Often in games when the number one and two in the world meet, they disappoint and fade away into the night with a forgettable whimper but on Saturday evening in Dublin we were treated to an incredible test match which eventually saw Ireland break the hoodoo on home soil that New Zealand had been hanging over their heads since the dawn of time.
The match was brutal, physical and full of world class players showcasing their skills as both teams refused to take any sort of backwards step for even a millisecond.
The Irish faithful were treated to a full 80-minute picture perfect performance from Joe Schmidt’s men in green and how they will have celebrated their heroes long in to the night.
There had been concern over what the effect of losing Conor Murray to injury would do to the fluency of the team but those fears were allayed very quickly. Kieran Marmion and later, Luke McGrath showed a maturity and control in their game that will have given Schmidt comfort that if his star scrum-half does get injured again, then the position is well covered.
The same can be said of Josh van de Flier who stepped into the tank sized shoes of Sean O’Brien admirably. O’Brien is a one of the leaders of this Ireland team and such a big ball carrier to lose for such an important game but Van de Flier didn’t try and replicate that, he stuck to his natural game of making tackle after tackle and getting over the ball.
It did put more pressure on Peter O’Mahony on the blindside but there is absolutely no doubt that this was the Munster man’s finest moment in the green of his country. He was everywhere on the field but the crowning moment of his performance came when he dived on a kick through that looked for all the world to be bouncing up into a charging black shirted hand and trotted under the posts.
Questions are already starting to be asked about Rory Best’s form and leadership and should he drop down the pecking order then O’Mahony will surely be the only candidate for the captain’s job.
Ireland out scrapped New Zealand, won the aerial battles and suffocated their attack as Andy Farrell proved yet again that he is the best defensive coach in the world right now. It is the second time that one of his units has stopped the All Blacks from scoring a try after last year’s second British and Irish Lions Test in Wellington.
Ireland will travel to next year’s World Cup as serious contenders rather than the pretenders that they have been in the past. There will be expectation rather than hope in the provinces that this team can become just the second Northern Hemisphere country to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy.
History is against them however. Ireland have never made it to the semi-finals in eight attempts. Argentina seem to be a bogey team for some reason and maybe like the old belief regarding Guinness suggests, they don’t travel well either.
They must also defend their Grand Slam in the Six Nations first. They have three away matches in this year’s tournament which include Murrayfield and the Principality Stadium so maybe those two games will hold more importance than the home ones to England and France. Probably not for the supporters but certainly for the squad.
New Zealand will still be the favourites to retain the World trophy though and rightfully so. They will have a shorter season next year and there will be no June test series to worry about either. The Rugby Championship will be played out in its reduced format and ultimately their players will be fresher.
There are no excuses for the loss on Saturday and not one Kiwi player has tried to make any but there were times they looked leggy and not as sharp as usual. The pace of the game was too much for them and it was Ireland that looked strongest at the end unlike 2013 when Ryan Crotty scored in injury time to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. When the centre arose from touching down that day, he turned around to see green bodies strewn all over the turf due to exhaustion. This time it was the men in black that were using the turf to take a respite.
If Ireland truly are going to go to a World Cup and win it then they will need to harbour their 16th man as well. The crowd and atmosphere at the Aviva Stadium was electric and should Ireland progress as far as their ability suggests they might then the likelihood is that the stadiums in Japan shall be painted green as a mass invasion from the Emerald Isle will inevitably descend upon them.
They will need it to feel like home because when the team are playing well and that raucous support is fully behind them then Ireland can become a formidable force. One of unstoppable might.
I just hope for their sake that the usual travel sickness doesn’t catch up with them when they arrive at the knock out stages as the expectation that is weighing on them will yet again only be remembered as blind hope mixed with the usual conversations of what could, and should, have been from another ‘Golden Generation’.
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