Already, eyes are turning to the 2015 World Cup


Already, eyes are turning to the 2015 World Cup

Very quickly afterwards, perhaps once the flight home from Paris had landed in Dublin yesterday afternoon, or more likely before, the New Zealander will have cleared his mind of the excess baggage of this winning campaign and readied it for the next task at hand — making this team of his consistently successful over a long period of time.

Saturday’s narrow, nail-biting and hugely significant win over France was a first victory in Paris since 2000 and brought with it a first Six Nations title for Ireland since the Grand Slam year of 2009. For that, the plaudits well and truly belong to Schmidt. He inherited essentially the same group of players who finished fifth in last year’s championship, restored the belief that they were a talented squad capable of beating the best and gave them the clarity of purpose not just to do their individual jobs but to unite as a collective to perform as cohesively and efficiently as any team has a right to.

In the end, against a rejuvenated France side with its back against the wall and a desperate need for redemption, it was that clarity, character and sense of togetherness that finally got them over the line, having come up short against New Zealand in November and England just three weeks ago.

This was by no means their greatest performance and it needed some careless and costly mistakes by France to get over the line but to this group of players, this coach — at least for 24 hours — and the Irish rugby community starved of success for five years, it did not matter a jot. Ireland are the 2014 Six Nations champions and the future is looking exceedingly bright.

As far as Schmidt was concerned it was not a thrilling move, a standout player or a decisive moment that made Ireland champions but a set of attributes and attitudes.

“Work ethic, unity,” he said. “They’re just a great group that worked really hard and I thought we saw some trust in each other (against France) that’s developed with the group that’s been there. They’ve very much earned the right to be champions. I don’t think they ever sat back and just said ‘look, we’ve got a talented group, we’re capable’. They said ‘we’ve got to work hard and get our nose over the line’.”

Scoring three tries in Paris, as Paul O’Connell pointed out, is no mean feat for a visiting side, particularly one that had needed Brian O’Driscoll to score them for their last victory 14 years ago. But for long periods of the game on Saturday, it did not look like three would be enough this time around.

Johnny Sexton and Andrew Trimble had dotted down in the first half, against the run of the play, after France had come out all guns blazing, stung into action by media criticism that followed their terrible loss to Wales and an only marginally less terrible win over Scotland.

Only Ireland’s scrum had looked to be on song as Sexton’s Racing Metro half-back partner Maxime Machenaud kicked France into an early 6-0 lead and Brice Dulin edged them back in front after Yoann Huget had spectacularly batted a cross-field kick to the corner from Remi Tales into the full-back’s path.

Sexton had missed his first conversion attempt and then a close-range penalty on the stroke of half-time that sent gasps around Stade de France as it left doubts in Irish minds as the visitors trailed 13-12 at the interval.

That unity and work ethic, though, came to the fore after the break, Sexton getting on the scoresheet again with his second double in as many games, followed by a penalty in the 52nd minute that stretched Ireland’s lead to 22-13.

As has been so often the way, though, Ireland were not to score again and when Dimitri Szarzewski dove over next to the posts, converted by Machenaud, France were back in the game, at 22-20 with 18 minutes to go, and Schmidt’s side was facing the All Blacks scenario of last November all over again.

Suddenly, the scrum was turning in France’s favour helped by the introduction of Vincent Debaty at loosehead, the tank that is Mathieu Bastareaud was running rampant in midfield and the French back three of Dulin, Huget and Maxime Medard were looking dangerously threatening. Sexton’s attempt to halt Bastareaud in full flow was met with a leading forearm and ended with Ireland’s fly-half on stretcher having been knocked cold.

Things were not looking good. Until, that is, the rugby gods convened and decided it was to be Ireland’s night after all.

The hugely effective Machenaud succumbed to cramp, his replacement Jean-Marc Doussain missing a penalty to give his team the lead on 70 minutes, and when France’s new-found belief looked about to tell, with a massive overlap out on the right wing, Pascal Papé’s pass to Damien Chouly was ruled forward and the No. 8’s try disallowed, to leave Ireland hanging on with a minute to go.

There was still time for jitters, an Ireland scrum in front of its 22 going against the head and France advancing to in front of the posts, only as the clock ticked past 80 minutes for giant sub Sebastien Vahaamahina to get held up with Dulin waiting in the pocket to send over the drop goal that would have broken Irish hearts.

“I’m just incredibly relieved,” Schmidt said. “I’m incredibly relieved because there was a growing expectation through probably that last game in November that maybe we could do something a little bit special and it was a massive relief to get to do it. Losing in Twickenham was a bit like winning here. We lost by the skin of our teeth and we won by the skin of our teeth here and that’s the nature of playing big teams away.”

Fine margins and for once, Ireland had come out the right side of them after those gut-wrenching defeats to the All Blacks and England. And now they have done it once, there should be the confidence and belief they can do it again and again with a World Cup around the corner in September 2015.

“We’ve just got to make sure that, I know the players and speaking to the players that they’ll go back to their provinces and they’ll roll their sleeves up, and we’re very open selection-wise and we have an expectation that they’ll continue the form that they’ve shown the last eight weeks for their provinces.

“I think that was even evident (on Friday) night. It was great to see Paddy (Jackson), he was out there on the field post the game, but he was out there at Ravenhill last night scoring a couple of tries (for Ulster) and playing a great game. It was great to see even Tommy (Bowe) out there doing the same and those guys will keep putting pressure on the guys who have numbers one to 15.”

The game, it seems, has only just begun.

FRANCE: B Dulin; Y Huget, M Bastareaud, G Fickou (M Mermoz, 76), M Medard; R Tales, M Machenaud (J-M Doussain, 67); T Domingo (V Debaty, 42), D Szarzewski (G Guirado, 68), N Mas (R Slimani, 36); P Pape – captain, Y Maestri (A Flanquart, 53); L Picamoles (S Vahaamahina, 66), A Lapandry (W Lauret, 76), D Chouly.

IRELAND: R Kearney; A Trimble, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy (F McFadden, 67), D Kearney; J Sexton (I Madigan, 68), C Murray (E Reddan, 63); C Healy (J McGrath, 70), R Best (S Cronin, 70), M Ross (M Moore, 63); D Toner, P O’Connell – captain; P O’Mahony (I Henderson, 63), C Henry, J Heaslip.

Replacement not used: J Murphy.

Referee: Steve Walsh (Australia).

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