Sunday 18 March 2018

David Kelly: Greenhorns discover strength in adversity

Simon Zebo is tackled by Australia’s Will Genia during Ireland’s victory. Photo: Sportsfile
Simon Zebo is tackled by Australia’s Will Genia during Ireland’s victory. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

The kids are alright. An extraordinary evening began with a longing gaze from Penny Best towards an adoring yet steely-eyed father during the national anthems and ended with Simon Zebo auditioning for Daddy daycare in the white hot pelt of a thunderous Test match.

"Simon Zebo said it was like a crèche out there, he was the old boy looking after the kids out there running around," said Joe Schmidt. "And it perhaps is reflective of him as a dad because the kids were all over the place."

If sport truly does reveal character - and adversity within it even more so - a defiant Ireland mined oceans of the stuff, digging deep within for resources perhaps even they themselves were unaware they could author.

A three-quarter line that would never have possibly conceived itself in reality had been suddenly asked to negotiate a passage to victory against a Wallaby side unveiling a shimmering gold production of majestic and forceful running lines.

And they lived to tell the tale. That they did so owed less to a commitment to structure and strategy, rather a deeper faith in their own unyielding strength of being and inextricable faith in what they collectively could deliver.

True, there was a time in that third quarter when the Irish back-line did indeed look like a congregation that had been plucked from the stands at a moment's notice but they survived, then thrived.

They spoke afterwards of an absence of calm, a dearth of panic; but there was. Somehow they had to fight their way through, and beyond, it. There was no playbook to guide them, no white-board strategy that could advise them. They simply needed to adhere to each other.

"It is from trusting your instincts and the guy next to you to do their job and, from taking individual responsibility when you are on the pitch," says Kieran Marmion, resuming his interrupted wing career for the first time since his U-16 days in Cardiff. Joey Carbery is only recently out of school but that was the only place he had played full-back.

Different questions were asked of Ireland so different answers had to be delivered.

"You don't learn much of what Kieran Marmion can do at scrum-half, but you know he can tackle Pocock at full speed, or whether Carbery can run a game from out-half," added Schmidt, "but you do learn that they have character and that they are great rugby players."

Three years ago here, Ireland had also leaked heavily despite earning an early 17-point buffer and, as the bodies started heading to the infirmary, Dane Haylett-Petty's delightful try on the first-half whistle put one in mind of the great story Tony O'Reilly used to tell against his old Irish comrade Mick English.

As Jamie Heaslip tried to grapple with the silky Wallaby back as he glided towards the try-line, English's fate seemed apt; when trying to tackle Englishman Phil Horrocks-Taylor, he lamented of his double-barrelled nemesis thus;"Horrocks went one way, Taylor went the other and all I got was the bloody hyphen."

Sadly apocryphal, as history reveals that the pair never faced off in a test but then, as the reporter says in that old John Ford classic, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

This was such a day of legendary resistance when the mere collection of lineout stats and metres gained seemed utterly inappropriate to the context of such a famous win.

For how does one quantify the enormity of the human spirit?

It would have been utterly excusable for Ireland to submit to the inevitable as the golden hordes began running at them from every conceivable angle and who, had they not butchered one of three gilt-edged second-half chances, seemed set fair to sail to comprehensive success.

A double date with the All Blacks had emotionally and physically exhausted the Irish; their historic Chicago coup over-paying a debt to a rugby public whose own expectations are struggling to keep pace with this grimly determined green troupe.

But no, they were not to be denied. They could not be denied. A clutch of early twenty-somethings laid down the gauntlet for a final surge to the line, aided by the defiant roars from bench veterans such as Peter O'Mahony and Cian Healy.

"Jamie pulled us in and said, 'keep calm', look after your own jobs'," reveals Marmion of a time when it seemed as if every player was more concerned about doing the job of the guy beside them.

"Obviously we'd had to absorb a lot of pressure, and they'd dropped the ball a couple of times, but I guess that was from us putting them under a lot of pressure."

All the while, as if to confirm that this was a day which often careered violently away from so much that is choreographed about modern sport, there was an air of random chaos, in both the scramble defence and off the cuff attack, that pared back yet another layer of a squad slowly emerging from the wreckage of the last World Cup.

"We were a little disappointed after last week," says CJ Stander. "The All Blacks started the game well and we said to ourselves this week that we need to stick together as a collective and play the way we want to play from the start."

Ireland led by 17 but arguably could - and should - have led by more; the dearth of such a gaping buffer would return to bite them where it hurt.

"They came back in the second half, we let them back in," Stander admits ruefully. "In fairness to the boys they stepped up to win the match. There were a few injuries, boys playing out of position but it just shows the depth we have and what we can do."

All the while, Marmion was receiving impromptu lessons on wing play from a gesticulating Richie Murphy on the sideline.

For a team so often painted in bland colours by their over-prescriptive attention to detail, their emerging ability to free-form so jazzily was nourishing for the soul.

There was a wondrous sense of the utterly ordinary framed within such extraordinary defiance. A day, perhaps, not to question why but just be accepting that it was.

Irish Independent

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