Rugby Union

Joe Schmidt's Ireland best team on planet? World Cup will tell

Ireland's Jacob Stockdale scores a try during the Autumn International match against New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin. on Saturday November 17 2018. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire
John Flack

IT was a year in which the rugby world sat up and took notice after Ireland's stunning first-ever win over the New Zealand All Blacks on home soil was to ensure Joe Schmidt's last full year in charge of the team was to end on an historic and gloriously successful note.

So much so that claiming the prized scalp of the back-to-back World champions has put Schmidt's other notable achievements during his five-year tenure into the shade by comparison.

Most recently, those included steering the team to only their third Six Nations Grand Slam, in March, a 2-1 series win away to Australia in June and a clean sweep in the autumn internationals of which the All Blacks game was part.

Schmidt will return home to New Zealand after the World Cup in Japan and will be replaced by his current defence coach Andy Farrell.

From no wins in the previous 29 meetings in 111 years against the mighty All Blacks, the tally now reads two in three seasons following the 2016 victory at Soldier Field.

The 16-9 win, after a ferocious battle at a raucous Aviva Stadium on November 17, was in sharp contrast to the try-fest in Chicago where Ireland outscored New Zealand by five to four.

Ulster man Jacob Stockdale got the only touchdown of the match in the 52nd minute as a game of small margins was ultimately decided by a moment of brilliance from the 22-year-old which put Ireland into what proved to be an unassailable 16-6 lead.

Off a 10-metre line-out - Ireland's favourite attacking platform - the home side swung the ball towards the right before Bundee Aki switched direction and fed Stockdale down the narrow side.

The winger's deft chip took several tiring All Blacks out of play and he won the sprint with Aaron Smith to gather and score the decisive try.

"In the end, I got a bit lucky but it was an incredible feeling although I can't take too much of the credit. That was a training ground move and it paid off massively," said Stockdale afterwards

"It means everything. There's 113 years of guys who have played at Lansdowne Road or the Aviva and have failed to beat them. So for me to beat them at my first attempt is pretty special."

It was the pinnacle of another remarkable year for Stockdale and Ireland as individual and collective awards came thick and fast.

Schmidt was named World Rugby coach of the year while Johnny Sexton, who had kicked over all of the team's other points in the win over New Zealand, received the global player of the year accolade.

Stockdale received the player of the Championship award after the Six Nations in which he scored a record-breaking seven tries.

The series began in dramatic fashion in Paris when Ireland snatched a dramatic last gasp 15-13 victory over France.

France led by a point with just eight minutes left but the Irish kept their heads magnificently with the clock well into the red.

After retaining possession for a remarkable 41 phases, it was now or never and after being teed up by Conor Murray, Sexton landed a perfectly-struck drop goal to spark wild celebrations by the men in green.

A facile 56-19 eight-try home win over Italy followed with Stockdale and Robbie Henshaw scoring two tries apiece.

Wales were then dispatched 37-27 in Dublin with a brace of tries from Stockdale and one each from Aki, Dan Leavy and Cian Healy.

Stockdale picked up where he left off in the subsequent 28-8 win over Scotland by opening the scoring with another intercept try before he went on to equal a 104-year-old Championship record by scoring multiple tries in three consecutive games.

To keep their Championship hopes alive, England had to beat France with a try bonus point, but they went down to a 22-16 defeat that confirmed Ireland's third title in five years with a game to spare.

Then it was off to a snowy Twickenham where Ireland thumped England 24-15 on St Patrick's Day to claim the Grand Slam.

First-half tries from Garry Ringrose, CJ Stander and Stockdale helped Schmidt's men open up a 21-5 lead.

Late touchdowns from Jonny May and Eliot Daly with the clock in the red brought only scant consolation for the home side.

Stockdale was joined by fellow Ulster men Iain Henderson, Rob Herring and John Cooney for the three-Test series in Australia with team captain Rory Best a late cry-off due to a hamstring injury.

Ireland lost the first game 19-9 in Brisbane on June 9 but bounced back to take the next two and the series.

Ireland won the second Test in Melbourne 26-21 with Andrew Conway and Tadhg Furlong both touching down while Sexton kicked 16 points to end the team's long wait for a first victory over the Wallabies on Australian soil since 1979.

The third Test in ended in a thrilling 20-16 victory in Sydney as Sexton kicked four penalties to put Ireland 12-9 up at the break.

CJ Stander and Marika Koroibete swapped tries after the interval as it became a one-point game before Sexton's late penalty sealed the win as Ireland became only the fifth team in history to come from behind to win a three-Test series.

Leinster's exciting talent Jordan Larmour scored a hat-trick in as Ireland opened their autumn international series with a thumping 54-7 win over Italy in Chicago.

A scrappy 28-17 win over Argentina was followed by the epic win over New Zealand and the final game against USA was always going to be an anti-climax in the circumstances.

So it proved but Ireland duly completed a series clean sweep with a 57-14 victory with Andrew Conway crossing for a hat-trick.

A momentous year for the Ireland rugby team then with just one defeat in 12 matches and only the world rankings suggesting that New Zealand are still top of the pile.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, after his side's defeat in Dublin, claimed that Ireland are now the best team on the planet and few would disagree with his assessment which will be put to the test at the World Cup in Japan.

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