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Dublin: 8 °C Thursday 19 September, 2019

One day in Paris: BOD's farewell, Schmidt's first Six Nations crown and brilliance from Sexton

In the first instalment of ‘Onward’ with Volkswagen, we relive a great occasion for Irish rugby from 2014.

Brian O'Driscoll celebrates the historic win in Paris on his final appearance for Ireland.
Brian O'Driscoll celebrates the historic win in Paris on his final appearance for Ireland.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

SOME MOMENTS DESERVE to be immortalised. 

Volkswagen have come on board as partners of The42, which will see them sponsor all of our rugby coverage for the 2019 World Cup in Japan. 

Ahead of the tournament, ‘Onward’ — an eight-part series — will be looking back at the unforgettable days from Joe Schmidt’s time in charge as he aims to end his six-year spell on a high.

First up, we remember the game that saw Brian O’Driscoll make his final appearance in a green shirt and Ireland clinch their first Six Nations title under the Kiwi coach.   

Joe Schmidt was only a couple of months into the biggest job of his career, and knew he needed to make a statement.

In 2014, Irish rugby stood at a crossroads, surrounded by doubts about the direction in which the team was headed.

The IRFU had pulled the trigger on Declan Kidney, the man who delivered a first Grand Slam in 61 years, following an abysmal showing in the previous year’s Six Nations. Brian O’Driscoll, the team’s leading light for so many seasons, was preparing to walk away from international rugby, while a handful of other key players were also entering the final act of their careers.

Schmidt had been a shoe-in for the Ireland job following his wonderful work with Leinster, but was unproven at international level. How he handled the delicate restructuring process of smoothly easing out some of the greatest players the country had ever produced would set the tempo for his tenure.

The squad he announced for his first Six Nations campaign reflected that changing of the guard.

Jack McGrath, Iain Henderson, Devin Toner, Tommy O’Donnell, Rhys Ruddock, Paddy Jackson, Ian Madigan, Jordi Murphy, Robbie Henshaw and Dave Kearney all had 10 caps or less to their name.

Equally important would be getting players like Johnny Sexton (38 caps), Conor Murray (24 caps) and Peter O’Mahony (19 caps) to take on more leadership within the group.

It was a transition Schmidt recognised and addressed from the off.

Joe Schmidt Schmidt was appointed Ireland head coach in April 2013. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

When the squad gathered at Carton House for their Six Nations camp, they were met with a specially commissioned mural depicting Newgrange and various other symbols from Irish mythology. At first glance, the cynics in the room could have decided it was fairly bog standard stuff, akin to the soccer team blaring rebel songs on the bus before Brian Kerr started packing his own mixtapes.

It was only when Schmidt stood before the mural and began a lengthy address detailing the precision required to make the lightbox in Newgrange work, how the work of many individuals in sync can combine to produce something wondrous, about how old leaders who were moving on had forged a path for younger warriors to follow, that those in the room began to understand there was something different about this guy.

Schmidt made an instant connection with his players, and, crucially, began to restore some belief within the group.

And this was a squad in need a confidence boost. While Schmidt had been busy delivering a string of trophies at Leinster, Ireland had not won the Six Nations for five years.

Twelve months previously, they won just one of their five fixtures in the tournament.

Schmidt quickly corrected the obvious flaws in their game. The defence was tightened and the scrum secured, while in attack Schmidt provided precise instructions in how to break down each opponent. Having scored just five tries in the 2013 Six Nations, Ireland would cross 16 times this time around.

They opened their campaign with a home win against Scotland and backed that result up with a 26-3 defeat of defending champions Wales in Dublin, the first milestone win under Schmidt’s watch.

Ireland were dominant in the collisions and confident and clear in their execution, with fly-half Sexton particularly outstanding as Wales suffered a first away defeat in the competition since 2011.

Cian Healy celebrates as Chris Henry scores a try Cian Healy (left) and the Irish players celebrate Chris Henry's try in the win over Wales. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Next up was a bruising encounter with England, which Ireland narrowly lost 13-10 in Twickenham, followed by a comfortable defeat of Italy in what was O’Driscoll’s last home appearance.

It all boiled down to a Paris date between France and Ireland, where a win would hand Schmidt’s side the championship.

The problem was that there was little romance to be found in Paris when it came to Irish rugby teams. No Irish side had won in the French capital since a young O’Driscoll announced his arrival on the world stage with that stunning hat-trick at the Stade de France back in 2000.

General view of the Stade de France as the two teams make their way out A packed Stade de France. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

That was more or less the story for Irish rugby, occasional moments of magic bookended by long periods of heartbreak.

Yet despite their dreary history in the City of Light, Schmidt ensured Ireland arrived confident this would be their day. There were sub-plots all over the field. O’Driscoll’s last Test was an obvious emotional pull for broadcasters, but so too was the presence of Sexton.

The 28-year-old, a Racing Metro player at the time, was yet to convince the French public of his qualities. That night he was the outstanding player on the pitch, delivering the type of commanding performance he had produced time and time again under Schmidt at Leinster.

Not only did Sexton swoop for two tries and orchestrate the play beautifully, he also missed five points from the boot and was knocked out cold in a collision with Mathieu Bastareaud, forcing him off with over 10 minutes still to play.

During a frantic ending Ireland survived a late scare as a Damien Chouly try was crossed out due to a forward pass, with Schmidt’s side holding out for a thrilling 22-20 victory to secure the championship.

Source: RTÉ Sport/YouTube

O’Driscoll, who admitted to a few tears during Schmidt’s team-talk, played the full 80 minutes and collected the man of the match award for the second week running. He himself called the decision “farcical”, but it was a fitting end to a glittering 15-year international career.

During that time O’Driscoll had set a new standard for Irish rugby players. From the sideline, Schmidt would continue that progression, so much so that eventually success would come to be expected rather than savoured.

Jonathan Sexton and Brian O'Driscoll celebrate in the dressing room Sexton and O'Driscoll with the Six Nations trophy.

At the first attempt, Schmidt molded Ireland into winners again. Over the course of the next five years, they would win two more Six Nations (including one Grand Slam), record a first Test win in South Africa and first Series win in Australia, beat New Zealand for the first time ever and then repeat the feat two years later in Dublin.

A few months ago they were being talked up as favourites for the World Cup.

Considering where Ireland were when Schmidt first took the job, that is quite the turnaround.

It’s unbearable,’ Schmidt jokingly told reporters following that dramatic win in France back in 2014. “I’m not sure I can last too long doing this job.”

His best days with this team still lay ahead of him, but we suspect he knew that even then.

Volkswagen have been proud sponsors of Irish Rugby since 2011, and they are also rugby partners of The42 during the 2019 World Cup. For more, visit Volkswagen.ie/irish-rugby

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