Many of us would never have imagined living to see an Irish rugby team claim victory over the All Blacks, and no wonder. Previous to 2016, Ireland had lost 28 out of 29 fixtures against the Kiwis, with a single draw. But Irish rugby seems to be hitting it’s golden age; we had waited 111 years for a break in the chain, to find a chink in the armour of the illustrious side, and now we have chalked up two wins which are arguably Ireland’s best two performances to date. The result of this match had enormous consequences even before it began. New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen declared who ever emerged the victor to be “the best team in the world” which added fuel to the fire that always exists when a game with the All Blacks is on the cards. We were playing for form coming up to a World Cup year and coming into an important 6 Nations campaign. The ability to retain form and momentum leading up to a tournament is so critical, and with Ireland on a winning run and nearing 1st in the world rankings, the confidence surrounding this team has never been higher. Last week, former Munster and current South Africa head coach Rassie Erasmus stated that Ireland have a big target on their back for the World Cup having beaten New Zealand. Irish rugby has emerged from its underdog position and taken a seat atop the very highest of elite sports teams in the world. So what have we learned from the historic All Black win?
- Not a one-hit-wonder.
Once we got the ball rolling in Chicago back in 2016, it felt like only a matter of time before the elusive first win in Ireland came. And boy did it come in style. It didn’t have the glamour of the 40-29 showcase, but it just may have been the most complete performance by an Irish side ever. So many statistics from the game reflect this opinion: New Zealand failed to score a try against Ireland for the first time, they gave up 11 penalties, and had less territory and possession than Ireland. These are the kind of game we are getting used to seeing from Ireland, and the standards have grown exponentially. There were many times during the game that I could scarcely believe it was the All Blacks we were competing against. During one dominant Irish scrum, Donal Lenihan remarked “have you ever seen a New Zealand scrum pushed back like that?!”. This captured the minds of every spectator, it wasn’t the ferocious All Blacks we are used to seeing, and it hasn’t been them for quite some time. This performance has proved that we are to be categorized next to New Zealand now instead of one step behind.
- Player strength and depth.
The strength in depth and ability to play at such a high international level despite relatively little experience is one of the most pleasing aspects to take away from the game. In the absence of Conor Murray, little chance was given to Ireland, but Marmion and McGrath were outstanding deputies. The emergence Jacob Stockdale has been meteoric, 12 tries in 14 tests. He provides a reliable source of creativity and has shown he can score against almost any opponent. Sean O’Brien was a devastating loss (again) and with Dan Leavy then ruled out, it fell to Josh Van Der Flier to fill big boots at openside. What followed was a comprehensive performance which all but cemented his place in the side. The front row dominated, and the backline was secure in holding out New Zealand whenever they did threaten. For the first time, we have incomparable depth at every position and a guarantee that the team is in good shape going for forward. One of the most talked about controversies in the lead up to this game was of course the issue of Bundee Aki’s playing for Ireland rather than of his national country. Hansen and Schmidt swapped quips and opinions on the case, but Aki settled the talk on the pitch that showed he is indispensable to this team. He showed determination and passion right to the final whistle, and well after. The RTE pundits revelled in Aki’s reaction to the win
- With or without Schmidt, this team in good hands.
It is rare that we get to see such a satisfying win with a 16-9 score but there wasn’t one minute that I wasn’t entertained through the entire game. The measured performance has brought more speculation on the future of Joe Schmidt’s career, and whether he will commit to Ireland after the World Cup this coming summer or be awarded the New Zealand job. Undoubtedly however, Schmidt has redefined Ireland’s game and brought about our most successful spell: should Ireland win their openers in the 6 Nations against England & Scotland, they will secure the number 1 spot. Schmidt has 3 Six Nations Championships in 5 years and has a win ratio of 70% and has brought in characters like Simon Easterby and Andy Farrell who have transformed the defence and style of play. Should Schmidt choose to move on, there are great coaches in place and the current management has shown exactly how Ireland should structure their play.
- The gap between the Northern and Southern Hemisphere sides has shut.
Ireland have never been closer to the number 1 ranking, and New Zealand haven’t been in this much danger of losing it for quite some time now. Whilst there is still a bit of gap between Ireland and Wales in 2nd and 3rd in the rankings, the top 5 contains 3 Northern hemisphere sides. In 2016, England dominated Australia in their tour down under, and Australia haven’t looked the same ever since, losing to Wales last time out in Cardiff. South Africa are still in the process of rebuilding the team after a couple of years in international darkness. Gone are the days where the Southern teams instilled fear in Europe’s top teams, the convergence of the quality of rugby is sure to benefit us all come Japan in the summer.
At the present moment, it very much feels like Ireland’s time to come through. In our minds at least, it seems like everything is lining up perfectly and we could well be the favourites to win the World Cup. But rugby is a fickle game and form is temporary. We’ll know a lot more about the state of play after the Six Nations. But one thing is for sure; Ireland’s first home victory against the Kiwis will live long in the hearts and minds of every supporter and player, no doubt there will be countless documentaries made about this team.