Games as eagerly anticipated as Saturday’s clash of Ireland and New Zealand rarely deliver on the expectation, but this was special, another one of those I was there days, writes Donal Lenihan.
Sport really has the capacity to lift a nation and this Irish team, operating in unison with a totally committed and captivated green army, combined to consign the might of the All Blacks to the scrap heap.
The corporate boxes might have been full to capacity, but there wasn’t a prawn sandwich in sight. Roy Keane would have approved.
Twenty-three heroes in green shirts were backed all the way from the first whistle to the last by a raucous and fully engaged crowd of more than 50,000, who willed Rory Best’s magnificent men over the line.
This was the night the Aviva Stadium found its soul, the most atmospheric arena Irish rugby has witnessed since the day the English came to town and rocked up at Croke Park in 2007.
Given Ireland’s thunderous start, New Zealand knew they were in for a serious contest but, try as they might, they were rendered powerless in their efforts to repel a group of special players who refused to lie down and capitulate.
This was no ambush. New Zealand coach Steve Hansen, a decent man, feared all week that his charges were in for a stern examination and he knows, as a former Welsh coach, that when the Irish have their serious game faces on, that means trouble.
Hansen is the most successful New Zealand coach of all time, with a win ratio just short of 90% from the 93 test matches he had presided over coming into this contest.
Ireland had never beaten New Zealand until that magical night in Chicago two years ago, but that’s twice now that Joe Schmidt has got the better of him.
The only downside is that, if the New Zealand Rugby Union were contemplating relaxing their policy of not appointing foreign-based coaches to that role with the All Blacks, they will surely be tempted to do so now if Schmidt makes himself available after next year’s World Cup in Japan.
If only that event was taking place this year!
This was a seismic victory for Ireland. With our ranking of second in the world, New Zealand had targeted this game as the biggest on their European tour but, try as they might, they just couldn’t get the upper hand against an Irish team, fortified by a magnificent bench, that refused to be broken.
On numerous occasions over the last 12 months, this All Black side found a way to overturn deficits ranging from 15 to 17 points, against the likes of Australia, South Africa and England, to emerge on the positive side of the ledger. The big worry for Hansen is that they are finding themselves in that position far too often.
Schmidt sensed they were vulnerable and designed a package to win. To beat them you have to apply intense pressure, with and without the ball, for the entire 80 minutes and that’s exactly what Ireland produced.
A measure of that pressure was there for all to see in the opening 40 minutes, when New Zealand were forced into conceding eight penalties.
For a side that had only four awarded against them in monsoon like conditions in Twickenham a week earlier, that was a true measure of the pressure they were under.
A number of those penalties were conceded within metres of their own line as the visitors cynically weighed up their options. Do we concede three points or seven? That has never been a difficult call for them. The only mystery was how Ireland’s favourite referee Wayne Barnes allowed New Zealand to infringe with such regularity in the scoring zone without producing a yellow card.
After the torrential rain that engulfed Twickenham a week earlier, this New Zealand side would have been licking their lips at the prospect of performing in the crisp, dry autumnal conditions that greeted them when the coach pulled up at the Aviva Stadium.
Their game is built around the offload, their ability to play the ball out of the tackle that tends to expose even the best of defences. Not on this occasion.
While Schmidt’s role in the ever-improving fortunes of Irish rugby attracts all the positives his work justifiably deserves, the impact that Andy Farrell has had alongside him has been equally priceless. Ireland’s defensive effort on Saturday was truly amazing. Every single player worked his socks off to get up off the ground and back into the defensive line.
At one stage in the second half, when New Zealand were enjoying their only period of territorial dominance in Ireland’s half, Peter O’Mahony, who could barely walk after taking a bang on the hip, somehow hauled himself back to his feet and selflessly propelled his body in front of another New Zealand ball carrier. It was inspirational and set the tone for everyone around him during that fraught closing period.
The fact that New Zealand were never in control of the contest can be traced to the quality of Ireland’s set piece. After the well documented systems failure that beset Ireland’s lineout at crucial times against Argentina, the undervalued Devin Toner returned to the starting side to exert his considerable influence against the best second-row pairing in the game in Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick.
Both he and O’Mahony were imperious in the air and it was only when both had to be withdrawn in the closing stages due to exhaustion, after giving everything to the cause, that Ireland faltered out of touch.
However, it was the power and technical accuracy of the scrum that inflicted the greatest psychological damage. This New Zealand scrum had shredded all comers in the Rugby Championship but, right from the opening engagement, found themselves in serious trouble.
New Zealand loose head prop Karl Tu’inukuafe has enjoyed a spectacular debut season in an All Black jersey, having risen from the point where he didn’t even have a provincial contract and supplemented his income as a nightclub bouncer to the stage where he had rendered the loss of regular starting loose head Joe Moody meaningless.
Withdrawn from the scene, with fellow front-rowers Codie Taylor and Owen Franks just seven minutes into the second half in an admission from the New Zealand management that their scrum was in bits, Tu’inukuafe looked crestfallen. He could barely make the walk to the sideline after the games leading tight-head Tadhg Furlong had taken him to the cleaners.
Furlong only celebrated his 26th birthday this week and they say that props don’t really come into their own until their early 30s. Astonishing. Whatever about Conor Murray, how Furlong failed to win a nomination for World Rugby’s player of the year is mind-boggling.
Speaking of Murray, it will benefit this Irish side that, in the absence of the best scrum-half in the world at present, Ireland were still able to fashion a win over a side as good as New Zealand.
Kieran Marmion excelled in a real pressure cooker, as did Luke McGrath when he was called into action. Knowing that they can still perform to this level without a player of Murray’s calibre will only contribute further to the feel-good factor in this special group of players.
Days like this don’t come around too often, but having delivered a Grand Slam, a winning series in the southern hemisphere against Australia for the first time in 39 years and a first international win over New Zealand on Irish soil, perhaps we are entitled to dream a little. That World Cup in Japan can’t come soon enough. What a game, what a day. Roll on Tokyo.