It’s a long way from Woodville in New Zealand to the bright lights of Twickenham in London, but If Joe Schmidt’s Ireland team beat England on Saturday it will be the biggest milestone yet on a journey that began in a small town on the North Island.
The former school teacher has the chance to cement his status as Ireland’s greatest coach this weekend if the Men in Green seal a first Grand Slam – and third Six Nations title in five years – under his tutelage.
And whoever takes over from the Kiwi after the 2019 World Cup, you’d have to feel sympathy for.
Remarkably, Schmidt discovered coaching by surprise and was all set for a career as a teacher in New Zealand.
It was a stint in Ireland during the 1980s – in remote Multyfarnham, Westmeath – where he found his passion for coaching and steered Wilson’s Hospital to a Leinster schools title.
A life teaching in Woodsville seemed the right option for the then 25-year-old – but a love for rugby remained – and subsequent coaching roles with Bay of Plenty, the Blues and Clermont pinpoint key moments on his coaching CV.
It was this welcome in Westmeath almost three decades ago that drew Schmidt from Clermont to Ireland in 2010, when the offer of the Leinster head coach job came up.
Three years in Dublin – and two Heineken Cups later – saw the 52-year-old take the reins from Declan Kidney as Ireland’s head coach.
And while working at a school and coaching a team may seem words apart, Schmidt draws comparisons between the two professions and is now on the cusp of delivering a stunning Grand Slam success.
What makes Schmidt great is his high standards and attention to detail – a reductive phrase – but one that elevates his players to such a meteoric level. To have so many young players fit in so seamlessly shows the trust and respect he has for those in the Ireland set-up.
He analyses the games in considerable detail and has clear communication to pass on that knowledge. For example, he would have reviewed Saturday’s win over Scotland five, six or seven times before meeting with his coaches on Monday morning.
Schmidt has proven time and again how he can devise formidable game plans and wins more matches than he loses (39-14 win record). Memorable defeats to Australia in 2013, Argentina in the 2015 World Cup quarter-final and Scotland in 2017 are examples of this, but each time he has learned from losses and developed stronger teams.
Schmidt has transformed good players into inspirational figures. He is the reason why Ireland beat the Springboks for the first time in July 2016 and why the Men in Green ended a 111-year wait to beat the All Blacks in November of the same year.
Right now, Irish rugby is in the midst of a golden generation and Schmidt has sown the seeds that have allowed his team to sprout into a towering oak.
Blooding the likes of Garry Ringrose, Joey Carbery, Tadhg Furlong, Jack Conan and Jordan Larmour will have a lasting impact on the Irish game that will go through to 2023 and beyond.
The nature of a physical sport like rugby is seismic injuries will affect the team – even though every coach wants a full deck to select from – but Schmidt has shown faith in young players and given them the confidence to step up and perform when opportunity knocks.
Indeed, to see someone like Dan Leavy fit in with ease on the grand stage and become Ireland’s best performer in every match this Six Nations campaign, is impressive.
He wasn’t alone. Andrew Porter, 21, and Chris Farrell, 24, also stepped up in on the absence of key players and blew Wales apart two weeks ago – further demonstrating the depth of talent available.
It’s still another 18 months before next year’s World Cup but winning a Grand Slam will provide a springboard as Ireland harbour a goal of challenging the All Blacks in Japan next September.
It also adds fuel to the debates in pubs and clubs around the world as every amateur pundit tries to pick their team on a weekly basis.
Consistently, Ireland are brimming with confidence and flair. They are an international side picking their players from four provinces – in a country where rugby is the fourth-most popular field sport behind Gaelic, Hurling and Football. And Ireland are ranked ahead of Australia, France and South Africa.
England will no doubt be looking to end the campaign on a positive note this weekend – after two shock defeats in four games – and deny Ireland a Grand Slam.
Although the Red Rose have injury worries of their own and a struggling back-row Schmidt will need the likes of Conor Murray, Jonny Sexton and Furlong firing in a bid to win in the English capital.
If his men do beat Eddie Jones’ side then Schmidt has a case for being the best coach in rugby.
Maxime Machenaud (4) and Lionel Beauxis landed penalties for France, who were also awarded a penalty try.
England’s Owen Farrell (2) and Elliot Daly responded with their own penalties before Jonny May crossed for a try Farrell converted to set up a frantic finish to what had been a dour, defence-driven and often mistake-riddled encounter at the Stade de France.
The victory was France’s second after they saw off Italy last week to break a losing streak going back 11 months.
