'We copped flak, but the guys really put their hands up'
Published 13/06/2016 | 02:30
Joe Schmidt chose to keep news of Ireland's U-20s historic win over New Zealand from his players before they took to the field in Newlands on Saturday, but word seeped through his firewall anyway.
On what will go down as one of Irish rugby's great days, the senior squad took the ball and ran with it to reveal hidden depths in the playing resources available to the head coach.
South Africa were undeniably poor on Saturday as they began life under new coach Allister Coetzee with a stutter, but Ireland had plenty of problems of their own to worry about given a lengthy list of high-profile absentees that included a host of the men they normally turn to for leadership.
Yet, with no Johnny Sexton, Rob Kearney, Sean O'Brien or Peter O'Mahony, new hands emerged.
Devin Toner was immense, Luke Marshall calmly assured and Jared Payne a rock at the back. Paddy Jackson steered the ship as if he'd been doing it for years, while Rory Best kept calm when lesser men would have lost it when referee Mathieu Raynal followed red with yellow and his team were reduced to 13.
There was Conor Murray's refusal to panic and Robbie Henshaw, Jordi Murphy, Jack McGrath and Jamie Heaslip's tackle after tackle.
And then Tadhg Furlong, Sean Cronin and Ultan Dillane hurled themselves off the bench and at white jerseys to secure a second piece of history on a famous day.
"I heard about it before the warm-up, a few of the lads who weren't playing had it on their phones and I could hear them talking about it," Conor Murray said of the news from Manchester.
"An unbelievable day for Irish rugby; I played New Zealand at U-20s and got beaten by them and I don't think they've been beaten in the U-20s much since.
"We watched their win over Wales the other day and it was unbelievably inspiring, they're a great team. I'm delighted for them as well.
"I'm sure we'll watch it, it'll be replayed in the hotel and that's an unbelievable achievement. A great day."
For Schmidt, who has been heavily criticised in recent times over his perceived conservatism and selections, it was a redemptive day.
"We probably copped a little bit from different people about who's here but the guys that are really put their hands up today," he said.
"We know they'd be some really good ones that missed out on selection but we want to keep growing the group and that's part of what we want to try to do while we're here, and I think they've got a bit of growth out of today.
"On the day of the squad selection I made 29 phone calls. It's the worst part of the job because I know how hard those players have worked and how important it is for them to get a green jersey.
"You want to be able to give them out and challenge people. You have to be really good at a lot of things.
"We had to be really good defensively today and (new defence coach) Andy Farrell has brought a fair bit into the group, but what the players brought today was what really counted because they knew the system but they believed in each other to deliver it and I think that's what they did."
One of those who really put his hand up was Ulster's Luke Marshall, who spent the entire Six Nations as the 24th man with the squad, never getting a minute of action. "I think a lot of people felt this tour might be a little bleak after losing so many quality, experienced players," Marshall observed.
"There's definitely a lot of young guys coming through and even as we came out of the changing room we heard about the U-20s winning, so the future looks very bright definitely.
"Last year. I felt a long way from here, I felt I was a long way probably from the Ulster team, and to be honest at the start of the season I was thinking about moving on elsewhere.
"It's good to be here definitely, it's been a good season I'm finishing it out as best I can, then next season being as good as I can be."
The head coach was able to report a clean bill of health for the second Test, although CJ Stander may receive a ban when his disciplinary hearing resumes this morning.
Paddy Jackson needed treatment midway through the second half but finished the game, while captain Rory Best cramped up during the second half, and the players will be assessed before Schmidt decides to make any changes.