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France v Ireland: Thank you Brian O'Driscoll

By Tony Ward

Something very special was achieved in the Stade de France on Saturday. Quite apart from a third win in the French capital in 60-something years, a second Six Nations title in 14 and a 12th outright success ever, here was an Irish squad setting out for Paris believing not alone that they could win but that they should and that they would.

They knew they had the goodwill of a nation, not overly informed when it comes to the idiosyncrasies of the French but expecting the win nonetheless.

On all counts they delivered but primarily on the back of a level of consistency they have craved for so long.

Consistency was the bottom line objective for Joe Schmidt since he took control and consistency is what he has delivered in most every game under his watch. Only in the Australian test – his second in charge – back in the Autumn did we fail to deliver the type of performance demanded by this newly installed regime.

Even in defeat against the New Zealanders and English, we competed right to the death and in both cases were unlucky to lose to stronger, more physically endowed opposition. And therein lay the real challenge on Saturday. Would the French out-muscle and outmanoeuvre us physically thereby making the almost regular biennial defeat a formality?

Well now we know. We rocked,we rolled, but we never, and I mean never, provided the minutest hint of submission. They attacked us in the scrum, at the line out, in the breakdown and through Mathieu Basteraud's unsophisticated route one running in midfield. We did rock,we did roll but never did we hint at giving up this fight.

This was destined to be our day, not because it was Brian's last stand, not because we have reinvented the rugby wheel, not because we have a coach who waves a magic wand before each and every game we play.

No it was set up to be our day because we had worked ourselves into a position to make it so. And work is the operative word.

Joe Schmidt's own work ethic and attention to detail is now inculcated in this new and developing squad. With the notable exception of our Greatest, I include the more seasoned campaigners under that broad umbrella as well.

That top two ambition has turned into a top one finish and with so many positives still to work upon. Despite finishing as Six Nations champions we are a long way yet from the finished article and where Schmidt wants to take us in preparing for England 2015.

We need, as a matter of urgency, greater inventiveness in midfield and a greater cutting edge in striking from distance. But that is other business for another day. For now let us concentrate on the breathtaking climax we witnessed in St Denis on Saturday.

We weren't in any way lucky to win. Whatever luck we had we made through sheer hard graft as these guys emptied themselves. Remember Gary Player's oft quoted line "the harder I worked, the luckier I got". That is team Ireland under Schmidt in this exciting era now. We won because we were the better team playing the more pragmatic rugby and doing so as if our very lives depended upon it.

It is a type of commitment to the collective cause that money can not buy. You see it comes from within but what the new coaching structure has developed is a working environment in which the 'one for all all for one' creed is now entrenched.

It still leaves room for the individual and that must always be acknowledged. On Saturday the stand out players were liberally yet strategically positioned throughout the side. I am thinking specifically of Cian Healy, Paul O'Connell, Jamie Heaslip, Andrew Trimble, Rob Kearney, and Chris Henry too. Any single one would have richly deserved the so called Man of the Match award.

I'm charged with the responsibility from time to time of making that call and I can assure you, doing it in rugby of all team sports sticks in the craw. I hate the principle in a complex game which by its very nature dictates that the full back depends on his loose head prop every bit as much as an outside centre sending him racing into space.

Saturday in Paris was one of those very special 'Men of the Match' performances... period. But for what it's worth I felt Trimble, Heaslip and O'Connell were truly exceptional and probably in that order.

But let's park that for now and concentrate instead on the perfect end to the near perfect career in the only way he and we had ever wanted throughout this tastefully handled finale.

The consummate team player is still a star among stars and was all of that again in Paris on Saturday. The legacy is now complete. Thank you Brian, thank you Joe, thank you Ireland as this great nation feels a little better still about itself on this special day in our calendar.

Belfast Telegraph


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