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Dublin: 24 °C Friday 25 July, 2014

Ireland’s incredible journey from Roman ruins to Six Nations champions

Joe Schmidt took over a side that had fallen to their lowest world ranking spot and turned them into Europe-beaters.

Joe Schmidt poses with the Six Nations trophy.
Joe Schmidt poses with the Six Nations trophy.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“A BIT OF a mixed bag,” was how captain Jamie Heaslip reflected on a disastrous 2013 Six Nations campaign that saw Ireland win one game and finish fifth.

The Leinster forward tried to focus on the positives but they were few and fair between. A flying start against Wales was rendered meaningless by defeats to England and Scotland. France snatched a draw in Dublin and Brian O’Driscoll was sent off in what many supporters figured would be his last game, against Italy, in Rome.

“I don’t know whether this is the end for him or not; you’d have to ask Brian,” replied Ireland coach Declan Kidney when asked about his talisman. “He’s earned the time and space to be given that to make up his own mind. Players are the only ones that know when the time is.”

Two weeks after making that statement, Kidney was gone. The Six Nations came on the back of a free-flowing win over Argentina, a tough loss to South Africa and a record 60-0 defeat to New Zealand in Hamilton. Ireland’s injury crisis — described by team manager Mick Kearney as grotesque, unbelievable, bizarre and unprecedented — crippled Kidney’s plans and left him with flanker Peter O’Mahony playing a half as a left winger.

Brian O'Driscoll during his sin binning

Brian O'Driscoll, who thankfully heeded the 'one more year' calls, reflects on his yellow card.

Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The resounding call, after a brief flirtation with Ewen ‘Link; McKenzie, was for Leinster head coach Joe Schmidt to take the reins. Once the New Zealander declared his interest, the job was as good as his. Les Kiss took the summer touring squad to North America but Schmidt was soon on the scene; formulating a game-plan and identifying players that would make an impact in the November internationals and Six Nations.

Surplus to Kidney’s requirements for the final years of his tenure, Andrew Trimble toured North America and scored a try against Canada. Peter O’Mahony captained the side while Ian Madigan proved his out-half credentials. By the time Schmidt stepped into the full-time coaching role, Leinster reliables Dave Kearney, Devin Toner, Jack McGrath and Marty Moore came into the mix.

Samoa proved push-overs but Australia ran Ireland ragged. Of Schmidt’s three defeats since taking over from Kidney, the humbling at the hands of the Wallabies sticks in his craw. The less said about the 24-22 defeat to the All Blacks — bar that it was heroic and heartbreaking — the better. Post-match, Sean O’Brien declared, “I think it’s time lads grew up and know what’s expected when they put on an Irish jersey. That performance today, we can be proud, but it still wasn’t good enough.”

The flanker added, “If we bring that intensity and work-rate that we had at the start of the game into the Six Nations, then we’ll be in a good place.”

O’Brien [dislocated shoulder] would not be around for the start of the Six Nations, nor would Lions Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls or, as it turned out, Luke Fitzgerald. Simon Zebo was left to score tries for fun in the Pro12. Schmidt had settled into his roll and he had plans for each team his side met.

Andrew Trimble touches down for a try as Dave Denton looks on

Andrew Trimble dots down against the Scots.

Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

Scotland were mauled to death and their pack was dismantled. Wales got the mauling treatment with Ireland’s back three winning the aerial battle and the Welsh backline rendered useless by Ireland’s pressing and defensive rick disruption. Italy tackled themselves into stumps as O’Driscoll’s magic and Irish subs made the difference. One-off runners inside the French 22, support runners and quick, attacking incisions off scrums delivered victory — just about — in France.

Did Ireland do anything different at Stade de France that they failed to do against the All Blacks? “The key in the All Black game is that we missed a kick,” said Schmidt. “The key in this game is that France missed a kick. That’s how narrow the margins are.

As for the “slugfest” loss to England, it is a game the Kiwi is likely to dwell on during his extensive end of tournament reviews. ”[If I could do one thinking different], beating England would have been good,” he said. “It would have been good to not go to France and have to win to get the Six Nations. That is a game that got away on us. As I said at the time, they are a team that could get away on anybody.

They are going to get better. They have a lot of youth but there is a lot of experience coming back into [the squad]. I know Ben Foden has had a couple of games back now. Manu Tuilagi, well, he walk through a couple of tackles to score. He is an incredibly powerful individual. So is Billy Vunipola, those sort of guys.

“The other teams are going to get better so, for us in this week, we have a lot of work to get through and see what we did feel we are doing really well and not doing well. That might give us some direction for what we’re going to do in Argentina and the Guinness Series that follows it.”

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