Ireland have no choice but to chase glory at Rugby World Cup 2015 after lifting the RBS 6 Nations title, according to Chris Henry, the Ulster flanker, who intends to use his breakthrough international tournament as a springboard for more regular Ireland recognition.
The 29-year-old seized the opportunity left by Sean O'Brien's season-ending shoulder injury to claim Ireland's openside berth throughout the Six Nations, while Brian O'Driscoll brought down the curtain on 15 glittering years at international level as Ireland beat France in Paris to claim the trophy on points difference.
The iconic centre had announced his arrival as an exceptional talent in world rugby with a superlative hat trick in Paris in 2000, and he helped Ireland claim their first win in France in 14 years on his final international appearance.
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Henry believes Ireland's class of 2014 will forever recall with pride on their part in O'Driscoll's 141st and final international turn. "We will look back and one day say: 'I was there'," he said. "I feel privileged and honoured to be able to play in his last game, and to play so many games with him. It's a fantastic feeling to win it with his last day, but also very sad. It's going to be strange when we go to the next camp and he's not going to be there, but unfortunately that's the way life is. Things have to move on and I'm just so privileged to be able to play with him."
While Ireland will salute the passing of a modern great, Henry said Joe Schmidt's squad must not allow themselves to dwell on the memories but start their build-up to next year's World Cup in England without delay. "We have to capitalise on this now," said Henry. "We've got such a massive run-in to the World Cup that when we get together next we've got to focus on that. I feel a lot of us have improved individually in the last eight weeks under Joe, and that's what we need to keep doing. Because of the quality of player we have, there's no telling how far this team can go. I want to use it as a springboard for myself as well. Every time I go out there I put pressure on myself. I've just loved every minute."
Henry's deft offload opened a half-gap for Johnny Sexton to scythe home for the fly-half's first of two tries in the edgy victory over France. The combative flanker revealed he has worked hard to add a level of finesse to his renowned fiendish breakdown acumen.
"I needed to get it away, then Johnny did all the hard work," said Henry. "The feeling overall is incredible. I don't usually give one-handed offloads but I thought we had the advantage. I'm relieved it worked."
Hailing the impact of Schmidt, Henry wants Ireland to take advantage of the head coach's analytical approach. "It gives you a lot of confidence because you know you're in excellent hands with his preparation and his attention to detail," said Henry. "He's been incredible to deal with, you're on your toes and you have to know your stuff. You want a coach that challenges you and we certainly are, all the time under Joe. But once you do know all that, it gives you huge confidence to go out and do what he wants."
Mike Ross, the prop, acknowledges that Ireland may never again have a player of the quality of O'Driscoll in their ranks. He paid tribute to his Leinster and Ireland team-mate, whose world-record 141st appearance proved a fitting farewell.
"The man deserves every accolade that comes his way: he's been an absolute legend for the team for the last 15 years," said 34-year-old front-rower Ross. "One of the most impressive things for me is that his level never drops - can you remember the last time he had an off game?
"That sort of talent is very rare, very special, and if his equal comes along in my lifetime I think we'd be lucky to see him. The feeling when the final whistle went, it's feelings like that you play for. It's the first time for many of us to get any silverware with Ireland, so it's very special."
Lock Devin Toner said there was precious little mention of O'Driscoll's big farewell leading up to the France match because everyone was well aware of their duty to send him out on a high. "Joe [Schmidt] mentioned it briefly in our team meeting," said Toner. "He said he's obviously one of the greats to pull on the jersey, and it will be awesome for us to do it for him.
"It was in the back of our minds but we never really talked about it, and to be honest we didn't need to. I'm just delighted for him and for his family, to go out on a high on the international stage, and for him to finish like that as a player. It kind of all came together in the end for him, didn't it? It was a great send-off in the Aviva last weekend, and a great send-off here, and I'm delighted for him."