Tuesday 6 December 2016

Tony Ward: Triple crown of southern scalps is the greatest achievement in Irish rugby history

Published 28/11/2016 | 02:30

Simon Zebo had his Seamus Dennison-moment. Photo: Getty
Simon Zebo had his Seamus Dennison-moment. Photo: Getty

There have been many great Irish performances and many great Irish victories down through the years but few if any to compare with the 80 plus minutes of heroic rugby we witnessed in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

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Many of us were beginning to wonder if we would ever see the day a W would appear on the credit side of the All Black account. Well it has and how.

The Soldier Field, Chicago 2016 is already etched in the annals of Irish rugby and sporting history. And yet, given its context, what was achieved on Saturday was as good if not better again.

What could possibly be better than bringing to and end that world record run of 18 successive Test victories from the world champions, the greatest team there's ever been?

Well on Saturday just three weeks to the day from that magical afternoon, Joe Schmidt's extended squad produced a display to rank with the most courageous ever witnessed.

At a time when it would have been all too easy to pull up and roll over and though running empty, Rory Best in his 100th test appearance eeked a response in the final 20 minutes when I thought we were dead and buried.

For the life of me I couldn't see any way back. Having gone from 17 points up to four behind (20-24) just after the hour the issue was not would we lose but by how many - but then came one of those Seamus Dennison moments.

Bernard Foley's long and, if we're absolutely honest arrogant, floated pass to Michael Hooper provided the outstanding Simon Zebo with his Dennison opportunity and he nailed it. In that split moment the second-half Australian tsunami was arrested and what followed was clinical in the extreme.

This young emerging group of Irish players should be exceptionally proud of what they have achieved. The move to professionalism has made our players bigger, fitter, stronger, faster and indeed more skilful. In those key areas the game has moved on dramatically but one aspect even sports science can't tweak is character.

The desire to dig ever deeper when the tide has clearly turned comes from within. You cannot put a modern day value on good old fashioned 'bottle' and let no one be in any doubt as to the key roles played by Schmidt and Best in that regard. What they have built is something special with just about every professional player on this island yearning for a Carton House call.

We have two Grand Slams in our rugby playing history - 1948 and 2009. They were great events and far be it for me to undermine either, however when measured against the three southern hemisphere scalps taken between June and November year aside from winning the World Cup itself this has to be our greatest achievement ever.

Bear in mind too that the Springboks were beaten on South African soil, the All Blacks in neutral territory with only the Wallabies on our home patch.

We came up short at the 2015 World Cup because of our limited strength in depth, but Saturday's victory was the perfect example of a game won by a 23-man squad.

In 12 short months players like Garry Ringrose, Paddy Jackson, Tadhg Furlong, Josh van der Flier, Joey Carbery, Ultan Dillane and Finlay Bealham are up to starting with Kieran Marmion well on the way (his contribution was courage personified on the wing).

Van der Flier comes off the bench against New Zealand and ends up challenging Beauden Barrett for man of the match, then against the Wallabies comes in at the 11th hour for Sean O'Brien and duly takes that accolade.

Of the restructured backline that took the field against Australia only three finished in the role they started with Ringrose, in theory, out of position regardless. And while I still believe Jared Payne's most effective attacking position to be full-back, I fully comprehend why Schmidt wants the key communicative piece in the backline jigsaw in his most effective slot.

Payne is the glue that binds it all together but with D'Arcy and O'Driscoll retired, Henshaw injured and Payne called ashore at the break, Ringrose was a rock of stability in that second half and particularly during the Wallabies' attacking onslaught.

His first-half opportunist try was an O'Driscoll arc to a T but it was his D'Arcy or Henshaw-like carrying in defence, creating the platform for Conor Murray and Jackson to clear that saw him come of age.

As for Jackson he is playing it flat and close to the gain-line and, despite Carbery's massive potential, is a shadow No 10 to Sexton and pushing ever closer to that slot in his own right.

We have never had it so good in the front row where Furlong (alongside Jack McGrath and Best) has been awesome.

The Six Nations and England can't come quickly enough.

Irish Independent

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