IRELAND CAPTAIN PAUL O’Connell has admitted that Joe Schmidt has been the difference in Ireland finishing the Six Nations as champions a year after they disappointed in the competition.
2013 saw Ireland winning just once under Declan Kidney, and while Schmidt has enjoyed having the large majority of his players fit and in form, O’Connell says the Kiwi has influenced with his high levels of detail.
“It’s been a massive impact, no doubt. It was a poor, disappointing, frustrating season last year, albeit injury-plagued as well. He’s brought what you’d hear Leinster players saying for the last few years.
“He’s brought real clarity, a very effective way of rucking, and people are in no doubt of their role. I just think when you have a good team and you can give players that kind of clarity, it allows them to be good players.
That’s what we’ve had in the last few months. We made real progress in the autumn, we took a step backwards against England but learned a lot from it.”
At 34, O’Connell may be in the twilight of his international career, even if he looks fitter and more effective than ever. Despite making himself a legend of the game worldwide, the Munster lock has not enjoyed repeated success with Ireland.
Speaking in Paris after last night’s thrilling 22-20 victory over France, O’Connell said that lifting the trophy will prove a highlight of his time as a professional player.
“It’s very important, every time you start a Six Nations, to achieve something. Historically this is always our toughest Six Nations, with England and France away from home.
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“To be able to win the championship with those two fixtures is a great achievement. There’s a measure of satisfaction certainly, there’s been an awful lot of close calls in the past.
“We’ve achieved a lot of provincial success with Munster and Leinster, but this is where you really want to achieve it as an Irishman. To have made the progress we have in a year is great, but also have that progress endorsed with a trophy is a great feeling.
It gives the younger guys in the squad a winning habit, and that’s an important thing to have.”
In typically understated fashion, O’Connell chose to focus on something that Ireland could have done better in the game, mentioning that their composure in the closing stages had concerned him.
He was simply relieved to have finished the championship with that precious win, allowing his great teammate and friend, Brian O’Driscoll to sign off in style.
“We knew where France were going to be physically, we spoke about trying to match that and go beyond it. I was delighted we scored three tries, it’s not an easy thing to do in Paris.
“I’ve been coming here since I was 22 and that’s my first win. I was a little disappointed with the last 10 minutes, something to address in the future. It was disappointing we didn’t close it out in a more controlled fashion.
“I’m so happy for the lads, and for Brian in his last international and his last Six Nations.”