Evolving Ireland team are going places again under wily Joe Schmidt

A special win, on a magical day, in a brilliant city. For those of us privileged to be in Chicago last weekend, it proved the ultimate in sporting experiences. It had everything.
Evolving Ireland team are going places again under wily Joe Schmidt

For obvious reasons, the architecturally stunning city was already gripped in a baseball frenzy with the Chicago Cubs landing the World Series on Wednesday night, just as the Irish began to flood into the city from far and wide.

From early Friday the main thoroughfare down Michigan Avenue leading up to Millennium Park was thronged with millions of Cubs fans ranging from toddlers in their colourful club baby-grows to couples in their 80s who had waited all their lives to witness a day like this.

Think Munster winning that first Heineken Cup 10 years ago, and the multiply it 100-fold.

To think we only landed less than 24 hours earlier and were treated to a sporting celebration unprecedented in size, colour, and passion, all carried out in the most brilliant of atmospheres without a hint of any trouble despite an estimated five million people along the route.

What a start to a sensational sporting weekend as the vast majority of the Green Army travelled in hope rather than confidence. The fact that Joe Schmidt had only recently confirmed he was staying on board up to the next World Cup did, however, serve to convince all and sundry that Ireland would be well prepared and primed to exploit any complacency or lack of focus within the New Zealand ranks.

The sound bites in the build-up to the game were far too obvious and convenient of course with the Cubs waiting 108 years for their glorious day in the sun — even the weather proved freakish at a constant 20C compared with —10C on the same weekend last year — being surpassed only by Ireland’s 111-year drought against the All Blacks.

Even the Cubs fans were sympathising with us upon learning our plight.

Downtown Chicago was like the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand all over again, with several varieties of Ireland jerseys to be seen on every street corner. The Irish were everywhere. It felt strange to be walking down the main thoroughfare of a city I had never visited before, bumping into people that I had not seen for years.

On Friday afternoon one local Irish hostelry — they were everywhere — was packed to the rafters with Munster fans watching Rassie Erasmus’s men smash the Ospreys in Musgrave Park. The great irony there, as I suggested to a number of fellow Corkonians that I came across, was many of those same fans wouldn’t go to the match if they were back in Cork. Strange things happen when you travel abroad.

Soldier Field proved a brilliant setting for this game with the Irish fans, making it a truly memorable experience, even for the New Zealand contingent, but especially for the neutral Americans who turned up to see what all the fuss over the All Blacks was all about.

They left pledging their allegiance to all things Irish after an absorbing contest.

For a passionate Irish audience waiting to burst into song, the only serious blunder by the event organisers over the entire weekend was that botched effort at Ireland’s Call. Even the Irish players appeared slightly discommoded by the whole thing as everyone was waiting for the violinist to start singing.

It mattered little as, from the outset, it was clear Ireland had a game plan geared into pressurising New Zealand with and without the ball.

It was also evident that they had come to play with a clever balance achieved between attacking with ball in hand and through the boot.

A severe dose of reality was administered however when, from their first decent bit of possession, New Zealand found a hole in the Irish midfield which they immediately exploited to deliver the opening try by George Maola. Few would believe how Ireland would come back from that early blow.

Ever the realist, even on a day that must count as one of the sweetest of a decorated coaching career for a man plotting the downfall of his native country, Schmidt suggested afterwards that Ireland caught New Zealand on a day when they were vulnerable. Yes, they were short key forwards in Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelaw, and Luke Romano but Ireland were minus some key personnel in Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Keith Earls, and Iain Henderson. After all, this is New Zealand, the best team in the world! I think Joe was already in pre-match mode for the repeat encounter in Dublin on Saturday week and was intent in not supplying any ammunition for Steve Hansen to pounce on.

What did serve to aid the Irish cause on the day was the fractured nature of the opening half — 57 minutes in total — with the game subject to several hold-ups due to the serious injuries that felled Ryan Crotty and Jordi Murphy, not to mention a plethora of lengthy reviews conducted by the referee and his television match official.

As a consequence, New Zealand came nowhere near to achieving the flowing continuity that continually serves to rip even the most organised of defences apart. When they did manage to put some phases together, such was the intensity and commitment of the Irish linespeed in defence, we witnessed more handling errors in one game from some of the All Blacks than they delivered in the entire Rugby Championship.

What was unmistakable, once again, was the stamp of Schmidt who, despite the limited time available, delivered a framework to attack New Zealand through a variety of avenues.

That was reflected in the five tries scored, three from the backs with Conor Murray, Simon Zebo, and Robbie Henshaw touching down along with two, more familiar, close-in efforts from Jordi Murphy and CJ Stander.

The majority of those scores were direct products of work done on the training paddock through an excellent lineout maul for Murphy and a set piece scrum play for Henshaw. Murray exposed the well flagged New Zealand defensive vulnerability around the ruck while Zebo’s crucial effort at the start of the second half was founded on yet another dynamic lineout maul and the quick exploitation of space on the blind side by Murray and Johnny Sexton.

The genius of Schmidt is that he always manages to get Ireland up to test match intensity at the outset of every series despite not having played at that level for months. Contrast that with Wales, for example, who always struggle badly in their opening tests as they did, once again, against Australia last weekend.

Ireland delivered a greater variety to their game over the summer in South Africa and developed that even further in Chicago. Schmidt has made the side less predictable and more difficult to read. Add to that the sizeable impact the recent appointment of Andy Farrell has had on the defensive side of Ireland’s play. This squad is going places.

Whatever about the future, last Saturday will always represent a moment frozen in time. Where were you when Ireland finally beat the All Blacks? The conversation switched to Munster’s win over the same opposition in 1978 given that four of the seven in our company were also present for that historic event. It got us thinking. How many of the 12,000 present in Thomond Park that day were in Chicago? Surely our group was unique in the city that night?

The memories will linger and there were several.

Sipping a coffee on the sidewalk on Sunday afternoon, watching several Irish fans stroll by with contented smiles in evidence everywhere, one stood out from the pack. Dressed in brand new pink Ralph Lauren shorts and a stinking Irish rugby shirt he hadn’t changed since his arrival, he strolls by carrying a conscience present safely tucked away in a very loud Victoria’s Secret shopping bag. He spots me, stops in his tracks, lets out a massive roar, punches the air and continues on his way.

It was that kind of weekend.

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