Legendary Ireland out-half Ronan O’Gara on the day Ian Madigan shut the doubters up for good.
ROG, YOU’D LOVE TO PLAY AT TEN FOR SCHMIDT
SUNDAY was a very gratifying day’s work for Irish players, but above everything it was a victory for coaching excellence. I sat there thinking how much the game has evolved in the last decade. Even for exceptional individuals, the opportunities are so limited now because defence has developed so much. Teams need a plan. The Irish have one. The French have good players but they’ve no plan.
Joe Schmidt has some great players and a plethora of good players at his disposal but when they’re buying into the systematic excellence as they did on Sunday, Ireland is a hugely impressive outfit.
They were unbelievable at ruck time, blowing France away and off the park. Schmidt doesn’t have backs like Australia, and the moments of inspiration they can conjure, but in terms of honest endeavour and going about their business in a workmanlike way, Ireland are all about accuracy.
When Ireland box kicked, the comparison to France was informative. There was always one going for the ball, two more Irish following up quickly and a fourth in the periphery. France were lucky if they had one chaser. From my vantage point in the stand, you could clearly see the difference in terms of organisation. The only players you could hear on the Ref Link were Irish players, with ruck talk, everyone shouting their roles.
Something Johnny Sexton said to me in Paris is always in my ear: ’God you would have loved to play under Schmidt, Rog, it’s just so easy playing ten’. You have a team so well structured and organised around you, so it’s ’what option will I pick’ as opposed to ’where are my options?’.
The losses of O’Connell, O’Mahony and Sexton could have been catastrophic, but not when the so-called second tier of leaders surged to the forefront. Conor Murray, Rory Best and Sean O’Brien were exceptional, as was Rob Kearney - on and off the ball.
And Ian Madigan had a huge game.
The out-half deserves every plaudit he gets this week for the ballsy way he managed the game. Given the circumstances of his introduction, to nail his first kick at goal spoke volumes for his intestinal fortitude and his mental preparation. His gambler’s instinct surfaced once or twice but you’d be extremely picky to pause for more than a moment on that. Crucially, he added salt and pepper to Ireland’s game - he played really flat and directed things with good variety in his kicking.
We are a nation of knockers, I’ve said that many times, and we’ve been looking for comfort reasons not to pick him for Ireland. But he’s proven now to the whole country he is capable of managing a game of such magnitude. And of staring down adversity. ’Ah we lost Johnny and Paulie, sure what could we do?’ But Madigan is saying ’no lads, this is my time, I’ll show you.’
And he did show us. His line kicking was really good, ambitious too. He wasn’t happy with mundane 30m touch-finders. He was going for it.
It was noteworthy too how Rob Kearney grew into the game as a real totem. Someone had to score the try, but someone also had to put their hand up and steamroll Michalak as he did. it wasn’t an easy finish. And off camera, in terms of encouraging his team mates, he took his role to where it needed to be Sunday in Cardiff.
THE LOPING LLAMA
People just can’t handle Iain Henderson in contact, Whatever way he manages it, he’s beating the first tackle every time. The loping llama has become the most dominant ball carrier on the gainline we’ve seen in this tournament, bar none. And that includes South Africa. It’s frightening how good this fella could get. France are physically bigger than Ireland but Henderson was swatting them away.
He’ll go to six for Sunday’s quarter-final with Donncha Ryan coming in alongside Devin Toner. And Ryan will do what every replacement did Sunday. He’ll bring things to a new level, as Henderson did, because that’s Schmidt’s creed. Step up and improve us.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wonder at half-time could this be done without Johnny and Paulie. But the replacements became the standard setters. Jack McGrath was huge for Cian Healy and Strauss and White didn’t miss a beat in the front row. Chris Henry was busy, and if Sean O’Brien misses out next Sunday, Henry has that abrasive side to him that is essential against Argentina.
Jordi Murphy will know his job too, and he’ll explode off the bench itching for an opportunity. Everyone in that squad is full of confidence from the boss. Just give me the chance, Joe.
THE LOSSES ARE HUGE
Don’t expect any good news on Paul O’Connell. With Peter O’Mahony’s World Cup over, there’s another bulletin of woe on the way. Paulie’s loss is huge, absolutely huge. But the fact is the two second rows played unbelievably well, probably the best I’ve seen Devin Toner play in a green shirt to date. It’s still a bloody good pack but Paulie’s leadership is irreplaceable.
The mind is primed in different ways with adrenaline flowing, so the impact of losing O’Connell and O’Mahony will only sink in for Ireland over the next 24 hours. Having the time to reflect and prepare for their absence brings different emotions into play.
All the players will mull over things and everyone will conclude the same thing: it weakens the collective. That’s why it’s essential that Paulie still takes charge of everything as if he’s playing. That’s the level he’s at.
No word yet on Sean O’Brien, but it doesn’t look good. Pascal Pape goes down like a sack of spuds and that won’t help, but getting him back for the semi-final would be a result.
AN REVOIR FRANCE
France’s goose is cooked. They’re on the way home next Saturday evening. The romantic in me would like to think yes, they could sprinkle a little magic and unhinge the All Blacks, but no longer. It’s not possible when they are so deficient in every aspect of the game, but especially in their cohesion - or lack of it. You only get cohesion from a game plan.
Australia are now favourites for the World Cup.
Their quarter-final against Scotland will be a belting game, I’ve been quietly impressed with the Scots, but they don’t have the class of the Wallabies. Again, Australia have a serious general with every one of the players eating out of his hand.
If folk think we’re handicapped going into the quarter-final, try being Wales.
I was still hugely impressed with their effort last Saturday but they couldn’t change the game in terms of what they needed to do when the Wallabies were down two players because Wales were still set up to beat 15 and felt as if they had to go through them. Had they shifted Anscombe into second receiver and pushed George North and Jamie Roberts into a channel wider, maybe they’d have got outside the killer defence. But they kept trying to go through them. That said the Aussie reads were sensational. Hat tip to Adam Ashley Cooper.
I said here last week, that previous World Cups were thrown out with the garbage the day Joe Schmidt walked into Carton House. So comparisons with beating Australia in 2011 and then taking our eye off the ball for Wales are irrelevant here.
If you were in the Argentina team hotel Sunday, you are initially disappointed that it’s Ireland and not France you’re facing in the last eight. But they’ve beaten us before in World Cups. And they are better now than at any stage in their rugby history.
Where once they were a team that excelled at World Cups with drop goals, penalties and one try a game, now they are scoring tries for fun.
I was with Denis Irwin on Sunday, and he made a good point. Next Sunday is essentially a home game for Ireland. The Millennium Stadium is an unbelievable theatre. On Sunday, I could see as a spectator why the Irish are considered the best supporters in the world. This was Giant Stadium 1994. It was that good. Hopping. And we have a special affinity too with this ground, it’s the stadium of our greatest moments, and it’s all in the recent past.
I sat there awestruck, and a thought bubbled up from nowhere: how happy I was that my parents brought me back from America after six months to grow up in Ireland.
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