Schmidt’s Boys Make History

We all wondered how the streak would end. Nothing lasts forever. All good things come to their natural conclusion at some point in time. No-one expected it to be yesterday, though. The Irish rugby team’s trip to Chicago to take on the mighty All Blacks was understandably billed as mission impossible. Yes, the trip was important in terms of marketing and global rugby politics; a sort of evangelist mission to take the oval ball game to one of the sport’s final frontiers. And of course a trip to see the sights of Chicago in the beautiful autumnal sunshine is never something to be sniffed at. But no-one expected Schmidt’s boys to win. Nobody. Not even the most ardent Ireland supporter.

You have to consider the context to understand this lack of optimism. New Zealand are the current world champions and have just completed the Rugby Championship unbeaten, amassing ludicrously large scores in the process. When the All Blacks defeated Australia a couple of weeks ago, the New Zealanders set a new world record of 18 consecutive Test wins. Such was their aura of invincibility, many pundits hailed these All Blacks as the greatest team ever to play the game. The very best.

Irish excuses were ready made and well prepared in advance. The travel, injuries, lack of game time for key men, truncated preparation, limited time together, jet lag…..I could go on. It was even mooted that Schmidt regarded the Chicago expedition as no more than a hit out, a shot to nothing and was targeting the forthcoming game in Dublin as Ireland’s more realistic chance of victory. With the Irish written off in all quarters, therefore, a New Zealand victory was seen as a virtual fait accompli. Ireland tore the pre-ordained script into a thousand pieces; the world champions falling unwittingly into Joe Schmidt’s unexpected ambush.

In writing a blog, I try very hard to avoid the treacherous world of sports writing cliches. It’s easy to fall into the trap. You know the sort of thing: “The boys done good, the crowd were the 16th man, Chicago was painted green last night etc….” All that meaningless nonsense. I don’t believe in unnecessary hype or exaggeration, either. If a story is strong enough or has enough resonance, it tells itself. No amplification is needed. When everyone else is getting carried away, I always strive to be realistic and measured.

I haven’t watched the game again yet, but my initial impression is that I can’t remember a better Irish performance. That’s why I’m unusually reticent to play this one down. Ireland not only beat a great New Zealand team, they dominated them for large portions of the game. And even when the All Blacks stormed back into it in the second half-as was inevitable-the men in green still had the mental fortitude and resilience to close it out. If this was one of the best Irish performances ever, it was because it simply had to be. Nothing else would be sufficient against one of the standout rugby teams of any era.

Ireland were wonderful. Schmidt’s bespoke game plan was implemented to perfection. Contrary to presumptions, the Irish kept the ball in hand and switched the point of attack with immaculate precision. In coordinating the effort, half-backs’ Johnny Sexton and Conor Murray were outstanding. Their endeavour was matched by Ireland’s magnificent forwards, who bossed the Kiwis in most areas throughout the game.

New Zealand’s makeshift second row made them susceptible to Irish pressure and Schmidt conceded last night that Ireland’s greater experience in the engine room allowed “access” into the game. In truth, it did much more than that. Ireland’s set-piece ascendancy enabled them to achieve unprecedented levels of dominance in the first half. What’s more,the front row of McGrath, Best and Furlong put in mammoth shifts in both loose and tight play. They were awesome. And Jordi Murphy was the embodiment of athleticism and industry before injury cruelly curtailed his afternoon; the Irish openside being replaced by the equally effective Josh van der Flier. Furthermore, the performance was buttressed by a herculean defensive effort that defied belief.

And what about Rob Kearney? The Louth man has been criticised by all and sundry recently, with his place in the team openly questioned. Yesterday, the Irish fullback reminded us what a classy and intelligent player he is. But they were all great. They really were. Henshaw, Zebo, Trimble et al. Heck, I should just list the entire squad and be done with it! The glue that keeps it all together is Ireland’s indomitable captain, Rory Best. Strangely enough, the Ulster hooker still has his detractors after years of consistent excellence in an Irish shirt. I can only assume these critics suffer from some form of visual impairment. Best is a wonderful rugby player and a consummate leader to boot. No-one does more for this Irish team than the reliable Ulster man.

I’m pleased for Best on a personal level. It’s somehow fitting that he led the Irish to their first Test win over New Zealand. One of the privileges of covering local rugby is you get to meet the players. While all players are extremely polite, some are a little different to how you imagined them. You get the impression that some rugby players (either consciously or unconsciously) adopt a bit of a media persona. Not Best. What you see is what you get. A man of complete modesty and humility. He deserves this moment. Think of all the great players and captains who competed against the All Blacks, but came up short. Best’s achievement is indeed remarkable. The former Portadown College pupil has delivered the goods.

