Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 3 September 2014

Rivals will fear Irish revolution

joe has instilled a deadly new skill set

Job done: Brian O'Driscoll bows out on a high as Ireland clinch the Six Nations against France

Champions. There is a feel-good factor to writing and reading that word.

My well-thumbed New – actually, it's 20-plus years old – Collins Concise Dictionary of the English Language defines a champion as 'a person who has defeated all others'. Small wonder, then, that attainment of that status feels so good.

Since taking up the reins as Ireland's head coach, that is what Joe Schmidt has done for rugby in this island – he has made us feel good about ourselves.

The affable New Zealander has infused punch and panache in equal measures.

Somehow, without diluting either, he has managed to create a cocktail of consistently high levels of discipline plus the feisty passion for which Irish teams always have been famed. Controlled aggression par excellence. Now that in itself is some achievement.

Did ever you see a better mix of measured, within-the-laws discipline and physical courage/aggression than in the final 18 minutes of Saturday night's title-clinching victory over France in Paris? Magnificent in such circumstances.

With a lead of just two points – 22-20 – Ireland knew that any French score was probably going to be fatal to their Six Nations hopes.

In the dying minutes Les Bleus laid siege. But in the midst of that, the Irish defence was superb. For the duration of that bombardment they dared not infringe.

That required discipline of the very highest order, for they had to ensure they did not stray offside, join from the side, kill the ball or fail to release at a time when their minds were tired and their bodies bruised, battered and bloodied almost to the point of exhaustion.

As well as the physicality involved in denying France try-scoring or penalty opportunities, simultaneously Ireland – with the clarity of thought of a chess master – had to manoeuvre plays so cleverly that the hosts were unable to create space in which to drop a goal.

Now bear in mind the fact that all of this was going in a pressure-cooker environment. Look at the various ingredients at play.

Most of the 80,000 in Stade de France were home supporters. Ireland had won only once in Paris in 42 years and a single mistake would not only cost you the championship, but see England enthroned.

Toss in the emotion of it being Brian O'Driscoll's final appearance, for which reason the whole of Ireland wanted to see him exit victorious and you begin to get some idea of the pressure Paul O'Connell's men withstood.

I am convinced this team's character development as a result of that agonising defeat by the All Blacks in November saw them home in Paris in March. And let's be honest, on Saturday the cookie crumbled in Ireland's favour.

The withdrawal of scrum-half Maxime Machenaud, who had kicked four out of four, and the introduction of Jean-Marc Doussain after 66 minutes was a case in point.

French coach Philippe Saint-André opted to deploy the Toulouse half-back based on his record as a Test-level points-scorer and he appeared to have got it spot-on when, less than four minutes after Doussain's entrance, Ireland conceded a scrum-time penalty.

Now, it was eminently kickable for a points machine of Doussain's calibre. But against all expectations he miscued.

Then with little over a minute remaining and the French throwing the proverbial kitchen sink into attack, replacement loose-head Vincent Debaty passed to full-back Damien Chouly who touched down in the corner.

"Try!" screamed the whole of France.

"No," said Welsh TMO Gareth Simmonds, who confirmed Debaty's pass to Clermont clubmate Chouly had been forward.

They say fortune favours the brave and if that is true then Ireland deserved to be favoured on Saturday evening, for in terms of bravery this was indeed special.

Jonathan Sexton, for example, produced a try-saving tackle most previous Irish 10s would never have made. That was as important as either of the tries he scored.

But what was most impressive was that there was so much more to this than raw courage. Irish supporters expect that anyway.

No, it is because of Schmidt's tactical know-how, the reliability of the defensive structures overseen by his understated lieutenant Les Kiss, the willingness of the players to adapt and their ability to learn fresh lessons that Ireland now are champions of Europe and back up to fifth in the world rankings after dropping to ninth a year ago.

Never mind the French revolution; there is an Irish revolution led by a New Zealander right now. Every match in the countdown to the 2015 World Cup is going to be very, very interesting.

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