Ireland may have achieved only their third Grand Slam with a clinical Six Nations win over England but head coach Joe Schmidt said there is still a long way to go to the finished article.
The 52-year-old, who has masterminded a renaissance in a side that was demoralised when he took it over after the 2013 championship, said he was pleased with the blend of experience and youth that had shown few nerves and held England at bay.
For Schmidt it was mission accomplished for the Six Nations – he had guided them to successive titles in 2014-15 but never the Triple Crown or Grand Slam – with the 2019 World Cup the main target for him before he likely steps down.
“It’s incredibly hard to predict,” said Schmidt referring to the future prospects.
“They are growing and getting better and understanding more but there is still a long way to go for those players.”
Schmidt, who also has guided the Irish to a national record 12 successive Test wins and counting, said young players were standing up and proving themselves but the spine of the team was still the experienced hands.
“To be honest, we rely still on the same hub,” said Schmidt.
“Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray were immense today, CJ (Stander) and Peter O’Mahony were fantastic.
“The newish players though stood out as well.
“James Ryan is getting better all the time. Tadhg Furlong is still young for a tighthead, Andrew Porter coming on to lock the scrum down at only 21.
“Youthful enthusiasm is being tempered by the experienced guys who have been here before and that blend is working very well for us.”
His skipper, the grizzled hooker Rory Best, certainly fits into the “experienced guys” group but the 111-times capped 35-year-old wasn’t going to make too many long-term predictions either.
“I think it really depends,” said Best.
“We’re really happy with today. We wanted a Grand Slam and I think we’ll look beyond that at a later date.
“It all depends on how we kick on.”
Best, who is yet to sign a new contract that would take him through to the next World Cup, said the future did look rosy at the moment because the young were so willing to grow up quickly within the Test squad environment.
“The way the younger players have come in, and not just fitted in, but wanting to keep getting better,” said Best.
“As long as they keep that mentality and the guys who are a bit more experienced keep that ‘I want to keep going forward’ mentality, that’s all you can ask.
“We’ll not know until our next go in the green jersey but knowing the group, this is what we wanted but we’ll always want more because we’re competitive and we’re a little bit greedy.”
— Irish Rugby (@IrishRugby) March 17, 2018
Best said their greed was exemplified by how they stuck to the task and scored a crucial try through prolific wing Jacob Stockdale in stoppage time of the first-half to surge 21-5 ahead.
“It’s our mentality to go and attack,” said Best.
“We want the ball, we want to keep the ball, and we don’t just want to get it off (the field). We’re fit, we train to play in those moments.
“But when you have momentum, sometimes either side of half-time teams can switch off a little bit and you can capitalise.
“While you’re going forward, while you have momentum, we knew we had to attack England today.
“That was following through on our mentality and what we had committed to all week.”
Eddie Jones said England‘s losing streak was a necessary part of their development ahead of the World Cup after a third straight defeat saw Ireland clich a Grand Slam at Twickenham on Saturday.
Already assured of the Six Nations title, Ireland stormed to just their third Championship clean sweep of all time with a 24-15 victory.
Ireland kicked off having both deposed England as Six Nations champions and in second place in the global rankings behind world champions New Zealand.
England, the Six Nations kings in both 2016 and 2017, could have regained second spot with a victory but instead suffered a third successive defeat following away losses to Scotland and France as they were beaten at Twickenham for the first time under Australian coach Jones.
And with Wales edging France 14-13 later Saturday, it meant England ended the Championship in a lowly fifth place – their worst finish since they came bottom of the old Five Nations in 1983.
Following last week’s 22-16 loss to France in Paris, Jones made seven changes in personnel — the most radical shake-up of his reign as England coach.
But they couldn’t stop the losing streak.
Jones, who has made no secret of wanting to win next year’s World Cup with England, said it was better the setbacks happened now than at Japan 2019.
“It is, unfortunately, something that you have to have because you never find out about yourself unless you have these runs,” he told reporters.
“Every team I have had that has been a champion team has had these runs which have been instrumental in how you re-make a team,” added Jones, Australia’s coach when they lost the 2003 World Cup final to England.
Still developing, still moving forward…
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) March 17, 2018
The former Wallaby and Japan boss was appointed to his current post after tournament hosts England suffered the embarrassment of a first-round exit at the 2015 World Cup.
