Monday 27 February 2017

Neil Francis: It is rare to see New Zealand in such psychological distress - wonderful too

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Ireland players Tadhg Furlong and Ultan Dillane celebrate victory
Ireland players Tadhg Furlong and Ultan Dillane celebrate victory
Simon Zebo and Conor Murray embrace after Ireland’s victory over New Zealand. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

It was an intensely irrational reality. Ireland were awarded a kickable penalty with less than two minutes to go. Mathematically, the game could not end in a draw and with a margin of 11 points New Zealand would need two converted tries to win. The match was over - the contest was over well before that and yet we still refused to believe.

We had been nourished on an unpalatable diet of heartbreak and hidings over the last 111 years and so when the final whistle blew it was a surreal moment.

Joe Schmidt jubilant after the victory. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt jubilant after the victory. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

It was almost as if we needed the imprimatur of someone in high office to officially stamp a deed of victory. This was uncommon territory. What do we do next?

Savour the victory first and foremost! Then in the giddy aftermath reflect on the scale of it. It is a truly incredible performance. The margin of victory while satisfying is not the story here, it is the number of points registered against the best team in the world.

New Zealand conceded five tries in their entire Rugby Championship campaign of six matches. To do it in one match against a New Zealand side who they are vaguely aware who they are playing against - well that requires an inquest from the All Black management.

They won't find any easy answers - this was an authentic performance from their opponents - all tries scored by the Irish were merited, all tries scored by the All Blacks were hard-earned.

For Ireland, this performance was a revelation of character. It was an 80-minute essay in concentration, invention and near-perfect execution. A grim restatement of intent based on willingly giving sweat and blood, grey matter and bone marrow. It was Ireland's finest hour. The moulding of character driven by loss and bitter loss.

Ireland, aware of the gravity of the occasion and acutely aware of the grievous loss in 2013, put together the building blocks of success by learning from that defeat in Dublin. Experience is the chance to do better the next time and this was a breakthrough performance because Ireland lasted for the full 80 minutes - more crucially, they continued to play in the second half and do the things which had worked in the first half.

The fatal ingredient in 2013 was that they sat back and defended and took their chances without the ball. They also didn't score in the second half of that game where on Saturday there was the gift of 15 points.

These were not the subject of a charitable donation by the All Blacks because Ireland had to work really hard for the opportunity and harder to convert the chance.

Kieran Reid of New Zealand leads the Haka. Photo: Getty
Kieran Reid of New Zealand leads the Haka. Photo: Getty

To score directly after half-time was down to a recognition that they needed to reinforce to New Zealand that they would not be taking their foot off the pedal. To do it late in the game, and not be content just to hang on, showed their appetite for the contest.

All of this had been thought through months ago by the team. Joe, though, had been thinking his way through this for years - three to be exact.

In the dressing room that thought of the bard must have been swirling in the heads of the entire squad: "We know what we are but know not what we may be." Only the team dared to dream, to think a victory was possible. They made sure with a firmness of ambition which has taken this side a step further. Nothing would distract them.

I thought the fiddle "playing" 'Ireland's Call' (a disgrace), the eight and the Jordi Murphy injury may have taken something out of their focus but Ireland's concentration remained steadfast and was maintained to the end.

There were moments in the last 20 - a period in any match against New Zealand where the burn of effort becomes too much for Irish sides and they fall away. The creeping errors in the last quarter came from New Zealand. Their fluency diminished as they had seven balls on the floor and the quality of the passing went from synchronised to staccato. Continuous pressure from Ireland rather than unforced errors or carelessness.

The moment of the match came about in the 74th minute. We had watched in the World Cup in 2015 as New Zealand disembowelled a hapless French side and stood rooted to the spot as Julian Savea imitated Jonah Lomu as he ran over the lamentable Noa Nakaitaci on the way to winning the try of the tournament award. Savea, like all those social media trolls, is pretty good at dishing it out … Big mean islander wingers are only fit for purpose when New Zealand are going forward and are irresistible.

Conor Murray breaks through the New Zealand defence to score Ireland's third try. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Conor Murray breaks through the New Zealand defence to score Ireland's third try. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

It must be fun to receive the ball in space going forward with the cover trying to chase you down. You can use your physique to swat any remnants of resistance. Anything else - well, it's not in my job description. The job being a flat-track bully.

Savea did pick up a few balls in the air on Saturday but as the game wore on his performance mirrored the spiritual decline of the All Blacks. Where is my space? Where is my front-foot ball? Why am I not on the end of long flowing wonderful back line movements?

As New Zealand forlornly chased the game, Andrew Trimble made a 'signed in blood' tackle on the massive but anonymous Liam Squire. It shook the Kiwi to the core and his pass went forward to Dane Coles.

From that scrum the ball got to Zebo who chipped the ball long and the chase was on. Malakai Fekitoa got to it first but was overwhelmed by Zebo and Henshaw and his attitude was "feck this" and he flipped a loose ball to Savea who was swarmed by Murray, Kearney and Trimble.

Savea, flustered and agitated by having to deal with work that wasn't in his job description, was hassled, hounded and harried by Murray principally who had run 75 metres from the feed into the scrum in the 75th minute of a game of soul-sapping intensity. What a moment!

You didn't need to be Freud to interpret the body language. Savea got barrelled into touch in goal and Ireland scored through Henshaw off the scrum.

It is rare to see New Zealand in such psychological distress - wonderful too!

As a nation, we discovered how much fun it was to do the impossible if you can devote yourself to an idea. A memorable out-performance crafted quite simply by the best coach in the world.

Joe Schmidt is not just a mere coach he is now deemed a quality. His next impossible task is to joust with that most formidable foe in Irish sport - expectation!

Irish Independent

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