With a World Cup looming in Japan, in September, 2019, Ireland’s dominance of northern hemisphere rugby, this season, and elevation to number two in the world rankings, after a 12th successive victory, have marked the national side out as serious contenders for Test rugby’s greatest prize.
Yet, as Schmidt reflected on a third Six Nations title in his five seasons as head coach, and having guided Ireland to a first Grand Slam since 2009, he stressed the fine margins in Test rugby between success and failure.
“It’s hard to assess different groups,” Schmidt said. “The first one was special, winning in Paris, as we did. I felt that, when we lost 13-10, back in Twickenham (in that season), 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 crossover 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.”
What is next on the schedule for Ireland is a three-Test series in Australia, in June, playing the Wallabies in Brisbane, Melbourne, and Sydney, a further examination of the champions’ World Cup credentials in the southern hemisphere.
“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 for them and get a really good start in preparation for their Rugby Championship, which is the competition they play on an annual basis.”
Ireland have been tracked closely by Wallabies head coach, Michael Cheika, who was at Twickenham on Saturday, as Schmidt’s side put one over on another Australian, England boss, Eddie Jones.
It was the home side’s third loss in a row, having been beaten in Scotland and France, their worst run in three seasons, since Jones succeeded Stuart Lancaster. It was England’s lowest placing since the championship became Six Nations, in 2000.
That run, in tandem with Ireland’s national-record, 12-match winning streak, has seen Schmidt’s side overtake England to claim second spot in the world ranking, but Jones said he felt this was a period his side would have to ride out to get better and fulfil his objective of catching up to the top-ranked All Blacks.
“We are chasing, we have always been chasing,” Jones said. “If you look at the results, yes (there is a gap to New Zealand). But a lot of the things we are doing are progressing; they are long-term for the team and going to be important.”
As for Ireland, a team he had called “scummy”, in a video from a speech last year, which went viral last week, Jones gave credit where it was due.
“Super, good, tough side; well-coached, good leadership from the players, play to their strengths — good resolve. Excellent team.”