Thursday 27 April 2017

Neil Francis: Last night we found out, for absolute certain, Joe Schmidt is the best coach in the world

Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, left, and Devin Toner celebrate victory
Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt, left, and Devin Toner celebrate victory
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Mortal! When the mighty fall their sense of vulnerability is so much more heightened. New Zealand looked like men bathed in Kryptonite. In Solider Field they were flesh and blood just like the rest of us.

And Ireland played with the sort of conviction that had a foundation stone in 111 years of hurt.

We are told the All Blacks play a very simple form of the game. If it's that simple, how the hell have we not figured it out? Eighteen test matches in a row is a phenomenal achievement. The question everyone was asking was 'is this the greatest team of all time?'. The answer came to us in Soldier Field last night. This is by no means the greatest team of all time. Indeed, how many of those players yesterday playing in black would get into their best 15 of all time, or even their second-best 15 of all time?

One of the answers which we got yesterday confirmed that another Kiwi, Joe Schmidt - this we found out for absolutely certain - is the best coach in the world.

We had an idea beforehand but we needed to know what he could do against 'the best team of all time'.

This was a coaching master class. Schmidt's tactical field of vision is extraordinary. You might say it lacks width but all great coaches get their teams to produce exactly what they want them to do on the field.

Jamie Heaslip savours the moment after Ireland defeated New Zealand in Soldier Field, Chicago. Photo: Brendan Moran. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Jamie Heaslip savours the moment after Ireland defeated New Zealand in Soldier Field, Chicago. Photo: Brendan Moran. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Ireland were sharp, concise and far smarter, and played with a sort of hunger that would drive the wolf out of the woods.

They exploited almost every opportunity and preyed on any weakness shown by the All Blacks. The whole coaching ticket can take a bow, but maybe the pick of the bunch would be Andy Farrell. England's cast-off had Ireland playing right to the bite. Whatever about their line-speed, their appetite was phenomenal and New Zealand had to work for every score they got.

It is a hallmark of Joe Schmidt's sides that nobody seems to play badly and everybody comes in at least 20 per cent higher than the form they carry in to these Test match situations.

Hunger is one thing but dedicated discipline and the ability to resist temptation to give away silly penalties has never been more sharply demonstrated. Ireland ceded four penalties in the full 80 minutes - a truly astonishing performance against a team as dangerous as New Zealand.

We watched in awe at the Rugby Championship only a few months ago as New Zealand laid waste to some pretty serious opposition. Yesterday in Solider Field the All Black team in moments of introspection will be looking at each other in the dressing room and wondering when it was they were last treated with such disrespect.

Ireland simply did what they wanted at maul time. I have rarely seen a New Zealand side so discommoded in this phase. Ireland's scrum, too, was the rock on which this victory was based.

In that sector Ireland were able to attack with certainty. In the final scrum of the game which led to Robbie Henshaw's insurance and match-winning try, Jamie Heaslip could have had a cup of tea while he waited for the opportunity to pick up the ball, so sure were they in this phase.

The promising bit, the really promising bit, is that for the first time in a lone time, Ireland learned from their mistakes. The kept doing what worked for them in the second half, they kept the ball, they put New Zealand under pressure and they, most importantly, managed to score points - something which they regularly stop doing during a lot of other Tests.

Ireland's fitness kept them in the game and here too Jason Cowman must take a bow. Ireland looked far sharper and far fitter.

New Zealand even from the 50th minute out looked like a side that lacked energy and the sort of composure we expect from them. It is a measure of their prowess and their belief in themselves that they managed to get back to 33-29 with 10 minutes to go. Most of the smart money would have been on the Kiwis at this stage, but Ireland never blinked and kept the courage of their convictions and their bench saw them through.

Rob Kearney was magnanimous after the game in talking about the other 28 Irish teams that had failed over the last 111 years. The truth is that none of those teams had the belief and the hunger to finally beat the All Blacks - a phenomenal achievement.

Congratulations to all.

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