After an incredible test at Soldier Field during which Ireland reached into physical and mental reserves to achieve one of the most famous of all their rugby victories, the reaction here in New Zealand is — shock horror — joy.
That’s relatively speaking, mind you.
As a rugby nation we do not like losing.
During the late 1990s, the All Blacks lost five tests in a row and the then coach John Hart was verbally abused by some sections of the public.
An All Black defeat is a serious issue.
Sir Graham Henry survived the World Cup quarter-final defeat by France in Cardiff in 2011 only by the closest of margins. Instead of being sacked as many supporters demanded, he was retained.
Four years later he won the thing, again by the closest of margins — 8-7 in the final against France at Eden Park.
Defeats demand answers and if they aren’t satisfactory, then pressure is brought to bear on those in charge by the public as much as the media.
But watching events in Chicago from afar — in the immediate aftermath of this shock loss, the reaction here seems calm, even reasonably happy.
Prominent New Zealanders everywhere have united to say: Well done, Ireland.
Lord knows Ireland were due a victory.
You should have beaten the All Blacks in Dublin three years ago almost to the day, but the occasion got to Jonny Sexton, who missed a penalty in front for what surely would have been the victory, and then he watched as the All Blacks went up the other end to score and win it after the full-time hooter.
It was significant then that Sexton played a part in this victory. He deserved it.
All of his teammates did. This was a gutsy victory and they achieved it the right way; not by trying to kick the All Blacks to death, but by scoring five tries against them.
Kiwis like teams who play with ambition — maybe that’s made this a little easier to swallow too.
Coach Steve Hansen often says that the margins between international teams aren’t that great. The message doesn’t always get through, because the All Blacks are expected to win every test they play by a comfortable margin.
This result proved Hansen’s theory, and the All Blacks’ run of victories, described by some here as “boring” and not good for the game, has been halted at 18, a run which included last year’s World Cup victory, and five wins this year against Australia and South Africa.
We’ll have to assume those naysayers were entertained by this defeat.
The men in green have beaten the world champions, and there is no grief here.
Have we Kiwis matured a little?
Are we more united around our team after their efforts in winning back-to-back World Cups? Or is it the fact this wasn’t a test with the William Webb Ellis Trophy on the line? One can only imagine the difference in reaction had Ireland beaten the All Blacks in a World Cup knockout match.
Maybe what this year of sporting upsets has brought home is the fact that no team is unbeatable, and that it is, after all, only sport.
Much of it is probably due too to the fact Ireland aren’t Australia, South Africa, or England, the All Blacks’ main rivals. We as New Zealanders also have close links with Ireland, including this writer; most of us felt that the good-humoured perennial losers deserved to go one better this time.
Three years ago you could sense the self-belief ebbing from the stadium when Sexton missed that kick.
Saturday, though, the self-belief, while tested in the second half when the All Blacks got to within four points, held strong. Shoulder to shoulder as their anthem demands.
This time the postmortem will be required by the All Blacks, and Hansen has the unfamiliar job of a rebuilding process. But he too will have helped New Zealand fans watching at home with his demeanour and comments after this test.
There was a wry smile on the sideline as he told Sky commentator Tony Johnson: “The right side won. The Irish played very well and congratulations to them. When you see their fans going like they are now, it’s about time they won one anyway.”
The All Blacks lost their three top locks before this test, and were playing loose forward Jerome Kaino in the second row, but that’s no excuse, and nor was the fact the All Blacks lost midfielders Ryan Crotty and George Moala during it.
The losses of those players might have been a factor, but so were the performances of the magnificent Sexton, Rory Best, Conor Murray, Rob Kearney, Robbie Henshaw, and Kiwi-born Jared Payne. They were heroes, all, and me and most of my countrymen will salute them as such.
And then there was Ireland’s Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt, who, after being interviewed by Johnson, turned to the camera and said: “Thanks mum, hopefully you enjoyed that. I know you’re an All Black fan so I apologise at the same time.”
I mean, what’s not to like about that?
Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the New Zealand Herald
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