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From Cardiff to Chicago, 7 of Irish rugby's best moments under Joe Schmidt

There have been many memorable days down through the Schmidt years.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt: Will Ireland after next year's World Cup. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

SUCH HAS BEEN Joe Schmidt’s influence on Irish rugby over the last eight years, guiding Leinster and then the national team to rarefied heights, it’s almost impossible to imagine a time when the Kiwi is not at the helm.

His achievements since taking over the Ireland reins in 2013 have been well-documented, but no less worthy of going back over; three Six Nations titles, including this year’s Grand Slam, two historic wins over world champions New Zealand, and a memorable series win Down Under.

Not to mention Ireland’s rise from eighth to second in the world rankings during his five-year tenure, but Schmidt’s impact on Irish rugby extends beyond the on-field achievements and honours, his infectious love and passion for the game having a transformative effect across all levels. 

Hired as Ireland head coach on the back of his successful spell with Leinster, during which he guided the province to back-to-back European crowns, Schmidt boasts a win ratio of 74%, compared to Ireland’s win rate of 54% in the professional era before he took charge. 

While he still has 11 months in the job, below we take a look at seven of Irish rugby’s most memorable days under Schmidt. 

Leinster’s Sexton-inspired Cardiff comeback

Jono Gibbes, Joe Schmidt and Greg Feek celebrate with the Heineken cup Schmidt celebrates Leinster's 2011 Heineken Cup win with Jono Gibbes and Greg Feek. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Schmidt’s success with Leinster — two Heineken Cups, the Amlin Challenge Cup and a Pro12 crown — can often be forgotten given his outstanding achievements with the national team. 

Taking over from Michael Cheika for the 2010/11 season, Schmidt built on the foundations laid by the Australian and ensured the province continued to evolve into the European force they’ve become.

In his first season in charge, the 53-year-old guided Leinster back to the Heineken Cup final after their first title in 2009, and the 33-22 victory over Northampton Saints in Cardiff will always be remembered as a glorious day in the province’s history.

The Johnny Sexton-inspired comeback remains one of the most remarkable turnarounds in European rugby as Leinster — trailing 22-6 at the break — scored 27 points in the second period to clinch a second European crown.

Schmidt’s Leinster would go on to defend their title at Twickenham 12 months later, beating Ulster 42-14. 

Breaking the Six Nations duck 

Joe Schmidt with the trophy Schmidt delivered a first Six Nations title in five years back in 2014. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Schmidt took over the Ireland reins in November 2013 from Declan Kidney, and after the agonising defeat to New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium, delivered almost instant success with a first Six Nations title in five years in 2014. 

Ireland defeated France 22-20 in Paris to lift the first piece of silverware under Schmidt, with the only loss that campaign being the 13-10 reversal to England at Twickenham.

It was only Ireland’s second Six Nations title and the first since they won the Grand Slam in 2009 under Kidney, with the winning occasion also being the perfect send-off for Brian O’Driscoll in his final game in green.  

Later that year, Ireland claimed their first-ever Test series win over Argentina before beating South Africa, Georgia and Australia during the 2014 November series to move up to third in the World Rugby rankings.  

First Test win in South Africa 

Ireland’s head coach Joe Schmidt Celebrating victory with Rory Best. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Schmidt followed up the 2014 Six Nations success with another in 2015 and despite the bitter disappointment of a World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina, Ireland’s development under the Kiwi took a big step forward in June 2016.

A first win over the Springboks on South African soil was a significant statement of intent from Schmidt and Ireland, and the manner in which they did so made it all the more satisfactory. 

CJ Stander’s 23rd-minute red card left Ireland to do it the hard way at Newlands, but a heroic performance secured a famous away victory over Allister Coetzee’s side, as Jared Payne and Conor Murray crossed for crucial tries in the 26-20 win. 

A series win slipped from Ireland’s grasp in the final Test in Port Elizabeth but it was a hugely progressive tour for Schmidt, as he began the process of building squad depth at the start of the World Cup cycle. 