England then set off on a winning run that only ended when Ireland denied them a Grand Slam in Dublin last year.
Until last month, that was the only blot on Jones’s England record, which now stands at 24 wins from 27 Tests with three defeats.
“When you take over it is reasonably easy, like I did with England, it is quite easy to improve them quickly because you get fix certain things that need fixing quickly,” he said.
“But internal mechanisms take time to fix and that is the slow burner. Unless you fix them they catch up with you when you get to the big tournaments such as the World Cup.
“So for us it has been an enormously beneficial tournament if disappointing because we are finding out about how to be a better team.”
Three converted tries from Garry Ringrose, CJ Stander and Jacob Stockdale put Ireland 21-5 up at the break and on the verge of a St Patrick’s Day triumph.
Ireland scrum-half Conor Murray added a penalty and while England’s Elliot Daly scored an unconverted try in each half, with fellow wing Jonny May crossed in stoppage time, the visitors never looked like losing their grip in front of a capacity Twickenham crowd of more than 82,000.
England were without injured powerhouse No 8 Billy Vunipola for the entire Six Nations and fellow back-row forwards Nathan Hughes, Courtney Lawes, Sam Underhill and Tom Curry were missing from the Ireland match.
“We’re playing without five top back-rowers and other injuries,” said Jones. “We have to get a greater depth to our squad that can play Test rugby.”
Jones praised Ireland by saying: “They played exceptionally well and we just weren’t good enough. They play to their strengths, with good resolve and are an excellent team.”
At one point during the second-half on Saturday’s clash between England and Ireland, TV cameras zoomed in on Conor Murray with flakes of snow falling on Twickenham.
There were around 82,000 spectators at the stadium in Greater London and yet the Munsterman must have felt like the loneliest figure on the field as he enjoyed a rare break from a game that was played at an incredibly high tempo.
The scrum-half is the tipping point between winning and losing for coach Joe Schmidt’s strategic vision and he is Ireland’s most important player alongside Johnny Sexton.
In a successful Grand Slam campaign, Murray made everything tick for Schmidt’s side; from his box kicking, crisp passing, decision making and to the way he marshalled his pack around ruck time.
In the post-Brian O’Driscoll era, Ireland are still searching for on-field leadership and Murray has shown he can fill some of that void with his unselfish decision-making and ability to act as a ninth forward with his physicality and voracious work rate ensuring team-mates follow his lead.
His ability to snipe is invaluable, touching down for a superb try against Italy and Scotland in round two and four, as well as initiating breaks that led to scoring chances during other matches.
Against the Scots earlier this month, he produced another sterling display and was the beating heart of Ireland’s display. He showed why he was the first choice for the Lions on the last two tours with superb speed and game management. Whenever he is in possession Ireland are in safe hands.
With 13 tries in 63 tests, Murray is fast cementing his status as the best number nine in the world. New Zealand’s Aaron Smith is considered the marquee scrum-half but has levelled off at a time when his Irish counterpart has started to show his ultimate class on the grand stage.
Aside from his intelligent running and passing, the 28-year-old’s ability to step into the kicking duties also illustrates another weapon in his arsenal.
When Jonny Sexton limped off injured against Wales, Murray stepped up to hammer over a late kick to make it a two-score game. Against England, he slotted over a penalty early in the second half to prevent any form of fightback from Eddie Jones’ side.
He keeps teams guessing at every opportunity and is a model of consistency to the players around him.
A lot of this is down to the experience of playing big games and the trust Schmidt has instilled in him during many heavy defeats through the years. During the 2014 Six Nations, he was criticised for his slow distribution to Sexton, but hard work on his passing speed has seen Murray evolve into Ireland’s most important player.
On Saturday, Murray’s ability to produce magic from any attack was a constant source of inspiration. He was the perfect link between forwards and backs and exactly what Schmidt needs to keep the pressure on such heavyweight opposition.
The historic victory at Twickenham has certainly bolstered confidence and morale, but the focus immediately shifts to the summer tours to Australia in June where Ireland will be bidding to close the gap with the All Blacks.
The Limerick native turns 29 in April. And with three Tests in Australia this summer, a tilt with the All Blacks in November and then a Rugby World Cup to look forward in 2019, he has the chance to earn the title of the best scrum-half of this era.
Whatever happens, one thing’s for sure: Murray will be at the centre of everything for the Men in Green.