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Schmidt's the Special One in Ireland's best team ever as the Slam dream comes true

By Tony Ward

Wasn't it ELO, back in the Eighties, who had that magical hit 'Hold on tight (to your dream)'? I know I can't speak for the massive - and I mean massive - proportion of the 82,000-plus capacity attendance clad in green in Twickenham on Saturday, but when the clock entered the final quarter with Ireland uncomfortably in front, each and every time I looked to register the passing minutes on the giant screen I, like every other Irish fan, was holding on tight to that dream and those lyrics reverberated in my head.

God only knows how the players must have been feeling.

To a man they were magnificent. Ratings are almost odious on this unique occasion, such was the courage and commitment given by each and every one. The first half was the stuff of dreams and the second was about holding on to them.

They may have been forbidden from mentioning those 'GS' words along the way, but rest assured that after Johnny Sexton dropped the most amazing goal in the history of Irish rugby to get us out of the electric chair in Paris, this group of players and their extraordinary coach had that dream. On Saturday, when the Chariot was throwing the proverbial sink in our direction, we held on tighter than ever.

Given the context, the day, the venue, the prize, the opposition, the tradition, this represents the greatest victory in the history of Irish rugby - bar none.

Does it mean we will go on to win the World Cup as a matter of course? Of course not, but it does put us in a great place just 18 months out from the true barometer of global rugby.

As of now we are the undisputed champions of northern hemisphere rugby and second only to the All Blacks in the wider pecking order.

Quite how Joe Schmidt will approach the end-of-season three-match tour of Australia remains to be seen.

Will he rest some seasoned Lions, given this never-ending demand since their return from New Zealand, or will he use the opportunity to bring in more new blood? Whatever the call, rest assured he will get the balance right.

As to whether this team advances now as a collective to become all-time greats remains to be seen, but they have already surpassed 1948 and 2009 in terms of achievement.

I make that comment mindful of the respect we as a sporting nation hold for those who blazed the pre-professional trail and the first professional unit to follow in '09.

And please may we be spared those aligned to other codes who still knock rugby as being elitist. It is not, and where there are still remnants it is changing.

In my local park on any weekend you will witness hundreds of kids participating in soccer, rugby and Gaelic for both genders supported by hugely enthusiastic parents.

The success of the golden generation has sown the seeds for this group and what was achieved in England will add exponentially to the ripple effect.

I am almost lost for words when trying to articulate the pride I felt in this Irish performance on the most special day in the Irish calendar. To beat England in Twickenham on St Patrick's Day to take the Grand Slam... you couldn't make it up.

And as for special heroes? Each and every one was just that.

The tackling was relentless and the Andy Farrell input massive. The players tell me that the secret to the system's success is its simplicity. I take them at their word, but it still takes some courage to tackle as relentlessly as they did while clinging tighter than ever to that dream.

The official man of the match went to Tadhg Furlong and, far be it for me to argue otherwise, but take your pick from Rob Kearney (even better than against the Scots a week before), Garry Ringrose (pure class), Jacob Stockdale (the definitive Roy of the Rovers; and spare a thought for Simon Zebo as to how he must be feeling now), Conor Murray (consistency personified), Rory Best (the modern-day Ciaran Fitzgerald and then some), both Iain Henderson and the incredibly mature James Ryan and whoever you want from the back-row, but with Dan Leavy and CJ Stander particularly outstanding.

As for the replacements, the desire was for impact, with each and every change seamless, but may I be forgiven if I highlight Joey Carbery, given his role in the ultimate Six Nations cauldron. A natural if ever there was one.

Can you imagine Ringrose, Jordan Larmour (equally brilliant in his limited time on) and Carbery as they mature and when each is fit and firing - and in Carbery's case with the appropriate game time at provincial level. Bear in mind that Stockdale, Ryan, Andrew Porter and Larmour are just 'out of nappies' at U20.

Jonno opened the door against the French and the young guns piled through. Player of the tournament? Murray, Sexton, Stockdale (seven tries in your debut season; try and get a handle on that), there will be a big Irish representation, but just one man for World Rugby Coach of the Year.

When your squad produces its most complete performance on the biggest stage, you've got to be special. Schmidt is unquestionably THE Special One.

Belfast Telegraph

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