The hoodoo is broken in Chicago

Joe Schmidt celebrates winning with Rob Kearney Soldier Field, 5 November 2016. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

One of the most famous days in Irish sport, 5 November 2016, won’t easily be forgotten as Schmidt masterminded the perfect game-plan to topple the All Blacks after 111 years and 29 previous attempts of hurt. 

It was a particularly sweet moment for the Kiwi, but a truly indelible day was a landmark one for Ireland under Schmidt’s watch, as they announced their intentions to the rest of the rugby world as a force to be reckoned with.

A complete performance, embellished by Jordi Murphy, CJ Stander, Simon Zebo, Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw tries, saw Ireland defeat the world champions for the first time in front of a sold-out Irish crowd at Soldier Field.

The demons of 2013 had been truly banished and the significance of that victory in this team’s journey under Schmidt cannot be underestimated.  

 Grand Slam glory at Twickenham

Joe Schmidt during the warm up Ireland's third Grand Slam was won in style. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

After doing his best to deny Ireland were favourites to win the Grand Slam in 2018, Schmidt’s side lived up to their billing with a stunning campaign, including memorable wins at the Stade de France and Twickenham.

Victory over Eddie Jones’ England on St Patrick’s Day was the crowning moment, but Johnny Sexton’s winning drop-goal in Paris, or the conviction in which Ireland had negotiated each hurdle through the championship was just as impressive.

Having only ever won two Grand Slams, the size of the task was not lost on the players but a new wave — including the likes of Jacob Stockdale, James Ryan and Dan Leavy — drove Ireland to new heights, as they deservedly secured glory in London.

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CJ Stander’s stunning set-piece try on a bitterly cold afternoon at Twickenham was one of the defining moments of Ireland’s historic year, and had Schmidt’s blueprint all over it. 

Ireland had built up a serious head of steam, and a Grand Slam win was only the start of what was to come. 

History Down Under

Joe Schmidt alongside the team huddle Ireland claimed a first series win Down Under since 1979 last June. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Defeat in the first Test on the summer tour to Australia was Ireland’s first of the calendar year, and certainly raised questions over Schmidt’s selection in Brisbane, something he alluded to last week when saying the IRFU have always allowed him to take ‘risks.’

As it was, coming back from 1-0 down to clinch a first series win Down Under since 1979 made the achievement all the more eye-catching, and showed the character of the squad Schmidt had built and moulded. 

Just like South Africa two summers previous, Schmidt used the tour to expose players to high-pressure Test matches, and in starting Joey Carbery at 10 in Brisbane or providing opportunities for, among others, Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway, Andrew Porter and Rob Herring continued to develop the depth chart. 

After Leinster’s dream double, it was the perfect end to a brilliant season for Irish rugby, as Ireland’s status in world rugby soared.   

The All Blacks conquered (again)

Joe Schmidt and Steve Hansen before the game Men at work: Schmidt and Steve Hansen at the Aviva. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Billed as the Test showdown of the year from months out, Ireland lived up to the occasion a fortnight ago to deliver a first home win over the All Blacks and send shockwaves through the rugby world.

Arguably the best win in Schmidt’s tenure, the hosts produced a near-perfect display at the Aviva Stadium to inflict a first defeat on the world champions on European soil in six years, and firmly establish themselves as one of the favourites heading into next year’s World Cup.

The level of performance was again imposing, as Ireland achieved another piece of history thanks to a clinical and controlled showing, with Stockdale’s second-half try the standout moment of an incredible evening under the lights at the Aviva.

Ireland would go on to complete a November clean sweep with last weekend’s victory over USA, and their triple success at the World Rugby awards in Monaco is another indication of the unprecedented success achieved in 2018.

The challenge is to go and top that in 2019, with one final box to be ticked before Schmidt’s stellar time in charge comes to an end. 

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Ryan Bailey

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