Sunday 20 October 2019

The perfect Grand Slam: Schmidt's Ireland in All Black territory after ruthlessly securing Six Nations clean sweep


From left, Conor Murray, Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose, Jonathan Sexton, Jordi Murphy, James Ryan and Dan Leavy celebrate their historic win at Twickenham. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
From left, Conor Murray, Bundee Aki, Garry Ringrose, Jonathan Sexton, Jordi Murphy, James Ryan and Dan Leavy celebrate their historic win at Twickenham. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

They are in All Black territory now, there can be no doubt. Ireland confirmed their status as Europe's top team on Saturday with a performance that was so impressive in its execution that it led to an almost anti-climactic finish.

To win it the way they did was stunning: dictating the game to England away from home from start to finish, managing the difficult moments beautifully and taking their chances when they came to secure a third Grand Slam.

There was something incongruous about being in Twickenham, with all it represents and all of its history, and watching the white jerseys pounding the Irish line as 'Olé, Olé' got going among the freezing travelling support who long since knew that this one was done, that the Slam was in the bag.

Jonny May skated over, but it was the Irish bench who celebrated as Owen Farrell lined up his conversion. England had long been beaten.

Their decline is sparking much debate across the Irish Sea, but for Joe Schmidt and his second-generation team the only way is up.

It is important to celebrate this for what it is. Until recently, Grand Slams were once-in-a-lifetime events, yet for the seven players in the match-day 23 who have never lost a game for Ireland there is nothing else. This is the norm.

Schmidt now stands alone as Ireland's greatest coach. Three titles in five seasons brooks no argument. The Slam is the cherry on top.

He has won almost everything now, he has beaten every team in international rugby. His team are officially No 2 in the world; they are closing the gap on the market leaders New Zealand, who they welcome to Dublin on November 17. Put it in your diary.

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Before then, there is a series in Australia to win and a renewed rivalry with Michael Cheika.

But for now, there is a small window to pause and assess an achievement that will stand the test of time for a coach and a team at the top of their game.

"It's hard," Schmidt said when asked if this was his greatest day in coaching.

"I suppose the first one was a Ranfurly Shield in New Zealand. Growing up in New Zealand that's really special. I think Bay of Plenty had been trying to win it for over 100 years and so that was the first really special one.

"It's hard to equate anything with this. When I was a kid I used to watch Five Nations on TV and think these places were on a whole different planet with those massive crowds. It's pretty hard when you're born in Kawakawa, 1,400 people, and you're shifted to the metropolis of Woodville, 1,600 people, it's huge.

"This is massive and it's massive for the group of players that we've got. I'd have to say I've been incredibly fortunate to be involved in some great management groups and some great coaching groups and even more so the players themselves. No matter what you try to do as a coach, you can't create courage.

"You can try to add to character or build on character but there's got to be the character there to start with and they definitely demonstrated that today."

Saturday was the 12th win in a row for an Ireland team who have forgotten how to lose.

Driven by an experienced leadership group and fuelled by the recent infusion of youth, they haven't looked back since rescuing victory at the death in Paris.

Saturday's win was a crowning achievement, and you only had to look at Eddie Jones to remember how quickly things can fall apart, but when the dust settles there will be a desire for more.

The World Cup quarter-final glass ceiling remains intact, waiting to be broken in Japan next year.

They won't re-set their goals too quickly; they want to enjoy this one first. For all the talk of the game-by-game approach, the players revealed afterwards that the Slam had explicitly been referenced as a goal at the outset of the tournament.

"It is something we said before the competition, that we would be going for the Grand Slam," Dan Leavy said. "I didn't even know that we had won [the championship]. [Last week] I was having a meal and there was a big cheer so I asked what had happened and it was 'oh you won'. We were always going for the Grand Slam.

"To get it done at Twickenham in that fashion was brilliant."

Schmidt is determined not let the moment pass by too quickly. This was one to be cherished.

"It's hard for it not to be the high point, because right here, right now it's a little bit of history for us," he said.

"We started this a calendar year ago in the last round of the Six Nations.

"It's a really neat story of a year that has managed to see us win every game that we played, which is incredibly special. It's also seen us go 12 games breaking new ground consecutively."

Earlier in the tournament, Schmidt spoke of the pride he would take from securing a third title in five years; a testament to the consistency of performances his side has achieved since he started in 2013.

Each one is treasured; the Slam gives 2018 the edge but the coach knows that past success counts for little as the game continues to move on.

"The first one was special, winning in Paris as we did," he said. "When we lost 13-10 back in Twickenham, it was a massive Test match, and I just think that we managed to get the right side of the ledger today and we didn't that time.

"It was a different generation of players - the quality of the Paul O'Connells, Brian O'Driscolls, the Gordon D'Arcys - it was that generation that was a little bit special.


"Now, to dovetail into a cross-over of a newer generation is a little bit exciting, it's a little bit daunting because where do they go next?

"But the one thing that you are guaranteed in sport is that nothing is linear and for a team to be a champion team one year as England were two years ago with the Grand Slam and last year they were championship winners… they finished fifth this time, that's a very big swing but it's not actually a massive difference in margins because they are so fine.

"They lost by three points to France and they lost momentum in Scotland.

"I'd just say I'm delighted with today. We are where we are and when they come back in two and a half months' time to get together we will know where we need to go next.

"We'll play in very different conditions in Australia. Australia will be hugely motivated to bounce back from what's been a relatively tough time."

Before the game, Schmidt's final message was simply "get out and play, lads". They knew their stuff, they knew the stakes and they knew that if they carried out their game-plan to the best of their abilities they'd win.

There are those who will continue to question the lack of attacking style, while legitimate concerns continue to exist about a team that continues to ship three tries a game against the best teams.

And yet they are now serial winners, winning the Six Nations by 11 points, scoring 20 tries in five games.

"Not everyone would agree but we certainly worked pretty hard to try to spice our play with a bit of variety and I think we've been rewarded with some super tries," Schmidt said.

"Some of them have come from really proactive defence and others have come from some really nice play that's been put together by the team."

There has been plenty of that over an unforgettable eight weeks as they joined the greats of 1948 and 2009.

Debates over style can be parked, because the substance of what they achieved was the important part. The players often spoke about striving for the perfect game, Saturday was as close as they've ever gotten. At Twickenham. On St Patrick's Day. It doesn't get much better than that.

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