Friday 15 December 2017

Neil Francis: Joe Schmidt must take full credit

Coach's trust in players has created team of champions, writes Neil Francis

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt and Jonathan Sexton following their victory
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt and Jonathan Sexton following their victory
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

In the giddy aftermath, time to pause and reflect on the incalculable ecstasy of the win – the reason why most players play. Yesterday Ireland demonstrated why they are champions – a healthy combination of mental starch and heroic virtue.

This was an authentic performance and in the cauldron that is Stade de France Ireland displayed an emotional calm which got them through many nervous moments.

Observing them before the match it is very hard to plug into their psyche. Would they have the appetite for the contest? Were they aware of their responsibility for this occasion? The answer was yes. This performance was a revelation of character and you sensed that even if they lost yesterday's terrific encounter this would have been the game where all 23 players would have been carried dead from the field on their shields.

Credit in the first place must go to Joe Schmidt who masterminded Ireland's progression in this championship. It is rare that Ireland travel to Paris in expectation based solely on the intelligence of their coach. Yesterday was Schmidt's most difficult assignment. Schmidt is famous for his attention to detail, he undertakes a thorough forensic analysis on the opposition and engages his team with a gameplan which will be geared towards beating the opposition as he sees them. Very difficult to work that when the French game plan is practically indecipherable, even the French have no idea what way they will play.

Ireland had to take care of their own gameplan, trust in themselves and trust in Schmidt's judgment. Schmidt is a modest man and it came across in the thoughtful dignity of his post-match interview but you know one Championship will not be good enough for somebody so fiercely ambitious. His side played with such purposeful effort and ease it was unthinkable that they would not win yesterday.

One of the key building blocks of this side is composure. They say discipline is the bridge between goal and accomplishment and that was borne out yesterday in Ireland's performance. They kept their penalty count below double figures and they scrambled really well when the French piled on the pressure and near their own five-yard line they fought like dervishes but had the mettle not to concede.

One thing that amazed me pre-match, and in the press room, was the amount of French correspondents, those who had been directly responsible for ramping up the pressure on some of the French teams abject performances before yesterday's Test match. Most of them were of the view that France would blitz Ireland with a barrage of fury, aggression and passion. I reminded all of them that that sounded like the Irish teams of yore and what would happen if Ireland held firm and showed the heavy reserves of emotional calm would see them through the full 80. A Gallic shrug of the shoulder – what a role reversal, where are we in terms of world rugby?

Ireland were very good yesterday and an amalgam of concentration, invention and execution saw them through. They made very few handling errors. They kept the ball for long periods against a savage and aggressively demonstrative French side. They only turned the ball over four times and given the ferocity of the hits that was some achievement. You could see method in the way they passed the ball – it wasn't exactly risk free but they got away with it most of the times that they ran out of support. Conor Murray box-kicked really well and our back three won most of the aerial duals.

In this regard Rob Kearney was Ireland's most influential player – he was simply brilliant. A special mention too must be made for Andrew Trimble, not our first-choice winger but a man who has outperformed on every last single one of his performances in this championship – all credit to him and to his bravery and application.

Johnny Sexton was the catalyst for everything yesterday and while most of his plays were executed with surety he was not immune from the odd mistake but you could see his intent and his determination and when he scored you could see it all fizz out in his indomitable character. It was important that Ireland scored when they did. At that stage they hadn't really gotten into their rhythm and the French were beginning to build some galloping momentum.

Ireland took their first opportunity when they got into the French 22 and their running angles, the trailing runners in support and their clearing out were all first class. Cian Healy and Jamie Heaslip were responsible for most of the damage but it was Ireland's openside Chris Henry who borrowed a little bit of magic out of the Driceaux Playbook. Ulster's flanker came charging past a ruck and with an underarm flick out of the tackle he offloaded it to Sexton who cut back inside him to score. If Henry had been brought to ground the French could have recovered and the move might have faltered.

Unbelievably Sexton missed the conversion and he also missed a hard-won penalty in the last seconds of the first half – which everybody's granny would have slotted over. That's five points in the debit column. However, it is a champion's prerogative that he would go and wrest those points back for his team.

Sexton's second try was a thing of beauty and something that Ireland could quite easily have messed up. Had Trimble made a surgical incision on the line he had O'Driscoll on the outside – all he had to do was a show and go, a dummy to O'Driscoll and cut back inside. Instead he tried to stand up Dulin and pass the ball to O'Driscoll. Ireland's centre made progress but was hauled down short of the line.

Whenever any of Schmidt's teams get in behind they are like quick-ball junkies. The ball came quickly enough and Sexton came on in an impossibly straight angle at 100mph and got over under the posts. A penalty a few minutes later got Ireland up to 22 points but this, it seemed, would never be enough and the French would come back. Once again Ireland did not score in the last 20 minutes and their bench struggled with the pace of the game.

In the moment of the match Pape's pass to Chouly was a good two yards forward – I do not know why Gareth Simmonds took as long as he did to deliberate.

Ireland were uncomfortable at tight in the last 15 minutes and the key moment in the close out when France picked off Ireland's scrum ball was a huge hit by Iain Henderson on Doussain which made it practically impossible for the French to try and manufacture something and Ireland closed out professionally.

Congratulations to all on a highly professional performance, one which will make the country proud.

As for our Champion – O'Driscoll had another splendid performance and his very influence alone assured Ireland a victory and he signs off with yet more silverware. Don't cry because it's over – smile because it happened. Thanks for everything Drico.

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