Allied to that has been France’s further dip in popularity after a controversial late-night, alcohol-fuelled drinking session following defeat in Scotland that saw eight players sanctioned by Brunel.
“France has gone through a tough time,” the 64-year-old Brunel said.
“I believe we can come very close to the best. Against Ireland (lost 15-13 in the last minute), we were there, we lacked just a little bit at the end.
“Against both Ireland and England, we’ve shown we can go up against them and we will continue to do so.”
‘A lot of good things’
Brunel added: “There were a lot of good things today.
“Our defence was remarkable. The line-out was a bit wobbly and the scrum as well. But there was a lot of energy and a lot of will from the players.
“There is a lot to be happy about. We knew that the physical challenge of the game would be a key factor. We controlled the ball and that upset them because they’re not used to it.”
Skipper Guilhem Guirado said he was “proud” of the team’s spirit.
“We’ve been criticised a lot, but we never lost faith in the squad,” the hooker said.
“It was a match of very high intensity but that’s what sport’s all about. It’s always good to win against England, it doesn’t happen too often. We’re going to enjoy the victory.”
CONFIRMATION: @IrishRugby's victory secures the 2018 #NatWest6Nations title. They will play for the Grand Slam next Saturday at Twickenham.— NatWest 6 Nations (@SixNationsRugby) March 10, 2018
Full table 👉 https://t.co/D9K06pf0gm pic.twitter.com/IH5J0Ef73G
England coach Jones saw his team concede a massive 16 penalties, with Anthony Watson also yellow carded for the high tackle on Benjamin Fall that saw South African referee Jaco Peyper award the penalty try to France.
“Obviously I’m very disappointed. We didn’t take the opportunity to score points,” the Australian said.
“The breakdown again caused us trouble. We improved in that area, but not to the extent we needed to. We just didn’t learn quick enough. There’s no lack of effort.”
Jones, who has now led England to 24 victories in 27 matches since taking over after the 2015 Rugby World Cup, added: “Any team that’s developing goes through a period where the game doesn’t like you.
“We’re in the loser’s chair and it’s not a happy place, but I don’t think we should get too melodramatic about it.
“I was pleased with the effort today, we were in a position to win the game,” he said, adding that any team was “fallible and has weakness”.
Jones said that “some teams are outplaying us in certain areas”. “The breakdown has definitely become more contestable. The contest has increased enormously, we have to find a way to cope with that. It’s not going to be easy.”
Johnny Sexton drops Ireland to victory in France
Ireland were coasting in their opening-round clash against France in Paris, that was until Teddy Thomas scythed off the wing, bisected the cover and skipped between the posts. But just when Ireland looked to have snatched defeats from the jaws of victory for the second time running in France, up popped Sexton with a nerveless, 45-metre drop-goal that won the day. Ireland built some 41 phases in a final-play winning move that extended into the third minute of overtime. Ireland hardly merited victory, but on such stunning rescue missions are title triumphs founded.
Jacob Stockdale seals victory over Wales with a fine intercept score
Peter O’Mahony conjures a fine cover tackle and turnover against Scotland
Though Ireland eventually subdued Scotland by four tries to one for a 28-8 victory, the visitors bungled a host of clear-cut scoring chances that could have entirely altered the game’s complexion. Munster flanker O’Mahony produced a momentous performance of grit and industry throughout, battling manfully to nullify Scotland’s clear contact-area advantage. O’Mahony pulled off a fine stunning tackle on wing Blair Kinghorn that saved a try-scoring chance, but not finished there though, he leapt to his feet and forced a turnover penalty. At the top of the second-half, this was a vital intervention, with Ireland only leading 14-3.
Sexton fires a bullet pass to send Stockdale in for his first try against Wales
Ireland have spent large swathes of this tournament bulldozing through phases but at points struggling to finish off moves swiftly. No such trouble against the Welsh, with five tries the fruit of an attack-heavy performance. There could be no better tour de force than Sexton’s flat, fast and defence-splitting pass that sent Stockdale walking into the corner for his first of two tries in the 37-27 victory over Warren Gatland’s side either.
Garry Ringrose’s runaround sends Stockdale in for a second score against Scotland
Fit-again Ringrose had only played an hour’s Rugby since January with Leinster before this encounter. It never showed. Not one jot. Instead the 23-year-old scythed and stepped through the Scotland defence on several occasions. And then he forced a runaround off Bundee Aki to fire a bullet pass to send Stockdale home for a score that all-but sealed Ireland’s 28-8 win over Scotland.