And let’s not forget the mastermind behind it all; the architect of Ireland’s finest win. Joe Schmidt has copped his fair share of criticism, but this win is a timely reminder of the Kiwi’s coaching talents. Who knows how long he’s been planning this carefully constructed ambush. If this is what Schmidt can do with restricted preparation, we should be very excited about the next few weeks. The World Cup quarter-final seems a long time ago now. Ireland’s opponents should be worried. The best coach in world rugby has got his mojo back and I doubt he’s in any mood to stop here.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

 

File:Rory Best 2015 RWC.jpg

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ARory_Best_2015_RWC.jpg

By Warwick Gastinger (Rugby World Cup 2015 DSCN5033) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons”

Sublime Ireland Sink Boks

I’m finding it hard to make sense of it. You know the way events sometimes just don’t make sense no matter how hard you try and rationalise them? Well, I had that sensation in abundance yesterday. For those who missed it, Ireland defeated South Africa (Saturday 11 June 2016) at their Newlands stronghold. The win was significant enough in itself. Prior to Saturday’s game, the Irish had never tasted victory on South African soil. In truth, they hadn’t even come close. Therefore, their win was historic and unprecedented in equal measure. However, as anyone who witnessed the Irish performance will tell you, Saturday’s effort was so much more.

Typical of this enigmatic Irish side, they made history the hard way. The visitors found themselves down to 14-men after just 20 minutes thanks to the controversial sending off of their naturalised back row, CJ Stander, who was red carded for a clumsy challenge on his former compatriot and team-mate, Patrick Lambie. A Test match in South Africa is an unforgiving environment for any rugby team. The conditions are notoriously brutal, confrontational, and hostile. Therefore, for a young Irish side to think their way to victory in such challenging circumstances is nothing short of incredible.

I’ve been watching rugby for nearly thirty years, and can’t remember anything remotely like Saturday’s career defining performance. Indeed, I’m old enough to remember the bad old days when underpowered Irish sides were sent to South Africa to compete against enormous  Springbok sides comprised of utter behemoths. In those days, the men in green faced mission impossible, they were ritual lambs to the slaughter. In writing this piece, I think back to 1998 when an Irish team led by Paddy Johns faced shocking levels of aggression and attrition on the Highveld. The Battle of Pretoria and all that. Look it up on You Tube if you haven’t seen it. It was shocking stuff. Notorious. Madness everywhere. Nevertheless, Johns’s men didn’t take a backward step, meeting fire with fire on one of rugby’s darkest days. Thankfully, the game has come a long way in the ensuing years. Such overt and unfiltered violence simply isn’t tolerated in the uber-sanitised modern, professional game. Here’s the point, though. In those days, it was inconceivable, unrealistic even, to think that Ireland would ever defeat the Springboks on their home patch. That they did it in the midst of such adversity is remarkable in the extreme.

Of course many of Ireland’s woes were self-inflicted. What of the sending off? While Stander’s challenge was undeniably reckless and ugly (it doesn’t get any better with repeat viewing), CJ assuredly had no intention of hurting his former team-mate, and it’s hard to resist the impression that Ireland’s flanker was committed to a challenge he was unable to avoid in the heat of the moment. The post match consensus held that a yellow card was a more fitting sanction, and I don’t disagree with that analysis. Despite Ireland’s deeply ingrained propensity to make life difficult for themselves, this was a performance to be admired and treasured as a monumental effort. While Ireland’s tactics undoubtedly worked a treat, this was a win achieved with old fashioned grit and determination. The Irish refused to submit, just wouldn’t be beaten; even when reduced to 13-men following Robbie Henshaw’s first half sin-binning. This victory was all about belief and conviction; the young side showing unwavering heart and composure to withstand the South African onslaught.

Witness the way three Irish defenders bundled JP Pietersen into touch at the death to deny the South Africans a win they scarcely deserved. This display  was all about collective will and determination, the Irish simply wouldn’t be denied. In a side shorn of experience and leadership, good performances abounded everywhere. To a man, Ireland’s players emphatically rose to the occasion. Iain Henderson, Jordi Murphy, Jamie Heaslip, and Jared Payne all contributed outstanding performances. So too Paddy Jackson. The Ulster youngster has waited a long time for his opportunity and he grabbed it with both hands, with a performance full of composure and thoughtfulness. This was Jackson’s moment. And what about captain fantastic? Rory Best was magnificent. I lost count of the times the Irish skipper saved the day. Best was everywhere in a game where his leadership and character shone brightest. If anyone still doubts the class of the Ulster hooker, I suggest they look again at the video.

Incredibly, an historic series win is now within the ambit of Joe Schmidt’s men. After Saturday, belief and optimism must be surging through the veins of the entire squad. A word of caution, though. I can’t recall a worse South African performance. The Springboks were dire on Saturday, and this proud  rugby nation will unquestionably be smarting like never before. I fully expect a terrifying backlash next week. However, if Ireland can somehow withstand the mammoth onslaught, anything is possible. The bar has been set, and Schmidt’s men will be determined to make further history. It’s going to be a fascinating couple of weeks. It seems fitting to leave the final word to Man of the Match, Devin Toner. It’s been a difficult few weeks for the giant second row following the passing of his father. Toner has developed into a mature and vital member of Schmidt’s squad; his humble, modest demeanour reflecting the core values of this Irish team. On collecting his thoroughly deserved MOTM award, the big man simply said: “I just wanted to say, that’s for dad.” It was a poignant and evocative end to one of Ireland’s greatest days.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey