Wednesday 26 April 2017

A momentous prize claimed - a scalp that was beyond many gods of the game

Former Ireland and Munster captain Paul O’Connell, left, with former New Zealand and Munster player Doug Howlett after the match in Chicago. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Former Ireland and Munster captain Paul O’Connell, left, with former New Zealand and Munster player Doug Howlett after the match in Chicago. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Maybe the worst thing about our history with the All Blacks, something tangled up in that facility to find cheap solace in narrow defeat, was a suspicion that they looked upon games against us as little more than dropping grenades on deer.

Sometimes, the deer might stay lucky for a while, randomly dodging early missiles, but - always - time would bring them back into range and, well, that black jersey did the rest. Irish minds seemed monopolised by the colour. Cowed by it.

Jack McGrath treats himself to a Chicago pizza yesterday in a photo posted on Andrew Trimble’s Twitter account
Jack McGrath treats himself to a Chicago pizza yesterday in a photo posted on Andrew Trimble’s Twitter account

Sure we summoned moments of bravado like Willie Anderson meeting the haka by dragging his team almost nose-to-nose with the 'Blacks at Lansdowne in '89 or, Heaven help us, Gary Halpin giving their captain, Sean Fitzpatrick, the finger after scoring that early try at Ellis Park during the '95 World Cup.

But nothing much good ever came of such impudence.

"Where's the finger now mate?" Fitzpatrick reputedly asked Halpin that day in Johannesburg, the game petering out to a 24-points New Zealand win. And that, broadly, was the rhythm of their relationship with us.

The near misses (two tight collisions in the summer of '06; the second Test in '12; that haunting late escape three years ago; even the famous draw in '73) just inspired all-too familiar, vaguely patronising adjectives.

Ultan Dillane, Kieran Marmion and Henshaw celebrate victory with fans. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ultan Dillane, Kieran Marmion and Henshaw celebrate victory with fans. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

As Brian O'Driscoll reflected in his autobiography: "From numbers 1 to 23, every All Black is completely convinced Ireland cannot beat them - not now, not ever."

So the prize claimed in Soldier Field on Saturday felt momentous. It re-directed the energy in a relationship that for 111 years has been flowing resolutely one way. It delivered a scalp to the national team that proved beyond men regarded as gods of the northern hemisphere game, people like O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell.

Never again will chasing that scalp feel the equivalent of waiting for lightning to fork down.

And, irrespective of what happens in Dublin on Saturday week when the 'Blacks come gunning for vengeance against Joe Schmidt's team, Ireland have escaped the strictures of history here. They have unlocked the secret door.

The late blues musician, Muddy Waters, once said that going to Chicago was "like going out of the world".

And it palpably had that feel for Ireland on Saturday, most profoundly in their reaction to New Zealand rallying from a 22-point deficit to making it a one-score game with 15 minutes still remaining.

That, traditionally, would be the moment for New Zealand to swoop down upon weakening opposition like a squadron of magpies.

This time, it didn't happen. This time, Ireland launched the kill. Plenty of 'greatness' in sport amounts to just hype and distortion, but you can seldom toss that accusation at an All Blacks team.

Rugby is New Zealand's national sport and the side with a silver fern on its chest routinely obliterates all around them. They have won the last two World Cups, remain utterly dominant in the southern hemisphere and, prior to Saturday, had won a world record 18 straight Tests.

So Saturday's victory will, inevitably, be tossed towards the pantheon of great Irish sporting achievements. Does it belong there?

It certainly would had the game carried World Cup knock-out status, but autumn internationals are - essentially - commerce driven friendlies that, prior to now, haven't tended to linger too long in the memory.

So it's probably not quite there with the Giants Stadium World Cup win over Italy in 1990 or the Euros defeat of England in Stuttgart two years earlier.

In terms of delivering a much-coveted rugby prize, it probably even resides somewhere behind the win over Wales in Cardiff that sealed the Grand Slam of '09.

And how, logically, can it really sit next to Padraig Harrington and Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke winning golf Majors? How can it be compared to Olympic golds, to world athletics or boxing titles, to our horse-racing giants plundering that game's great prizes?

There was no cup to collect in Soldier Field and, when the dust settles, Ireland must quickly brace themselves for the likely consequences of beating the world's best rugby team. They will do so knowing full well the dangers lurking. Seven days after losing a 2012 Test game by three points in Christchurch, Ireland were blitzed 0-60 by the same opposition in Hamilton.

But that was then, this is now and the air has a different energy around Joe Schmidt and his team today.

Suddenly, that coal black jersey no longer seems a cape.

Irish Independent

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