The beginning of Joe Schmidt’s Six Nations career could have been so much smoother.
On Sunday, February 2, 2014, the New Zealander had his morning rudely interrupted with an 8am phone call to tell him his captain would not be fit for purpose. Paul O’Connell, installed as skipper by Schmidt when he succeeded Declan Kidney as Ireland boss for his first games in Test rugby the previous November, had gone down with a chest infection and was being ruled out of the opening round clash with Scotland later that day at the Aviva Stadium.
Schmidt was immediately into firefighting mode just hours before his first Six Nations game.
That Ireland barely missed a beat in a 28-6 defeat of the Scots, despite the disruptions, was a sign of things to come for the rookie Test coach, whose Six Nations record is an essential component of the body of work that stands Schmidt out as Irish rugby’s greatest coach.
That defeat of Scotland began a maiden campaign that would end with the first of three championship titles, culminating in the Triple Crown and Grand Slam of 12 months ago.
This year’s championship made some unwanted history for Schmidt as he lost his unbeaten home Six Nations record in an opening round defeat by England but Ireland have slowly worked their way back into form, putting them in with a chance of adding a fourth title to the head coach’s resumé in Cardiff this afternoon.
Whatever happens, Schmidt will exit the Six Nations with nothing but affection for a championship that has more than lived up to expectations for the 53-year-old.
“It’s so much less about coaching staff than it is about players and I think for us, I’ve been on the periphery of a fantastic group for the past six Six Nations and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the whole nature of the competition,” he said on Thursday.
“The championship is incredibly special. It is intense, incredibly intense and you come up against players that you know well. Our players, some of them are good friends with their opponents. They’ve played club footy together or they’ve played on the Lions together, they’ve played against each other for so many years they know each other well and there’s that real, almost sibling rivalry about it that kind of escalates the intensity just that much more.
“And so, as I said before this Six Nations, if we can get into the top two teams in the Six Nations, I think anyone who does that is doing a good job.
“There’s only one way we can do that and that is to get a result on Saturday, so we’re obviously going to chase that as best we can. Wales, they’ve got so much to play for, we were in the same situation last year, albeit going away from home going to Twickenham and it adds a little ounce of energy, a little ounce of real focus to what you’re doing because they’re rare, and what’s rare is a beautiful thing. Even more rare for us because we’ve only had three of them.
“But even for the Welsh, they haven’t won a Championship for a few years, and having put themselves in this position, they will be absolutely motivated to finish it off.”
Schmidt’s pivotal Six Nations games
Jamie Heaslip steps up as captain in Paul O’Connell’s absence, with Dan Tuohy drafted in as the second-row replacement for the Munster hero and Tuohy’s Ulster packmate Iain Henderson promoted to the bench. Heaslip scores one of Ireland’s three tries alongside Rob Kearney and Andrew Trimble with Johnny Sexton kicking three penalties and a conversion in Dublin as the Scots manage just a penalty in each half.
Schmidt is up and running and the following week’s 26-3 win over Wales confirms that this is not an Ireland team to be dismissed.
If the wins over Scotland and Wales set the tone at the start of the campaign, the final-round trip to Paris made a statement as Ireland won away in France for the first time since the coming of a young Brian O’Driscoll with a hat-trick in 2000. Fittingly, this was O’Driscoll’s final Test match before retirement and he helped his country to a narrow victory on a dramatic night in the French capital as Ireland hung on thanks to a late missed home penalty and disallowed try. The title was O’Driscoll’s final international honour and also Schmidt’s first.
A year on, and trophy number two arrived on a climactic day’s rugby, dubbed Super Saturday, as Wales, Ireland and England all started the day with a chance of winning the SIx Nations title. It led to a glorious afternoon and evening of try-filled rugby as Wales set the standard with a big win in Italy, and Schmidt’s team ran riot in Edinburgh to put Scotland to the sword and set Stuart Lancaster’s English a points differential target of +26 they could not surpass in the final match of the tournament, beating France 55-35.
Ireland, dismissed by rivals as a kicking team, had proven they could outscore them with some running rugby of their own, although Jamie Heaslip’s try-saving tackle on Stuart Hogg was just as important as the try bonus-point and big scoreline.
A difficult, injury-hit post-World Cup championship campaign in 2016 had ended Schmidt’s bid for three titles in a row but Ireland regained their mojo that summer with a first Test win in South Africa, minus a number of frontline players including Johnny Sexton. What followed that November was even better as the All Blacks were beaten for the first time on an historic day at Soldier Field in Chicago and though they lost a brutally physical return a fortnight later, Ireland completed a trio of wins over the Southern Hemisphere giants by ending the year with a win over Australia.
All of which made the opening-round loss to the Scots a disastrous start to the 2017 Six Nations with a late arrival at Murrayfield following a bus diversion through heavy Edinburgh traffic throwing the Irish for a loop. Their slow start was ruthlessly exploited by a clinical Scottish side, Stuart Hogg carving the visiting defence apart for two tries and Alex Dunbar taking advantage of a sleeping lineout to put the home side into a 21-5 lead in the first 30 minutes. Ireland, with Paddy Jackson at fly-half, clawed their way back into a 22-21 lead with 10 minutes remaining, only to concede two late penalties.
Ireland’s bubble had been well and truly burst. Eighteen months after a slow start against Argentina led to a World Cup quarter-final exit in Cardiff, Schmidt was still trying to find a solution to an occasional lack of early-game focus and it would come back to derail his unbeaten Six Nations home record last month when England delivered a first Aviva Stadium defeat in the championship in seven seasons.
But what a comeback this was. A middling 2017 campaign is rescued in the final round as Schmidt’s team scrape into second place in the final standings with a brilliant victory over the auld enemy to stop Eddie Jones and England’s bid for back-to-back Grand Slams. Again there were potential disruptions, with Conor Murray injured eight days earlier in Cardiff and failing a fitness test 48 hours before kick-off while Jamie Heaslip was forced to vacate the No 8 jersey he had made his own for a decade with a back injury that would eventually force his retirement.
Heaslip’s replacement in the back row was Peter O’Mahony and the Munster man led the Ireland charge with an abrasive performance replicated by his team-mates as they knocked England out of their stride and gave Schmidt his first victory over Australian rival Jones, which ended an 18-Test winning run.
This victory will forever be remembered for Johnny Sexton’s 83rd-minute, game-winning drop goal in the Parisian rain. Yet the accuracy, execution and confidence to put together 41 phases of possession from underneath their own posts to put the fly-half within range of the posts for this come-from-behind victory was just as impressive and a testament to Schmidt’s influence on his players, instilling those attributes in the team room and on the training ground and raising the bar for the standards expected of Ireland players. A win in France, whichever way it came, augured well for the rest of the 2018 campaign.
The crowning glory, literally. Schmidt’s team gave the Irish a St Patrick’s Day to really celebrate as they dominate Eddie Jones’s outgoing champions on their own turf with a comprehensive victory to secure the head coach’s first and Ireland’s third Grand Slam.
In bone-chillingly cold conditions at Twickenham, the men in green brought the heat with a consummate and often brilliant performance that not only confirmed the validity of their title sealed seven days earlier at home to Scotland but also marked them out as one of the great Ireland teams.
Tries from Garry Ringrose, CJ Stander — a candidate for World Rugby’s try of the year — and Jacob Stockdale were the product of one of the standout displays from a Schmidt side at the start of an annus mirabilis which would also deliver a series win in Australia and a first home win over New Zealand, 2018 ending with Ireland named World Rugby’s team of the year, Johnny Sexton its player of the year and Schmidt the world coach of the year.