Saturday 17 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Soldier Field - The most appropriate stage for Ireland's rugby nirvana

Ireland players face the New Zealand haka while forming a figure of eight in honour of Anthony Foley Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland players face the New Zealand haka while forming a figure of eight in honour of Anthony Foley Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

They left the best tribute to Anthony Foley till last. A wrenchingly emotional fortnight for Irish rugby ended on the highest note possible in Chicago with one of the greatest victories in our history. This was quite simply rugby nirvana.

There was the sense not just of history being made but of unfinished business being attended to. Here was the closing out of the game which hadn't happened when Ireland stood on the verge of victory in 2013 against the All Blacks.

And here was the jump into real world class which was supposed to happen during the 2015 World Cup before injuries and fatigue put paid to the best-laid plans of Schmidt and the nation.

This time Ireland looked at the promised land and did not baulk. The almost perfect rugby which led to a 30-8 lead after 50 minutes was stuff as impressive as has ever been produced in the green jersey. Yet it was not enough to win a game. When the All Blacks scored three tries in 16 minutes to pull to within four points with 17 still left on the clock there was the feeling of having seen this one before. Stuff about 'so near and yet so far' and how this set us up nicely for the game in Dublin entered the mind.

Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip with the flag Photo: Getty
Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip with the flag Photo: Getty

Instead it turned out that Ireland have finally become tired of their roles as supporting players in the All Blacks saga. Those 17 battling minutes at the end of the game turned out to be even more impressive than the near perfect 50 at the start. Though this was a victory for all of Ireland there was, considering the way Ireland formed up into a number eight before the game started, something fitting about the telling contribution of Simon Zebo and Conor Murray when things were in the balance.

With five minutes left it was Zebo haring out of his own half and putting in a perfect kick ahead which left the All Blacks back-pedalling towards their own line. And it was Murray, running 60 yards to do so, who hustled Julian Savea into touch in goal to set up the five-metre scrum after which Robbie Henshaw plunged over for the try which finally broke the spirit of the New Zealanders.

Earlier it had been Zebo, popping up on the left wing to take a pass from Jonny Sexton, who'd scored the try which put Ireland 22 points clear with half an hour left. And just before half-time it was Murray who'd made the Irish fans really believe that the upset was on, sneaking clear of the All Blacks' cover for our third try of the day. There was a quality of effrontery about that break which epitomised Ireland's mindset on the day. You could detect no fear, no sense that the players regarded this game as anything other than a contest between equals.

People have been dreaming about this day for a long time, but very few of those dreams would have had Chicago as a venue. Yet Soldier Field actually turned out to be a most appropriate stage. Just two days previously the Chicago Cubs had won the World Series after a 108-year gap. Ireland have been waiting for 111 years to get the better of the All Blacks, and in many ways theirs was the more unlikely victory.

Donnacha Ryan celebrates Photo: Getty
Donnacha Ryan celebrates Photo: Getty

The All Blacks, after all, came into this game with 17 international victories on the trot under their belt after a Four Nations campaign of such dominance many were acclaiming them as the best team to ever play the game.

The points spread was 24 in their favour. And when they closed the gap there seemed something inexorable about the way they were moving, probing as carelessly and ruthlessly as Laurence Olivier's dentist does in Marathon Man, promising equal amounts of pain for their victim.

To make things look even bleaker, Jonny Sexton departed the scene to be replaced by Joey Carbery, who in the cold light of the Illinois evening suddenly seemed a ludicrously callow stand-in at out-half. Yet Carbery looked like he'd been playing for years as Ireland negotiated those treacherous final minutes. His display encapsulated a performance which saw the underdogs simply refuse to countenance defeat.

The most famous losing run in Irish sport has come to an end. We need no longer be tormented by the memory of the last-minute Crotty try, the Barry McGann conversion which tailed away at the last moments, all the so nears and all the yet so fars. A new chapter has been written in the history of rugby relations between the countries. When the All Blacks come to Dublin, it's they who'll be trying to end a losing run. Who won't be on tenterhooks waiting for that rematch?

This team has now won in South Africa with 14 men and beaten the undisputed world number ones. There are very exciting times ahead and one senses there are higher levels which can yet be attained. But this one will be special. You always remember your first time.

Ireland might have moved out of that number eight formation when the game began but, emotionally and mentally, they stayed in it all night. There's been no show quite like this Joe Schmidt show.

Our kind of town, Chicago. It's our kind of town.

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