You cannot blame Joe Schmidt for trying to keep a lid on expectations after this epic first home victory over the All Blacks, but you pity the futility of the exercise.
It was only 24 months ago that Ireland removed the last unwanted head-to-head record in their Test-match history by finally defeating New Zealand, 111 years after their first meeting. Now Schmidt has seen his side not just beat the back-to-back world champions again but do so in a manner that suggests this is the shape of things to come.
With a World Cup looming just 10 months from now in Japan, Ireland have delivered a statement of intent that, having completed a Six Nations Grand Slam this year, they now possess the talent, character and smarts to consistently compete with the best the Southern Hemisphere can throw at them and that Chicago 2016, when they broke their All-Black duck, was no flash in the pan.
While that will understandably not sit well with Schmidt any more than his opposite number Steve Hansen’s declaration that Ireland are now the best team in the world and favourites to succeed them as champions next year, the evidence is looking increasingly difficult to dispute.
This was a 17th win in the last 18 starts since losing to Wales in Cardiff on March 10, 2017 and aside from a Grand Slam secured since by victories in Paris and Twickenham there has also been a summer series win in Australia. That was a first since 1979. Ireland have frequently hit the heights only to return to sea level. Never before have they remained at such a lofty altitude and their recent encounters with the All Blacks are further proof that this is a side entirely deserving of the ambition their admirers have for them.
The Ireland head coach has faced the country of his birth four times since taking on the position in the summer of 2013. After Saturday night’s superbly planned and brilliantly executed takedown of Steve Hansen’s outfit he now enjoys parity, with two wins apiece and a plus-four points differential over those four encounters.
After the heartache of November 2013, when Ireland succumbed at the death to New Zealand’s unstinting will to win and the return to Dublin two years ago when the All Blacks exacted their brutal revenge for that historic defeat in Chicago two weeks earlier, this was Ireland’s best performance of the lot. It may not have been the nine-try spectacular that framed the Chicago win but this was a game the Irish dominated for long periods and rarely looked like yielding as they fed off the electricity and deafening noise generated by a fevered sell-out 52,000 crowd.
The wonderful 48th-minute try from Jacob Stockdale, converted by Johnny Sexton, was the standout moment, opening up a 16-6 lead that left the All Blacks vainly chasing the game for the last half-hour. Yet there was so much more to this win as New Zealand were kept tryless and in single figures for the first time since 1998. That is a testament to Ireland’s defensive mettle, set-piece superiority and breakdown accuracy which left the All Blacks trying to force the issue and either coughing up penalties or committing errors under the suffocating intensity of the pressure.
There was also a fair measure of last-ditch heroics, not least a try-saving dive for the ball from man of the match Peter O’Mahony as Beauden Barrett poked the ball through the line for Ben Smith on the hour - a certain try had it not been for the Irish flanker’s determination to intervene.
As well as some good fortune. The charge-down of another Stockdale chip, this time in the backfield and minutes before his try, by All Blacks skipper Kieran Read might have have been scooped up into the No.8’s big paws with a clear run at the Irish tryline. New Zealand’s poor discipline and the concession of what Hansen described as “dumb penalties” certainly gave Ireland a leg-up, as did the dropped pass by Brodie Retallick as the clock turned red and the All Blacks looked to be staging another 2013-style comeback.
Which is why Schmidt remains vigilant, acutely aware of the fine line that exists at this rarefied level between success and failure as he compared the 21-9 loss to New Zealand here in 2016 to Saturday night’s victory.
“I don’t think there is a lot of difference,” he said. “They almost could have scored three times; they did the last time we played them. We almost could have scored a number of times. Sean O’Brien almost got over line but lost the ball. We had Rob Kearney just dragged short of the line two years ago.
“That’s what I mean about the fine margins. I don’t think that it is anything to do with number three or number two or number one, it is just to do with on the day. If Kieran Read picks that ball up maybe we don’t win. If Peter O’Mahony doesn’t do that goalkeeper save or Rob Kearney doesn’t get in that passing channel then maybe we don’t win.
“That’s how fine the margins are. So every time you go out you are very conscious that you have got to try to make sure as many of those margins are in your favour as possible and some days they are and some days they aren’t.
“That’s why these players work so hard, to try to make sure we can be as collective as possible so those fine margins, we don’t offer too many up, and we maximise and capitalise on the ones we create.”
Those are the characteristics that have got Ireland this far and for all the hype his side has generated with this momentous victory, Schmidt, with those fine margins in mind, will aim to keep his players firmly focused on them and the task at hand, as they inch from one training session to the next and game by game on the march towards their World Cup days of destiny.
IRELAND: R Kearney (J Larmour, 66); K Earls, G Ringrose, B Aki, J Stockdale; J Sexton (J Carbery, 76), K Marmion (L McGrath, 58); C Healy (J McGrath, 51), R Best - captain (S Cronin, 64), T Furlong (A Porter, 64); D Toner (I Henderson, 61), J Ryan; P O’Mahony (J Murphy, 63), J van der Flier, CJ Stander.
NEW ZEALAND: D McKenzie (R Mo’unga, 56); B Smith, J Goodhue, R Crotty (A Lienert-Brown, 61), R Ioane; B Barrett, A Smith (TJ Perenara, 58); K Tu’inukuafe (Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 47), C Taylor (D Coles, 47), O Franks (N Laulala, 47); B Retallick, S Whitelock; L Squire (S Barrett, 31), A Savea (M Todd, 74) , K Read - captain.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)