Wednesday 20 March 2019

Bernard Jackman: 'Historic triumph confirms our elite status'

The Ireland team watch the 'Haka' ahead of the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
The Ireland team watch the 'Haka' ahead of the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Bernard Jackman

In the past, Ireland revelled in the role of the underdog, looking to cause shocks here and there. How times have changed, especially in the Joe Schmidt era.

Last night, there was an air of expectation in the Aviva Stadium even though it was the great New Zealand in town. And Ireland delivered in spades. Oh, how we delivered. This historic win is a massive boost given that we will go into the World Cup now as one of the favourites, having confirmed our status as one of the top two teams - regardless now of what happens in the Six Nations.

When you have confidence and momentum like this Irish team have following a run leading into this game of 15 wins from 16, you are always looking at the next big prize or opportunity to create history. Unfortunately, we don't get many chances to test ourselves against the team that has consistently set the standard in world rugby, so when we do we need to capitalise on the opportunity

Clive Woodward recognised this and in the lead-up to the 2003 World Cup in Australia he felt it was critical that his England team beat all the southern hemisphere teams in the two years leading into the tournament. He wanted this as a means to improving his own squad's self-belief but also - and of no less importance - to put doubt into others.

I am confident that this Irish team fear no team given the quality of the backroom staff and playing squad, which combined with an elite mindset and high-performance culture prepares them for battle better than any previous Irish team.

In the build-up, Steve Hansen had tried to engage in mind games around firstly Conor Murray and then Jonathan Sexton but Joe Schmidt or any of the Irish squad didn't fall for the bait. This told me that New Zealand knew this was the game to worry most about.

I am sure that the review of the win over the Pumas last weekend was harsh but to the point, and there would have been a laser-like focus all week to make sure every detail was nailed down for last night.

Ireland's discipline last weekend against Argentina was not at its normal levels but there was a marked improvement from the off last night. It was outstanding to watch only two penalties conceded in a pulsating first half, compared to the All Blacks' nine.

In fact, I think that Wayne Barnes should have sin-binned one of the New Zealand players in the first half given the frequency of the offences but also the area of the pitch they happened.

Ireland backed up the scrum performance from last week. Tadhg Furlong had his opposite man Karl Tu'inukuafe in terrible trouble and I think we could have went for the scrum again rather than kick to the corner just before half-time.

This is the first time I have ever seen an Irish team dominate the All Blacks physically but with ball carriers like Healy, Furlong, Ryan, Stander and O'Mahony we dominated the gain line

Two important selection calls also proved to be crucial in the outcome of the game, with Rob Kearney and Devin Toner more than justifying their selection.

Hansen had said during the week that they would have to watch out for trick plays and it was a special move out of the Joe Schmidt playbook that created the only try of the match. Off a lineout 40 metres out, Sexton played a deep switch with Bundee Aki and he fed Jacob Stockdale who put in a brilliant chip which he regathered and finished brilliantly. Sexton, whose play and leadership and goal-kicking was immaculate, kicked the conversion to put us 16-6 up and that was to be our last score.

The question we had to answer then was, could we hold New Zealand out. This is a team which averages over four tries a game but Andy Farrell's defence system kept them tryless, which is an incredible achievement.

Ireland were on the ropes at times in the last 15 minutes, losing three lineouts in a row which gave the All Blacks prolonged possession. But time and again, big tackles were made; and time and again we denied them space.

This was a 23-man win in which every player played his part. Peter O'Mahony wasn't captain but he led the team through his defensive work and he had seven turnovers which was key to the win.

Ireland had been stung before by New Zealand when they scored that converted try in injury time in 2013 to beat us but this team refused to surrender. The fitness levels and the mental toughness was admirable. The level of trust that the players showed in their systems whether that was attack system, kick chase or defensive system shows how much they believe in what they do in Carton House.

Irish rugby is in an incredibly healthy place. We are so fortunate to be part of the journey. Let's enjoy watching this squad make history.

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