish defence expecting booming clearances and an orchestrated kick-chase.
The Irish end of the bargain was kept with a 30 point winning margin in Edinburgh in the second game of the day, but at times in Twickenham it looked like Ireland would get a flavour of what the Welsh must have felt while watching from Rome; hopelessness and regret.
In one of the most open Six Nations games ever witnessed, the French conceded 55 points and came out 20-point losers in a 12 try bonanza, but it still felt like a bonus-point defeat. Substitute hooker Benjamin Kayser was ultimately the Irish saviour with the final French try, but only just.
In the final minute of an absorbing encounter, an injured Vincent Debaty was forced to return to field of play to complete the scrum. The weary loosehead was no match for a motivated English pack and the penalty somewhat inevitable.
England claimed the lineout as the maul looked set to rumble over to claim the converted try they so desperately needed. The tension simply became too much during the second phase of play, with referee Nigel Owens immediately pinging the hosts for going off their feet.
Only Les Bleus would try to run the ball from their own line with time up and nothing to play for. If you weren’t watching through green tinted glasses you would admired the sheer brashness of it all.
With 80 minutes and 14 seconds elapsed on the clock gone, the decision by Yoann Huget to tap and go rather than find the sanctuary of touch resulted in the unofficial world record for loudest explosion of expletives from a single nation in history. Thierry Henry had been temporarily usurped as French public enemy number one.
Thankfully Saint Andre’s side realised that adding to the scoreboard was a tall order from their own line and Irish folk worldwide were put out of our misery; the champagne was uncorked at Murrayfield and a thirteenth ever championship was collected.
Schmidt’s standing in the game cannot be underestimated, regardless of Jim Telfer’s suggestions to the contrary during the week. He has moved Irish rugby to a new level. It has got to the ridiculous point where supporters even think like the head coach, downplaying success, and more importantly, not becoming captivated by the grief of defeat (New Zealand, England, Wales). It is the most spectacular brain-washing in our sporting history.
With the Kiwi at the helm we are undefeated at home in the Six Nations, an excellent building block for any successful side. A dreadful away record in France has been improved in the most dramatic and intense circumstances. In two years we have defeated every top tier nation except the one we have never managed such a feat, while the set-backs have been the toss of a coin.
Last weekend was just the second away loss in the competition with a converted try separating Ireland and Wales. Last season a kick at goals was the difference as England edged a cagey encounter at Twickenham.
In fact Australia aside in Schmidt’s second game in charge, where the Wallabies were full value for their comfortable victory, has been the only performance that could be described as rudderless. That was followed a week later by the same result, but an entirely different performance as the All Blacks were left off the hook.
The margin of defeat was two points. A big improvement on the 60 point drubbing at the Waikato Stadium the previous time the two teams crossed paths, but moral victories are not part of the psyche. They never were for Schmidt.
“We should have trusted each other there in the last couple of minutes,” Sean O’Brien said in the aftermath. “I think it’s time lads grew up and know what’s expected of them when they put on an Irish jersey. They’re only a team at the end of the day.”
After successive championships, it is clear that the Irish players know exactly what is expected under their esteemed coach.
“With Joe, you know exactly where you are to hit the ruck,” O’Connell said earlier this week as an example of the coach’s famed attention to detail.
Chasing what appeared a daunting Welsh target from Rome and with England yet to play, RTE commentator Ryle Nugent posed a pertinent question prior to kick-off in Murrayfield.
“Have they the ability to deliver?” he asked the nation, co-commentator Donal Lenihan and most likely himself.
The answer was emphatic. A confident and talented squad mixed with the finest rugby brain in world rugby is proving to be a powerful combination. Even if the margins are nothing short of heart-stopping.