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'I used to watch the Five Nations and think these places were on a whole different planet'

Joe Schmidt was in reflective form after he added to his exceptional list of honours.

IT SAYS A lot about Joe Schmidt that it is impossible to find him in the photographs of Ireland’s post-match celebrations at Twickenham on Saturday.

As his players let loose upon securing the third Grand Slam in Irish rugby’s history and headed for a lap of honour, the head coach retreated back towards the tunnel, keen for the limelight to be around them rather than him.

Joe Schmidt during the warm up Schmidt was nowhere to be seen after the final whistle. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Schmidt will always insist that the players are the most important element in Ireland’s success, and he’s surely right, but the New Zealander has done a resoundingly brilliant job in leading them.

The 52-year-old was in reflective form when he appeared down one of the corridors of the London venue soon after his players had left the pitch, with his thoughts even turning to home when asked where this Grand Slam ranks alongside his other coaching achievements.

Schmidt recalled winning the prestigious Ranfurly Shield as an assistant coach with Bay of Plenty in 2004, a piece of silverware that is very famous in New Zealand.

“I think Bay of Plenty had been trying to win it for over 100 years and so that was the first really special one,” said Schmidt.

“Yeah, it’s hard to equate anything with this. When I was a kid I used to watch the Five Nations on TV and think these places were on a whole different planet with those massive crowds.

“It’s pretty hard when you’re born in Kawakawa, [with a population of] 1400 people and you’re shifted to the metropolis of Woodville, 1600 people, it’s huge.”

From momentarily drifting back to New Zealand, Schmidt wandered into praising his players again, stressing that a coach “can’t create courage” in their team.

Asked about his last message to those Ireland players before they headed onto the Twickenham pitch for their shot at the Grand Slam, Schmidt meandered into a completely different field.

“I just said ‘get out and play lads’. People presume there is a lot of structure in this, because I think some of the best poetry I have ever read goes beyond the bounds of standard grammar.

“But when you know the grammar really well, you can utilise what you like to get the message across – like when a player has a structure, they can go beyond that and play whatever they see in front of them.

Eddie Jones with Joe Schmidt before the game Schmidt shares a joke with England's Eddie Jones. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I just said ‘get out and play and lads.’ I said ‘enjoy this because these are the days you have worked so hard to have.’”

Having brought up the topic of poetry, the Ireland coach was asked whose work he enjoys and named his “pretty rustic” compatriot Sam Hunt, as well as Australian ‘Banjo’ Paterson.

There was mention of “the Irish guys, obviously” as well as his fondness for a good limerick or Haiku.

“I’d have to say I’d be pretty keen, even on some of the dark stuff like [Sylvia] Plath and stuff like that but, yeah, I wouldn’t want it to get too glum,” said Schmidt.

“I have enough tough moments trying to watch games that are too tight without making it even tougher.”

Some critics would refuse to call Schmidt’s coaching style poetic, but this Grand Slam success has shown that the head coach is increasingly drawing creative strokes from his team.

20 tries in their five Six Nations wins is the most Ireland have ever scored in a single championship, and the variety of their scores was striking.

Even against England, there was a balanced blend – Garry Ringrose’s score coming from kick pressure, CJ Stander’s second being a beautiful set-piece strike and the third involving clever play from Conor Murray and a superb individual contribution from Jacob Stockdale.

“Well, not everyone would agree but we certainly worked pretty hard to try to spice our play with a bit of variety and I think we’ve been rewarded with some super tries,” said Schmidt.

“Some of them have been on the back of really positive defence. Robbie Henshaw, unfortunately, getting that second try [against Italy], I’d rather we were one less try and one more man available but also Jacob Stockdale plucking those couple of intercepts against Wales and Scotland.

Joe Schmidt before the game Schmidt is already thinking about the summer tour of Australia. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“So some of them have come from really proactive defence and others have come from some really nice play that’s been put together by the team.”

After helping Ireland to the Grand Slam, next on Schmidt’s agenda is an exciting tour to Australia in June and while this squad are going to be remembered as history-makers, the Ireland boss says he is excited to see just how good they can be.

His first Ireland team were back-to-back Six Nations champions in 2014 and 2015 but the transition is very much complete and now Schmidt has Grand Slam champions.

“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.

“Now, to dovetail into a crossover of a newer generation is a little bit exciting and 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 and for a team to be a champion team one year, as England were two years ago with the Grand Slam, and last year they were championship winners, but 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.

“They lost by three points France and they lost momentum in Scotland.

“I’d just say I’m delighted with [the Grand Slam]. 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. Australia will be hugely motivated to bounce back from what’s been a relatively tough time for them and get a really good start in preparation for their Rugby Championship.”

– First published 06.00, 19 March

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Murray Kinsella

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