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Grand Slam is just beginning for amazing Ireland, says Schmidt

England 15 Ireland 24

By Jonathan Bradley

As the Grand Slam winners lapped up the adulation from the impressive number of Irish fans who had, by hook or by crook, found their way to Twickenham on Saturday, one man was conspicuous by his absence.

Head coach Joe Schmidt, architect of only the third such feat in the side's long history, was nowhere to be seen after his men saw off England and paraded their way around the old cabbage patch in south west London.

Hiding in plain sight, the Kiwi was lurking in the tunnel area, believing that this was a moment for the players to receive the plaudits. His reaction was par for the course, this being a man who in the build-up had answered a question on what a clean sweep would mean to him by saying he wanted it for his squad.

In Heathrow airport yesterday afternoon though, there was nowhere to hide and the most important man in Irish rugby belatedly got his due, applauded through the terminal and onto the team's weather-delayed plane.

Fittingly, Saturday's history-making win in Twickenham was archetypal of Schmidt's Ireland. Clinical, determined, almost coldly efficient and, most foreign of all, utterly superior. This is the state of play in 2018, a team now more than ever built in their coach's image.

The third Six Nations title of his reign, this is the first since the retirement of Ireland's golden generation, and it says so much of Schmidt's talents that this new incarnation is a better side.

Second in the world, unbeaten in over a year and relishing the autumn's visit from the All Blacks, we are living in unprecedented times.

Where they go from here is the obvious question.

"It's hard for it not to be the high point, because right here, right now it's a little bit of history for us," reflected Schmidt.

"We started this a calendar year ago in the last round of the Six Nations. It's a really neat story of a year that has managed to see us win every game that we have played which is incredibly special.

"It's also seen us go 12 games breaking new ground consecutively."

While Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton remain the most important cogs in this most well-oiled of machines, and the emotional cues will come from experienced heads like Rory Best and Peter O'Mahony, the most striking thing about one of Ireland's greatest campaigns is the age profile.

The record-setting Jacob Stockdale, Dan Leavy, James Ryan, Jordan Larmour, Andrew Porter, Joey Carbery and Bundee Aki had no Six Nations starts between them before this season, now they can call themselves Grand Slam winners. None yet know how it feels to lose in a green jersey.

If 2009 felt like the achieving of a long-held goal for a special group, in a lot of ways the 2018 group seems like it's only beginning.

"It was a different generation of players, the quality of the Paul O'Connells, Brian O'Driscolls, the Gordon D'Arcys, it was that generation that was a little bit special," said Schmidt of the changing face of Irish rugby in recent seasons.

"Now, to dove-tail into a cross-over of a newer generation is a little bit exciting, it's a little bit daunting because where do they go next?

"But the one thing that you are guaranteed in sport is that nothing is linear. England were with the Grand Slam two years ago and last year they were Championship winners. They finished fifth this time, that's a very big swing but it's not actually a massive difference in margins because they are so fine.

"I'd just say I'm delighted, we are where we are and when they come back in two and a half months' time to get together we will know where we need to go next.

"We'll play in very different conditions in Australia (this summer). They will be hugely motivated to bounce back from what's been a relatively tough time for them."

While where this group goes from here is a fascinating thought, the Championship just gone, and Saturday's fine win, is worthy of just a little more time for reflection.

Nothing was ever likely to top the win over in France for drama, not with an all-timer of a drop goal after 41-phases and 82 minutes, and the beating of Wales had hairy moments of its own at the death, but this was a win that felt in hand for much of proceedings.

When Garry Ringrose pounced early for a try after five minutes, momentum was seized, further still when a delightful strike move was finished up by Aki.

The double whammy of Stockdale's record seventh score the campaign and a stirring defensive stand either side of half-time sealed the deal. The St Patrick's Day celebrations started in Twickenham's steep stands long before the final whistle.

Sexton disagreed: "You never feel in control playing in Twickenham. You are 14 points up and you feel that a try here and we could come under serious pressure. Obviously we did.

"If we were going to win a Grand Slam it was always going to come down to (England). This was always going to be our biggest challenge by far and it proved to be the case. There are a lot of sore bodies but it makes it a bit easier when you win."

For Sexton, on the periphery in '09, today must seem especially sweet.

"It's probably the first time that we've been allowed to speak about a Grand Slam before the campaign because it's plainly obvious to the older guys, the likes of Keith Earls, myself, Rory (Best), Rob (Kearney), we wanted to win a Grand Slam and we've always been very process-driven, so we spoke about it at the start and then parked it and said we'd go game by game," he said.

If Grand Slam talk was banned in February and March, Saturday ensured they can talk about it forever.

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