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Schmidt's Ireland on cusp of being our greatest ever

By Tony Ward

At a pre Scottish match luncheon on Friday, I was asked if a third Championship win in five years would propel us on to at least a semi-final place in the 2019 World Cup.

Readers will know my answer. I didn't think it would make a whit of difference but a Grand Slam winning championship would have the potential to take us to a place we have never been before.

Winning the Six Nations is massive. However to do a Grand Slam in an even year whereby you beat the other five over a seven week period but most particularly the French and English on the road would represent something really special.

That could take us to a new beginning. In other words if we go on to beat England in Twickenham it will represent our greatest achievement ever, one to out do the victory over Australia in Eden Park at the New Zealand World Cup in 2011.

The future of Irish rugby must always rest in the here and now or as Joe Schmidt provided by way of a timely reminder albeit a differing slant on the same theme, "history doesn't protect you from the future". It is always about the next game.

God help the rest of the world if ever he gets that top job in New Zealand rugby but when it comes to preparing for the next challenge in terms of analysing the opposition and devising a game plan, nobody but nobody does it better.

Did I expect us to secure the four try bonus point in a 20 point win over the Scots? No. To win yes but not by the margin or manner we did. And yet…

And yet I didn't think we were at our best. Indeed, and this is the really exciting part, I don't think we've produced the best in terms of our most complete game in any of the four wins. If that sounds like criticism then so be it but such are the standards that squad have set themselves.

I couldn't put it any better than Johnny Sexton at the post match press conference: "It's very muted upstairs, it's a very strange feeling to win the championship with a game to go, and so much still to play for".

Therein lie the key in terms of this Championship and, whisper it, the 2019 World Cup going forward. If we better the English next Saturday on their own patch then that innocent but deliberately loaded question put to me, or more pertinently its answer, could have a very real relevance.

All that and more later in the week but for now let us concentrate on what was the penultimate professional job well done. The ideal scenario in terms of outcome but nowhere near the perfect performance. That said the stuff of happy dreams for this head coach, it is for sure.

We started well, failed to score and then lost our way. A four point lead (7-3) seemed a travesty of sorts (for the Scots) going into the break but when we extended that to 11 (14-3) on the final whistle you just knew the Gods were on our side. That, a Schmidt pep talk and it felt we'd be right as rain. The Scots to their credit attacked touchline to touchline as we knew they would but Andy Farrell had made the necessary adjustments since the Welsh and Italian jobs and it showed.

While we weren't exactly passive up the flanks we were calm and controlled on the drift even when occasionally squeezed a little tighter than we might have liked.

There was equidistance in terms of set up and by and large it was maintained with the touch line used as the defensive friend it simply has to be in a scramble. The scrum was solid throughout even if the line out was a little iffy at times.

Throwing in is not Rory Best's greatest asset but his other strengths fully compensate for the occasional glitch every game. Tadgh Furlong was a colossus and despite my fears the medical team were true to their word (in relation to that hamstring) and he motored at max every minute of his time on.

James Ryan just grows in linking and handling presence in every game while Dan Leavy is already, and I hate using the analogy again our fast developing Richie McCaw. What he has lost in pace as a pure out and out openside he has gained in bulk and savvy as a destructive force on just about every fringe breakdown.

Beyond that the halves comfortably outplayed their opposites while Garry Ringrose, given the circumstances, was absolutely immense. He is the epitome of honesty on a playing field and a class act period. Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale both delivered to form with the latter's try scoring phenomenon already hitting Roy of the Rovers category.

But it is for the official and most deserving Man of the Match I am delighted. Rob Kearney has for some reason received a type of bum rap from so called new age fans. It is one he does not deserve. Saturday represented his 82nd cap and I defy anyone to come up with a better or more consistent performer in the role of full back.

From Best through the developing Ryan, Iain Henderson, Peter O'Mahony, both halves and Kearney, therein lies a spinal column of leaders.

What we have now travelling to Twickenham is the real collective deal in a quest for what, if achieved, will at least match that World Cup victory over the Wallabies as the greatest ever in the history of Irish rugby.

Belfast Telegraph

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