Wednesday 21 February 2018

Defeat will stay with players forever and cut deeper in time

Schmidt's biggest challenge is to match ambition and expectation with consistency

Paul O’Connell, Ian Madigan and Sean O’Brien watch New Zealand's injury-time conversion go over the posts
Paul O’Connell, Ian Madigan and Sean O’Brien watch New Zealand's injury-time conversion go over the posts
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Two days on, multi-media analysis complete and still the hurt grows. I'm not too sure the comparison stands with 1978 but back then we, the Munster players, didn't appreciate what we had achieved until well after the event.

I suspect that regardless of what this professional generation have achieved to date or may still achieve before their careers wind up, the angst of what unfolded in the final minutes of the Aviva Stadium epic will stay with them forever and, if anything, cut deeper in time.

To be within seconds of history, having deservedly led from the fourth minute to the 81st, is gut-wrenching and emotionally challenging in the extreme. Had Ireland won, the Kiwis would no doubt have extended the hand of friendship at the final blast of Nigel Owens' whistle with the accompanying, "Thanks mate, you deserved it."

It would have been no freak result but one richly deserved on the back of a performance that made every Ireland supporter proud.

Right now, as articulated by the outstanding Sean O'Brien to our own Vincent Hogan, the players don't want to deal in moral victories, yet they and more importantly this newly installed Ireland management appreciate only too well where this squad now stands compared with seven days ago.


From the flatness of the Wallabies clash to this play of pure passion against the greatest team there is, the real truth as to where Ireland stand at the outset of the Joe Schmidt era lies somewhere in between. We were at best a squad in transition after the Wallaby lambasting but on the back of Sunday's substantial performance, we are most definitely a work in progress.

The head coach, as ever, said it succinctly when saying: "We took a big step forward today. The measurement of progress will be if we can reproduce it and that'll be our challenge against Scotland in the Six Nations opener."

Let us be clear here, no one is expecting a repeat of 2009 on the back of one gallant -- but still losing -- effort but what supporters, management and the players themselves should demand is a similar level of intensity, combining that all important formula of ice in the mind with fire in the belly so obvious throughout Sunday's encounter.

This All Blacks team deserves every accolade now coming their way. Expect them to sweep the boards with team of the year, player of the year (Kieran Read) and coach of the year (Steve Hansen) at the IRB awards.

Hansen was gracious when acknowledging how, in his view, "the All Blacks turned up" but significantly adding, "so too did Ireland."

Indeed Read, who has been by far the most outstanding individual in global rugby this year, was relatively anonymous with his contribution, like so many more around confined to grafting at the coalface. But that is what makes him the great player he is.

So too Richie McCaw. However, in referring to the Kiwi No 8, I think it timely to mention the contribution of his immediate opposite on Sunday, Jamie Heaslip.

At times, the Ireland player doesn't help himself by way of this penchant for wearing those massive ear phones before every game but those who criticise him fail to see what it is he brings consistently to the Irish cause.

When it comes to getting down and dirty, he is much more Anthony Foley than Victor Costello, but when given the appropriate platform, he possesses all the dynamism around the field of the latter.

He was brilliant on Sunday and along with O'Brien, Gordon D'Arcy, Cian Healy, Conor Murray and Rob Kearney, a very real contender for man of the match. That's a third of the starting team in green in the frame for best individual performance against the All Blacks. What does that tell you?

The leaders in the Irish team, all marked absent against Australia, were back to the fore. Indeed, as I suggested in my post-match analysis, I cannot think of one individual in the 23 who didn't do his bit on Sunday.

By contrast, hardly a single Irish player held up his hand the previous week -- and therein lies the biggest challenge for Schmidt, John Plumtree, Les Kiss and the rest: matching ambition and expectation with consistency.

Consistency has been the bugbear of our national side in the professional era. Smash that code and who knows what lies ahead as we move towards England 2015.

No resource is spared in preparing our national team. Schmidt's stated plan is to deepen the player pool and given his willingness to select accordingly, irrespective of age or experience, I have no doubt he will succeed.

The general feeling before the Autumn Series kicked off was that a two-from-three winning return, culminating in a brave showing against the world champions, would represent a satisfactory outcome.

However, despite only winning the opening Test before flopping badly against the Australians, we finish the three-match run in far better nick and in a much better place than we started.

The new management is in situ, the non-Leinster players now know what is expected of them and will be much better equipped, mentally and physically, come February.

Indeed, one criticism we would all have, and it correlates directly to losing at the death, is that of Irish players' physical fitness and mental resilience.

They may be at the end of a long hard season but in the final 15 minutes, when it really counted, the Kiwis had that fifth gear while I know the Irish players will be honest enough to admit they were struggling badly to stay the pace.

The heart was willing but the body and mind just not able to match the opposition. Yet that is all part of the learning process that took them to within touching distance of history.

Someone suggested to me in the aftermath that had the reigning world champions not been chasing a record 14th win in this calendar year, they wouldn't have gone for it like they did. I put him in his place on that one.

You do certainly learn more about yourself in defeat than in victory and in that respect this Ireland team got taught one hell of a lesson in the dying minutes on Sunday.

After that, the only way is up and with Schmidt pulling the reins, I have no doubt whatsoever that will be the case. Whatever else, Irish pride is back.

Irish Independent

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