For all the superlatives rightly thrown in the direction of Joe Schmidt’s team the past couple of days, one aspect of Soldier Field has probably still not been fully appreciated.
Ireland didn’t just pull off a great and historic win — they won a great game.
There is a difference.
With last Saturday’s game being in America, it inevitably triggered memories of and comparisons with Giants Stadium and Ray Houghton putting the ball in an Italian net.
In many ways that victory of Jack Charlton’s Army over a world super power was just as impressive and even more significant than that of Joe Schmidt’s troops last Saturday evening.
The only thing was, as gripping and tense as that day in New Jersey was for any partisan watching, and intriguing as it was in its own right for the more discernible neutral, it was hardly a great game per se.
A great contest perhaps, but not a great game. Hardly a classic. Not a game where if you were trying to sell a sport to the uninitiated, you could go “Look at this – and you’ll want to see more of this [sport]”.
Chicago last Saturday was all of that. If there was a game the sport could have chosen to help make it more widespread and popular in the host country, if there was one international game this year a lover of rugby would want NBC to broadcast to the great unwashed, it was Ireland-New Zealand.
It was a classic. And it was a shootout. The kind of game Ireland just doesn’t win, in any sport, not against a superpower anyway.
In Giants Stadium back in 1994, Paul McGrath put on such a defensive masterclass it gave the impression – and probably rightly so – Phil Babb and the rest of the Irish back four and team did likewise. For all the flashes of creativity – John Sheridan rattling Pagliuca’s crossbar, Jason McAteer’s forays along the wing, a few bursts through the middle from Keane and Townsend, as well as obviously Houghton’s brilliant moment of improvisation — it was a performance based primarily on steel rather than style.
Most great Irish soccer victories have been of that variety. Stuttgart, when Houghton put the ball in the English net for all the times Lineker threatened to put it in the Irish one. The Dutch and Jason McAteer in Lansdowne in 2001: we outscored them, we outfought them and outsmarted them – hard not to when Louis Van Gaal had two out-and-out centre forwards playing on the wings as part of a four-man strike force towards the end — but it wasn’t like we outplayed them; if the Dutch’s finishing had been to its normal standard, we could have been 4-0 down after 20 minutes. Against Romania in 1990 — that day of days — we didn’t even score. Genoa was a game that would have sent a lot of the rest of Europe and the world to sleep.
Even in rugby our iconic moments have come on days where we grinded it out more than anything. Every score in the 1982 Triple Crown deciding game against Scotland came courtesy of Ollie Campbell’s boot; there was no try. Michael Kiernan’s drop-goal in 1985 was a rare moment of inspiration in a game more characterised by perspiration: the game was deadlocked at 10-all before his intervention. Cardiff 2009 featured two tries. Paris 2014, three. The one unforgettable day that Ireland absolutely blitzed an opponent was England in Croke Park in 2007.
But as brilliant as that performance was, that wasn’t the England of Johnson and Woodward that Eddie O’Sullivan’s team were facing, and it certainly wasn’t the All Blacks. Last Saturday was the equivalent of the national soccer team beating a Spain or Germany 3-1 or 4-2.
Not with a moment of ingenuity or opportunism and then holding on for dear life, playing on the counter. But outplaying them. Beating them at their own game, like taking on and defeating Iniesta & Co playing tiki taka. With flair as much as fight.
As Peter Jackson pointed out in these pages yesterday, in running up five tries on New Zealand, Ireland scored more tries in 80 minutes than Ireland had in playing the same nation for the first 80 years of the last century.
No northern hemisphere team has put up that number of tries on the All Blacks.
It takes two teams to produce a great game, not just a great storyline. New Zealand might have been well off their best, but they still produced flashes of their best in running up their four tries. Even when they were not at their best, they demanded that Ireland had to be at their best.
But Ireland were at their best – and it’s why this has to rank as just about the best Ireland have been at anything, at any one time, in a team sport.
There have been greater or more important achievements by Irish teams — games when someone bigger than an unbeaten record was at stake for the opponent — but never a greater performance.
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