Time for Ireland to create an aura of their own
Learning why they lost can see Schmidt's men make epic display a watershed, writes David Kelly
Published 26/11/2013 | 21:21
Ireland's biggest challenge is not to discover the reasons why they came so close to beating the All Blacks. This they already know. Instead, Ireland's biggest challenge will be to uncover why they lost.
What else lurked within that prevented Ireland from taking those fateful, final steps into the zone that would guarantee victory?
Ultimately, Ireland have only one prism through which to analyse Sunday's performance -- as the losing side.
Anything else forms the basis of fawning obsequies from outside the camp. There's a reason they keep score. It edges the deserved mentality off the table.
"Would a draw have been better?" mused Gordon D'Arcy. "I don't know. Probably not. We still had thrown away a 20-point lead. Not scoring in the second half killed us."
It is a predictable pattern -- it hasn't always led to failure but that's always where it's headed.
Ireland failed to score after the 33rd minute on Sunday, exactly what happened against France last March. Then, they escaped with a draw.
After going 27 points up against Wales in February, Ireland declared their innings in the 42nd minute; the Welsh were unlucky not to get closer than the resultant eight points.
On Sunday, the fortress could not be held for Ireland's minds were elsewhere. Once Ireland had forged into their impressive lead, they inevitably became preoccupied with the bigger picture.
They became result-focused, not detail-focused, a complete reversal of the intense momentum that had fuelled every momentous collision and piece of skill in the opening half.
The first worrying signs were present even before the break, when Conor Murray and Brian O'Driscoll needlessly kept the ball alive in their own half before Johnny Sexton authoritatively killed the pill.
In the second half's first scrum, Ireland needlessly delayed the put-in; it was an introduction of fatal hesitation that would lethally wound them in the game's dramatic denouement.
Where Ireland kicked coruscating 'contestables' in the first 40, their kicking was awry in the second act and loosely tossed at the back three aside, perhaps, from that delicious Sexton midfield dink on his one good leg.
However, to claim Ireland "lost" the game would be a stretch too far and a denial of the wondrous authority demonstrated by New Zealand in their manufacturing of the winning try.
"They gave us a sniff," noted coach Steve Hansen. "And it was great to be able to take advantage of that sniff."
If Ryan Crotty's was a walk-in score, Ireland could claim to have lost it; yet New Zealand were offered the most unlikeliest of chances to win. They are the only side who could have taken it.
It was rugby rope-a-dope and nobody in the world knows that game better than the men in black.
The longer Ireland's minds became scrambled by a preoccupation with the scoreboard, the more their actions began to be defined by outcome. Imperceptibly, a chasm began to grow between the mind and the body.
No one player was to blame, despite the selfish myopia of some Irish supporters on Sunday evening; it was a collective deficit in physical and mental execution, critically in those final minutes, against a team who are the world's best in both these departments.
If Ireland's second-half mindset was, predominantly, a role reversal of what had preceded it, then it was also a stark contrast to the muscle memory that continues to propel the All Blacks to unprecedented highs.
New Zealand, despite making a host of errors in the first half, thanks to superb Irish pressure, remained true to their process throughout. It doesn't matter whether it is the eighth minute or 81st or if they are 19-0 behind or winning 19-0.
The execution of their match-winning try may seem extraordinary to us mere mortals. Yet, for these players, it is rudimentary. It is demanded by each player of himself and it is to this level of detached, clinical awareness that Ireland must aspire.
Last weekend identified once more that the game here has the quality and strength in depth to compete on the global stage. The appalling vista for Irish rugby is that, for whatever reason, it hasn't been able to do this consistently for some time at international level, the brief Grand Slam interlude aside.
It is unconscionable for professional athletes to deliver against Australia a performance so rightly ridiculed by Sean O'Brien, yet eight days later scale the heights of such rarely glimpsed magnificence.
Ireland must look within themselves for something other than fear to motivate them or must they always wait to dolefully bend the knee at the stage-Oirish label of the underdog?
"That's the million-dollar question, isn't it?" Rob Kearney also asked.
The past has offered no convincing proof that Ireland have ever had the answer. The future must. "We weren't there mentally last week," he added.
"You have to take into consideration that the margins in these games are tiny. Okay, we were a fair bit off last week and Australia were pretty good.
"You have to look to last year in New Zealand and the difference between Tests two and three and the stark contrast but the important thing is that we have to remember that there is a benchmark there from today.
"There is a bar there. We are not going to get to that level every single week as it would be pretty difficult to do that but we have to be coming pretty close and anything to last week isn't good enough."
Ireland's greatest challenge now is to forge a hardened mentality, one mined from the same depths which produced Sunday's performance -- this squad have always known what lies within themselves.
The pertinent point is that Ireland must now demand of themselves a consistent, minimum level of acceptable performance -- both physically and technically.
Producing Sunday's intensity against the All Blacks is one thing. But can Ireland reproduce such passion and precision against Scotland?
It may seem a fatuous suggestion but the recent history of the fixture would serve to indicate that Ireland have been more insipid than inspirational. That says it all about the recent history of this international team and why Sunday was such a gloriously isolated high watermark.
Now it must become a watershed. Ireland's attitude must change from within.
The breadth of this November experience has confirmed that Ireland can execute skills under pressure in attack and defence based on excellent set-piece control, while exerting physical and technical influence on the breakdown.
The country has the players to perform these skills -- a look at the current injury list confirms the wealth of talent available to Joe Schmidt.
It was the All Blacks' self-motivated aura, their inordinate mental strength, which was the key to them eking out the seemingly impossible result.
It is not that they feel they are invincible. It is just that everyone else thinks they are.
It is now time for Ireland to create an aura of their own. An aura that rejects the mediocrity so often witnessed by Irish supporters in recent times and embraces nothing less than a commitment to minimum standards of performance.
This highly-motivated squad owe that much to themselves and their supporters.