Schmidt's six steps to glory
Ireland coach has laid solid foundations to build squad for next year's World Cup
JOE SCHMIDT'S first season as Ireland coach effectively ended last Saturday night in glorious darkness in Paris as Paul O'Connell lifted the Six Nations trophy.
The summer tour remains on the schedule and is technically part of 2013/14, but in reality the two-Test jaunt to Argentina is the start of something new and the beginning of the assault on World Cup 2015.
The first nine months in international rugby haven't been perfect for the New Zealander, who would have loved a win over his home country, but to collect a title that has proved so difficult to win in his opening campaign must be hugely satisfying.
The honeymoon period is over, but the win over France allows yet more breathing space for a coach whose determination to pick who he likes and make some unpopular selection choices would have left him open to criticism if things hadn't worked out.
Schmidt is his own man and his choices worked. His record since arriving in Ireland is incredible and the sense of optimism around the national team is at an all-time high. The coach has barely put a foot wrong in guiding Ireland from fifth to first in the Six Nations over eight games in charge, coming within inches of beating the All Blacks and England in the process.
Phase one is complete; phase two, and life after Brian O'Driscoll, begins in June, but over the eight games so far there has been plenty of progress and on Saturday there was tangible reward.
SCHMIDT'S SIX STEPS TO GLORY
1 – ONE MORE YEAR
O'Driscoll's future hung in the balance as the RDS chanted "One more year" last spring but Schmidt's appointment helped convince the centre to give in to their demand.
It wasn't the only factor, but a conversation between these kindred spirits helped tip the balance in favour of the legendary No 13 continuing.
In November, Australia coach Ewen McKenzie questioned the logic of persisting with a player who would not be available for the World Cup next year, but Schmidt had no doubt about his ability to contribute.
A lack of game time hindered him in November, but he was to the forefront of Ireland's title drive and while he didn't score a try, he was still an effective force with ball in hand who defended brilliantly.
Robbie Henshaw and Darren Cave assumed a watching brief in Carton House as they learned from the master and it sounds like both will be given a chance to fill his boots in Argentina.
It won't be easy, but with silverware secured O'Driscoll leaves Ireland in a good place.
2 – APPOINTING JOHN PLUMTREE
The forwards coach was something of an unknown quantity to the locals when he arrived from the Natal Sharks but his contribution has been immense.
A former head coach himself, he has slotted seamlessly into the set-up and the improvement in the set-piece has been huge, with the scrum rarely going backwards and the line-out nigh-on impeccable.
The maul, however, was where we saw the best of Plumtree's work as Ireland's pack became a cohesive weapon that destroyed Scotland and Wales.
3 – PICKING O'CONNELL AS CAPTAIN
Handing the Munster man the armband could have been construed as a political step, and it didn't do any harm, but O'Connell's work ethic and leadership skills far outweighed any provincial balancing acts.
In Paris, as he lamented Ireland's inability to win the match better, you wanted to shake him and tell him to enjoy it more, but that's the demands that he and Schmidt place on their players.
That a 34-year-old who has missed so much rugby was first to arrive at the ruck after Andrew Trimble and O'Driscoll's breakaway last Saturday was emblematic of his work rate and desire. It helped win the game and his presence will demand that standards are maintained after his predecessor retires.
4 – NOT PANICKING AFTER AUSTRALIA
The enduring pessimism that followed Ireland's first defeat of the season would have had a weaker coach reacting with sweeping changes, but a second viewing convinced Schmidt that a few tweaks would suffice.
O'Connell lamented the fact that the quest to carry out the plan had clouded the minds to such an extent that they forgot to front up physically, and in the following days that was addressed to such an extent that Ireland almost blew New Zealand away.
Even though they couldn't finish the job, that turnaround instilled Ireland with the confidence that they could play the Schmidt way and beat the best.
5 – BACKING HIS BENCH
The faces changed throughout November and the Six Nations and nobody was safe, but the impact of Schmidt's bench has grown steadily and the team now extends to 23 men rather than 15. While the starting XV went relatively untouched during the past eight weeks, the coach sought to introduce new faces who were expected to make an impact.
Their best work came in the Italy win and the lack of scores in the last half-hour against New Zealand, England and France is something to work on, but the contribution of Iain Henderson, Jack McGrath, Sean Cronin and Ian Madigan in the final stages of Saturday's win was telling.
6 – REWARDING HARD WORK
Asked what defined his title-winning team, Schmidt chose the words "work ethic" and "unity".
He stuck largely with the team who faced New Zealand, but he got his reward through the brilliant performances of Trimble and Chris Henry last Saturday. Dave Kearney and Devin Toner have also responded well to being backed and have grown in international stature.
It meant Lions and men considered established first-teamers like Simon Zebo, Tommy Bowe and Donnacha Ryan were left watching on from the outside, but that should only force them to re-double their efforts to get back in Schmidt's plans during the summer.
Ireland under Joe Schmidt
Points scored: 209
Points conceded: 114
Points per game: 26
Points conceded per game: 14
Total players used: 37
Total starters used: 25
Provincial/club breakdown of the 37 players used: Leinster 21, Ulster 9, Munster 5, Connacht 1, Racing Metro 1
First caps: 4 – Dave Kearney, Jack McGrath, Martin Moore, Jordi Murphy
Six Nations players used: 29
Six Nations starters used: 18
Started every game: Rory Best, Rob Kearney, Jamie Heaslip, Brian O'Driscoll, Mike Ross, Devin Toner
Played all 640 minutes (plus injury-time): Jamie Heaslip
Tries scored: 24
Different try scorers: 15
Top try scorer: Sexton 4
Tries conceded: 11
Biggest win: Ireland 46 Italy 7
Biggest defeat: Ireland 15 Australia 32