Schmidt's super 2014 has Ireland dreaming of World Cup glory

Schmidt's super 2014 has Ireland dreaming of World Cup glory

In what was a glorious year for Irish rugby, it’s hard to know where to start. A championship triumph; a legend retiring; a star emerging; an awesome autumn — they are all good enough for an entire article themselves.

So let’s be traditional and start at the beginning — Aviva Stadium, Dublin, February 2.

Scotland were the first visitors of the year. The last game of 2013 — that heart-breaking loss to New Zealand — still had the city abuzz and, whispered quietly, there was talk of a Six Nations triumph.

Joe Schmidt had installed a new confidence not just in his players but in the fans too after the debacle of the 2013 Six Nations — can we still pretend that never happened?

The Scots though proved to be generous guests as Andrew Trimble, Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney all ran in tries in a 28-6 triumph as Ireland kicked off their Six Nations campaign in style.

Next up, Wales — the defending champions but the only side Ireland managed to beat in the previous edition.

Chris Henry and Paddy Jackson both crossed the whitewash to ensure in a match where the tactical brilliance of Schmidt shone brightly with the Welsh dispatched 26-3.

A trip to England was match number three in a game that was a perfect advertisement for the sport. England attacked, then Ireland attacked, then England attacked, then Ireland attacked… the pendulum swung so many times I was dizzy by the end.

In every great game, there has to be a loser and sadly that was Ireland, going down 13-10 despite Kearney’s second try of the tournament. No bother, the Irish were still top of the table.

Twelve months prior, the Italians compounded Ireland’s embarrassment with a win in Rome but that was never going to be the case in Dublin.

Brian O’Driscoll, who broke the record for most international caps in the match, rolled back the years, showcasing the best of his playmaking ability.

Cries of “one more year” rang out as Ireland ran in seven tries to set up a date with destiny in Paris — win and Ireland are champions.

A jittery opening saved by a Jonny Sexton try followed by another Trimble score looked to set Ireland on their way, only for the French to take the lead just before the break.

So nearly a fairy-tale ending for O’Driscoll, hauled down just before the line. No worry, Sexton grabbed his second from the ruck that followed. Surely that would be that.

Of course not. The French came back again, reducing the match to a two-point game with 17 nervous minutes remaining. The hosts thought they’d won the game but Damien Chouly’s try was disallowed for a forward pass.

Irish scrum in the Irish 22 with 30 seconds on the clock. See the game out, that’s all. France win it against the head. But two rucks and monstrous defence later, the Irish are awarded a penalty and with it the 2014 Six Nations title.

A summer tour to Argentina followed, with the Irish returning with two solid wins but then came the big test — two of the Big Three in the autumn, South Africa and Australia.

The Boks had just seen off New Zealand, ending their 22-match unbeaten run, and were viewed as formidable foes. No problem for Sexton and co. who produced a storming defensive display in the first half before cutting loose in the second to win 29-15.

Week two of the autumn and a clash with Georgia. A much-changed side gave a much-maligned first-half performance before Ireland showed their superiority after the break. Banana-skin avoided, bring on the Wallabies.

It started so gloriously, two tries in the opening 15 minutes and 17-0 up. Then the flashpoint: if Simon Zebo’s offload goes to hand its 24-0 and goodnight. But it fell into Aussie hands and sparked a comeback.

Twenty all by half-time, painful memories of that All Blacks game evoked. But have no fear, Jonny is here. The man whose boot faltered 12 months prior sweetly struck the winning points.

The star of the autumn? Robbie Henshaw, his performances belying his age, with many beginning to ask “Brian Who?”

2014 will be a tough act to follow, but, whispered quietly, there’s talk of a World Cup.