Monday 23 September 2019

Awesome Ireland stun All Blacks

Beating New Zealand further solidifies World Cup claims

Under Joe Schmidt Ireland’s quality of preparation is in a different time zone. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Under Joe Schmidt Ireland’s quality of preparation is in a different time zone. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

We have been telling you since the conclusion to the third Test in Sydney five months ago that before you could say: 'Well well, is that the World Cup around the corner?' it would have turned that corner and be staring us in the face. Guinness Series gone in a flash in November; Six Nations in the rear-view mirror; World Cup warm-ups done and dusted.

Slight change of tempo now.

Getting over the line ahead of New Zealand in the Aviva yesterday was like the clocks going forward: an hour lost in bed is a small price to pay for brighter mornings and longer days.

So mercifully we won't have a killer burden to bear before getting on the flight for Japan, and that's repeating the defeat of 2013 almost to a T would have been. Regardless of what happens in the Six Nations in February/March, or the warm-ups in August/September, the huge value of this win is good until the knockout stages of the World Cup. At which point it is withdrawn from the experience bank and put on the table.

In June 2003, England went to the southern hemisphere to take on New Zealand and Australia. After a saga of near misses in the Six Nations that had seen them fall at the final hurdle three times on the trot - the cruelty that greeted those setbacks was unbridled - they rolled out their own red carpet in Lansdowne Road and left Ireland getting their feet wet. Freed from that yoke, they flew south with ambition in the summer.

The previous November in Twickenham they had won a thriller against the Kiwis 31-28. Taking them on in Wellington, however, was a whole different proposition. A week later they would have the Wallabies in Melbourne. Combined, this was the dress rehearsal for the World Cup. Lose either and they would look scruffy going back to Australia for the big gig a few months later. Lose both and they would have no backside in their trousers.

Test matches are so-called because they are a test of lots of things. Wellington fitted that description perfectly. It boiled down to a remarkable passage where England were under siege, hanging on to their 9-6 lead, soon after Neil Back had been binned.

"I was sitting there thinking I'd just let down myself, my team, my family, my country," he recalled for us last week. "Then I was joined by Lawrence Dallaglio a minute later!"

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Soon after that 13-man England had to defend a critical five-metre scrum. Martin Johnson was asked subsequently what wondrous words he had uttered to focus the pack so utterly. "F***ing push," he said.

They did, and survived. Melbourne was easier a week later. As the players unwound over a few beers by the Yarra, at the end of a momentous season, they looked around the corner to the World Cup and felt very good about winning it.

"One hundred per cent," Back says. "When Clive (Woodward) took over as manager in the pro era we'd beaten the best occasionally but not consistently. Ireland beat New Zealand in Chicago a couple of years ago. There were a lot of Irish on the Lions last year and they were very good. If you win you take that confidence and belief with you. That's why this weekend was so important.

"We said in 2003 if we can't beat the northern hemisphere teams over five games in seven weeks then how were we going to beat the best of the southern hemisphere in a seven-game programme at a World Cup? And realistically if you want to win it then you'll need to be winning seven on the bounce. We'd had those three Grand Slam campaigns where we lost out but we learned from those losses and we never made those mistakes again. That win in Wellington gave us huge confidence. We were pumped."

The closest Ireland have ever come to being bullish ahead of a World Cup came four years later, in France. The cycle had started with a fine win in Twickenham to soften England's cough, and by the time New Year's Day dawned in 2007 there were two Triple Crowns on the sideboard. It's likely a lot of Irish rugby fans nowadays would associate Triple Crowns with expensive dental work but they meant something back then. So a third in 2007 was welcome.

It wasn't a Grand Slam; it wasn't a Championship title; rather it was a gong for beating the other 'home' countries. Given a history of failure, however, we accepted readily what looked like success, and set off for France and the World Cup with great expectations. What followed became a metaphor for the unreal self-obsession of the Celtic Tiger.

Under Joe Schmidt, Ireland's quality of preparation is in a different time zone to the operation of Eddie O'Sullivan - himself a clear improvement on Warren Gatland's set-up - but to use one of O'Sullivan's favourite lines: you can't unring a bell. And at the final whistle in Lansdowne Road last night it rang around a lot of heads: Ireland had done what they needed to do.

Nobody will appreciate that more than the head coach. When Philip Browne said a few weeks ago that Joe Schmidt would, at the end of November, make his plans clear for post-World Cup it seemed valedictory. How could you possibly project your own future beyond an event that would determine that future if your plan wasn't to fold your tent regardless of the outcome?

That being the case, he is in for a long year of back-slapping and well-wishing.

On that journey he will appreciate the comfort blanket provided by an historic win over New Zealand. The world was watching and we needed to prove it could be done and that we are contenders for higher honours. That it was achieved against a backdrop minus four guaranteed match-day squad members in Robbie Henshaw, Conor Murray, Seán O'Brien and Dan Leavy adds value, for they know the depth that exists now. For the players beginning the wind-down week tomorrow against USA, they won't wonder about their ability to deliver.

"Ireland now have the squad with more depth and they're playing a good brand of football but you have to prove it against New Zealand," Back says. "You can't talk about people who aren't there and injured, you have to front up. That game was massive for belief and confidence and for other nations as well. Next year for England, Wales and Scotland it's important to see that Ireland are on New Zealand's heels. They're the closest - but you have to front up."

Ireland's frontage at the Aviva yesterday covered all four corners of the pitch. It wasn't just a note in history, it will shape the next few chapters.

Read on.

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