Monday 23 January 2017

Tony Ward: Make this our greatest year

Beating Wallabies to follow up All Blacks and Boks wins would put 2016 top of the all-time pile

Published 22/11/2016 | 02:30

Tadhg Furlong tackles Julian Savea during his stand-out display against the All Blacks. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Tadhg Furlong tackles Julian Savea during his stand-out display against the All Blacks. Photo: SPORTSFILE

In four days' time at the Aviva Stadium, we have the opportunity to complete the most incredible calendar year in Irish rugby history.

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Beating all of the Southern Hemisphere Big Three - South Africa, New Zealand and now Australia - would make 2016 top of the all-time pile.

Defeating the world's second best team from 2015 is going to take some doing, and while nothing can take from what was achieved in Chicago, beating the Wallabies would put this Irish team up there at the top table of world rugby alongside New Zealand, England and Australia.

Joe Schmidt said of the autumn series so far "if you had said to me before it began that we'd be two from three going into the Wallaby game, I probably would have taken it". No 'probably', Joe - you would certainly have taken it.

For a number of reasons, in recent weeks the pride and belief I have in Irish rugby has moved to another level.

We are nowhere near the potential world champion side some would have you believe, but small step by small step - and with a giant one taken in the Soldier Field - we are edging in the right direction.

On Saturday we witnessed the most physical international I can recall. It was everything we expected it to be in terms of no-holds-barred, full-blooded determination. Yes at times it did cross that line, and yes two New Zealanders (Sam Cane and Malakai Fekitoa) have been cited for alleged dangerous tackles.

Read more: Ireland up to fourth in the world rankings despite All Black defeat and the move is highly significant

But I certainly don't believe New Zealand take the field with malicious intent.

Of the two cases up before the citing commissioner, Fekitoa's high tackle on Simon Zebo that warrants the greater scrutiny, despite the fact that Cane's hit on Robbie Henshaw inflicted greater damage.

These All Blacks can look after themselves as well as any - and so can we.

My feelings on dirty play are well established. I abhor any transgression outside the law and I have been on the receiving end once or twice in my time, but in a game of pure physicality in which the better all-round team won, I would hate to see us belittle ourselves through over-the-top whingeing, blaming the referee, his assistants and the TMO.

Irish rugby and this exceptional group of players is better than that.

Given that Ireland dominated position and possession to the tune of nearly 70pc, so to be beaten three tries to zip underlines our greatest need, although I would qualify that by saying when you lose your two midfield playmakers - Johnny Sexton and the increasingly influential Henshaw - you are going to struggle irrespective of the quality of replacements.

Coming cold off the bench into the white heat of battle is difficult at any time, let alone against the world's best team, primed on revenge.

We have achieved so much over the past three weeks - beating the best team in the world, then pushing them hard and only losing 50-49 on aggregate, with a youthful side impressing against Canada in between.

Saturday's game was pulsating stuff from first whistle to last. The All Blacks may have won but undoubtedly Ireland will be the greater beneficiary over two extraordinary matches that will live long in the memory.

There were stand-out displays all round. In an amazing front-row, Tadhg Furlong announced his arrival as a Test-class tighthead.

Devin Toner kicked on from where he left off in Chicago, but this time against the best second-row duo in the world in Brodie Retallick (who was equally immense) and Sam Whitelock.

The Ireland back-row thrived on that massive platform, with Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip (can he finally be given the credit he deserves as our most complete No 8 ever?) and CJ Stander (in his limited time on the field) outplaying their much vaunted opposites, Liam Squire apart.

Josh van de Flier, like Furlong, came of age at this level. Coming on midway through the first half, he was incredible. His work at the breakdown allied to his sumptuous lines of running were intelligence and courage personified.

If Stander is fit and with Peter O'Mahony back in the mix, what a problem Schmidt has for Saturday's game.

And Garry Ringrose also handled a baptism of fire with maturity.

Irish Independent

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