The celebrations of Ireland’s Grand Slam will continue a little while longer but even in the immediate aftermath of victory at Twickenham, thoughts were turning to what happens next.
How do you follow that? It is a pertinent question given the magnificent style in which Joe Schmidt’s team first salvaged victory in Paris and then romped to Six Nations glory with three bonus-point home wins before saving the best for last with their ruthless dismantling of England to land a clean sweep in majestic style.
Yet follow that Ireland must with the 2019 World Cup in Japan the clear and obvious next peak to scale. There are 18 months, 552 days to be precise, before Schmidt’s team opens its Pool A campaign in Yokohama against Six Nations rivals Scotland.
Between now and then there and several considerable summits to negotiate, not least this summer’s three-Test tour to Australia, a November visit to Dublin from reigning world champions New Zealand, and of course the 2019 Six Nations title defence.
Naturally, though, it is the World Cup that remains Ireland’s Everest with those stepping stones representing further opportunities to gauge this team’s credentials as serious contenders.
Last Saturday’s clinical masterclass at Twickenham was a major statement of intent, particularly given the youthful element of the squad which contributed massively to Ireland’s first Grand Slam since 2009 and a year-long winning run of an Irish-record 12 consecutive victories.
But as head coach Schmidt reminded everyone dreaming of the Webb Ellis Cup adorned with green ribbons, winning silverware one year is not necessarily a precursor to glory in the next.
“The one thing that you are guaranteed in sport is that nothing is linear,” Schmidt said before warning his team would have to keep moving forward and rolling with the punches in the same way it had since the disappointing quarter-final exit to Argentina at the 2015 World Cup.
“It’s hard for it not to be the high point,” Schmidt said of his and the majority of the squad’s first Grand Slam, “because right here, right now it’s a little bit of history for us.
“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.
“We’ll get ourselves back together… That’s the other thing, you don’t quite know what condition or how many you’re going to get together to go to the next place anyway.
“I remember the last big tour we went away on was South Africa (in 2016) and in the PRO12 final we lost Dave Kearney, Rob Kearney, Johnny Sexton and Luke Fitzgerald; four of the guys selected to tour were gone before we started.
“We were immediately written off and thankfully those players sowed a little bit of a seed, that demonstrated resilience because, you know, with 13 players for 10 minutes and 14 players for 60 minutes we managed to get that first result in Cape Town.”
Resilience has continued to be at the core of this Ireland team’s success.
The head coach cited the periods in this winning campaign when his side was under the pump as the moments that made him most proud. The last eight minutes against France, digging deep with 41 phases and Johnny Sexton’s drop goal.
The endgame at home to Wales when it needed Jacob Stockdale’s intercept try to secure victory. And the opening minutes of the second half against England, when Ireland’s defence of a 21-5 interval lead was subjected to an inevitable fightback and still held firm.
“That eight minutes after half-time sums up this team,” Schmidt said. “Yes, they can put together some really good moments and score tries.
“We probably totalled more than we’ve ever scored in a Six Nations (20 this year, eclipsing the 17 scored in 2000, 04 and 07).
“They delivered on that side, but that pure resilience, that ability to get back up and get back in the defensive line to protect that try-line in the eight minutes after half-time, was exceptional.”
It certainly bodes well for Ireland as they head to Australia as the second-ranked team in the world behind New Zealand for a three-Test series against the Wallabies.
For around an experienced spine, Schmidt has developed an exciting and reliable phalanx of less experienced Test players with 12 of this championship-winning squad aged 25 or younger.
It is an impressive bunch, including players who have already proven their worth at Test level such as centres Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Tadhg Furlong, already the gold standard for tighthead props in world rugby.
Then there are the up and comers who have taken to this level of international rugby as if they had been playing it for years. The likes of lock James Ryan and his fellow Ireland U20 world finalists Andrew Porter and wing Jacob Stockdale, already in the Six Nations record books with the most tries by an individual, seven, in the history of the competition.
Indeed, Stockdale’s try strike-rate is already up there with the best, an astonishing 11 tries in his first nine Tests.
Throw in the ferocious work-rate of flankers Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier and the exciting potential of fly-half Joey Carbery and full-back Jordan Larmour and there is much to anticipate about a new breed of Irish Test player.
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