Emotions will be running high for Joe Schmidt as he kicks off his final Guinness Six Nations and he claims he wouldn’t change a second of his storied tenure as Ireland coach.
Since taking over the role in the summer of 2013, Schmidt has racked up a CV to surpass all his predecessors – winning three Championships, a Grand Slam and beating the All Blacks in Dublin for the first time in history.
The New Zealander will step down after the World Cup later this year but before that, there’s the Guinness Six Nations and a potential fourth title in six years to play for.
Fittingly, Ireland’s Grand Slam defence begins in Dublin against England – the team they beat at Twickenham in Round 5 to complete last year’s shot at perfection – and Schmidt was in a contemplative mood when asked to reflect on his time at the helm last week.
“I’ll be sad and relieved in some ways because it has been an incredible six years,” said Schmidt.
“If someone had said to me six years ago, you will turn up at your last Guinness Six Nations media launch and you’ll have five Championships and a Grand Slam, I would have bitten your hand off.
“I would have bitten your hand off for one Championship.
“I have just been incredibly lucky with the timing of the staff and the playing staff that we have got, that those things have coincided fortuitously for me.
“And then, one to go. I will take a deep breath, try to keep my head down and work as hard as I can to prepare the lads who go out and make a difference.”
Schmidt named Rory Best as his captain ahead of the 2016 Championship and the veteran hooker is still going strong in the role heading into the 2019 edition – now aged 36.
Ulster’s Best, who had come up against Schmidt when he was Leinster coach, knows more than most exactly how the 53-year-old operates.
And the front-rower is particularly effusive about his coach’s famed diligence when it comes to preparation.
“He’s first and foremost a fantastic coach,” said Best. “Whenever I played with Ulster and he was at Leinster, you used to look down the road with envy as to how they were being so successful.
“And then you sit in the Ireland team meetings and very quickly it dawned on you that he’s a brilliant coach because he’s a perfectionist.
“He expects a lot from you and to know your stuff but also gives you the freedom to deliver all that. He has contributed so much to Irish rugby.
“Obviously with the trophies, with Leinster and Ireland, and he is always doing dinners for various clubs.
“He gives back and engages with people, he has left the place in a really good spot for when does move on.”