Monday 19 March 2018

Tony Ward: Heroic work ethic must be platform to push on to even better days

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt

Something very special was achieved in the Stade de France on Saturday. Quite apart from a second victory in the French capital in 42 years and a second Six Nations title, here was an Irish squad setting out for Paris believing not alone that they could win, but that they should and that they would win.

They knew they had the goodwill of a nation.

On all counts they delivered, but primarily on the back of a level of consistency they have craved for so long.

Consistency was the objective for Joe Schmidt when he took control and consistency is what he has delivered in almost every game.

Only in the Test against Australia in November – his second in charge – did we fail to deliver the type of performance demanded.

Even in defeat against New Zealand and England, we were unlucky to lose to stronger and more physically endowed opposition. And therein lay the real challenge on Saturday. Would the French outmuscle and outmanoeuvre us physically, thereby making the almost regular biennial defeat a formality?

Well, now we know. We rocked, we rolled, but we never provided the minutest hint of submission. They attacked us in the scrum, at the line-out, at the breakdown and through Mathieu Bastareaud's unsophisticated route-one running in midfield.

This was destined to be our day – not because it was Brian O'Driscoll's last stand, not because we have reinvented the rugby wheel, not because we have a coach who waves a magic wand before every game – no, it was set up to be our day because we had worked ourselves into a position to make it so.

And work is the operative word. Schmidt's own work ethic and attention to detail are now inculcated in this new and developing squad.

But despite finishing as Six Nations champions, we are a long way yet from the finished article and where Schmidt wants to take us in preparing for England 2015. We need greater inventiveness in midfield and a greater cutting edge in striking from distance.

But that is other business for another day. For now, let us concentrate on the breathtaking climax to the 2014 tournament.

We weren't in any way lucky to win – whatever luck we had, we made through sheer hard graft as these guys emptied themselves. Remember Gary Player's line "the harder I worked, the luckier I got". That is Ireland under Schmidt in this exciting era.

We won because we were the better team playing the more pragmatic rugby, doing so as if our very lives depended upon it.

It is a type of commitment to the collective cause that money can not buy. It comes from within, but the new coaching structure has developed an environment in which the 'one for all and all for one' creed is entrenched.

It still leaves room for the individual, and that must always be acknowledged. On Saturday, the stand-out players were liberally positioned throughout the side – Cian Healy, Paul O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip, Andrew Trimble, Rob Kearney and Chris Henry.

Any one would have richly deserved the man-of-the-match award. I'm charged with the responsibility from time to time of making that call and I can assure you, doing it in rugby sticks in the craw. I hate the principle in a complex game which, by its very nature, dictates that the full-back depends on his loosehead prop every bit as much as an outside-centre sending him racing into space.

Saturday was one of those very special 'men-of-the-match' performances – period. But for what it's worth I felt Trimble, Heaslip and O'Connell were truly exceptional, and probably in that order.

Suffice it to say, the two most complete teams, by a distance, finished top of the Championship. Being top is a great place to be and one position higher than I believed we would be at this point in our development.

Stuart Lancaster's England seem the strongest squad with the strongest depth at this point in time, but league tables never lie and over the duration of the five games, we have been consistency personified.

Much has already been done, but there is still so much more to do as this management and this scrupulously honest group of players know best of all.

But let's park that for now and concentrate on the perfect end to the near-perfect career that O'Driscoll enjoyed in this tastefully handled finale.

The consummate team player is still a star among stars, and was again on Saturday. The legacy is now complete.

Thank you Brian, thank you Joe, and thank you Ireland as this great nation feels a little better about itself on this special day in our calendar.

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