Joe Schmidt makes his final trip to the Aviva Stadium this afternoon as he takes charge of Ireland on home soil for the 34th and last time.
Not that he is framing it as such but today’s World Cup dress rehearsal against Wales is also an opportunity for rugby supporters to honour the national team’s most successful head coach.
There have been some outstanding victories achieved on Lansdowne Road since Schmidt took charge of his first Ireland game against Samoa in November 2013 and before that during his time as Leinster head coach.
The 53-year-old spent some time on Tuesday picking out some of his favourite Aviva Stadium memories during his 10 years of coaching in Ireland, a spell that saw him lose there just once with Leinster and five times
in 33 Tests in Dublin.
For a coach renowned for his attention to the finest of details, it should come as no surprise that Schmidt also seems to possess an ability to recall past games almost play by play, despite his assertion that it had all become “a bit of a blur”.
“I think the great days have been the ones where the players have done something a little bit special, and you’ve seen players grow,” Schmidt said.
“A few years ago, when England were on the cusp of breaking the record for the most consecutive wins and they were on the cusp of going backto- back Grand Slams (Game 4), and Kieran Marmion started at nine and did such a phenomenal job for us.
“And Luke McGrath coming off the bench, he put that kick into the corner that just took that pressure off. And Peter O’Mahony had come into the starting XV when Jamie Heaslip pulled out so late in the day, grabs the lineout right towards the end, plucks it away from Maro Itoje. There’s moments like that that obviously linger.
There were the sad days, like 2013 against the All Blacks (Game 6), but they’re counter- balanced now because whoever has come here we’ve managed to beat at some stage through the last six years so it’s been a privilege… I’ve got to say.
That counter-balance came in fine style, three years later as Schmidt’s team eclipsed their historic first win over New Zealand at Soldier Field in Chicago in 2016 with a perfectly executed and thrilling first home victory (Game 5).
“Yeah, it was huge,” Schmidt said. “I think the glass is incredibly thick in the coaches’ box which is probably a good thing sometimes, but even then you could feel the atmosphere. It was phenomenal so right up until that last play where the ball went down and we’re just outside our 22 and we’re coming off the line… those are moments that you do certainly cherish.”
There was also lots to cherish during Schmidt’s stint with Leinster, which brought back-to-back Heineken Cups in his first two seasons at the helm having joined from Clermont in the summer of 2010.
“It’s been a privilege to have been involved in Leinster as well. Watching Isa Nacewa score that try against Leicester (Game 2) when we desperately needed that. We’d butchered a try in the first half, Richardt Strauss gave it off and all the player had to do was catch it and put it down and we would have had breathing space and then when it became so tight for someone like Isa to go 45 metres, pretty much, was phenomenal.
“The Toulouse game (Game 3) where early in the game (David) Skrela hits the post and we think, ‘oh that’s great, he’s missed’ except that they got seven points off it because then it bounces on the ground and they scored. I think the lead changed I think six times in a semi-final of Europe and to win that one is super as well.
“The year of the big snow, the Clermont game (Game 1) we’d lost away there (but) the following week Cian Healy had a big breakfast and he charged through most people who were in his way.
All those things kind of meld into a fantastic memory bank but we’ve had a few days where we’ve slipped up as well but their very, very few which has been a relief really because you’re emotionally connected, your heads in the game and when the game goes good, it’s a massive relief.
And a huge joy to those that witnessed them on home soil.
1. Leinster 24 ASM Clermont Auvergne 8
The first-season Leinster boss went up against his former club in the back-to-back rounds and engineered the perfect riposte to a 20-13 defeat at Stade Marcel Michelin six days earlier, a Cian Healy-inspired performance that saw the loosehead prop score two tries on the way to victory on a barnstorming evening for the Boys in Blue.
2. Leinster 17 Leicester Tigers 10
A classic European knockout night at the Aviva as Leinster reached a third successive semi-final with a dramatic victory over England’s European aristocrats.
It was a nervy affair, Leicester starting well but Johnny Sexton kicking the home side into a 9-3 half-time lead.
Isa Nacewa scored the only try soon after the break and after withstanding a late Tigers rally, Schmidt had secured his first semi-final.
3 - Leinster 32 Toulouse 23
Schmidt reached his first final as a head coach three weeks later as Leinster came out on the right side of a last-four thriller with Guy Noves’ European heavyweights, who had taken the lead when David Skrela’s fifth-minute penalty attempt rebounded off an upright into the path of Florian Fritz.
Tries from Jamie Heaslip and Brian O’Driscoll either side of half-time and the excellent goal-kicking of Sexton saw Leinster into a Cardiff final against Northampton Saints.
4. Ireland 13 England 9
With defeats on the road to Scotland and Wales in rounds one and four, Ireland returned to Dublin looking to restore pride, albeit with the extra motivation of stopping England’s 18-Test winning run and preventing back-to-back Grand Slams for Eddie Jones’s side.
Iain Henderson scored the only try of the game in the 23rd minute but that was only part of the story as Peter O’Mahony, drafted into the back row when Heaslip withdrew following the warm-up, inspired Ireland at both the lineout and at the breakdown with a bristling man of the match performance.
5. Ireland 16 New Zealand 9
The victory that proved Chicago was no fluke as Schmidt’s world number two side defeated the top dogs for the first time on Irish soil, Jacob Stockdale’s superb kick chase proving the difference on a raucous night at the Aviva.
Ireland were excellent in every department, keeping the All Blacks tryless in one of Schmidt’s finest hours.
6 - Ireland 22 New Zealand 24, November 24, 2013
Just three games into the Schmidt reign, Ireland showed their character to rebound from a disjointed defeat the previous week to Australia by laying down a marker and giving Steve Hansen’s tourists a serious rattle, going 19-0 up in the first quarter.
In the end, it was the All Blacks’ trademark never-say-die mentality that got the world champions home, Ryan Crotty’s try with the clock past 80 minutes and a retaken conversion from Aaron Cruden securing victory and denying Schmidt’s men their place in the Irish rugby annals.