Monday 23 September 2019

Famous win makes Ireland the team to beat in year ahead

Coping with the pressure of being the best is a new challenge for a team that has the world at its feet ahead of the big one in Japan

Jacob Stockdale goes over to score the only try of the game despite the efforts of Damian McKenzie and Aaron Smith. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jacob Stockdale goes over to score the only try of the game despite the efforts of Damian McKenzie and Aaron Smith. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

The world looks very different when you're sitting on top of it. Officially, New Zealand remain the No 1 team in the rankings, but rugby's tectonic plates shifted after a remarkable game in Dublin and Ireland are going into 2019 as the team to beat.

Only an unlikely loss to Italy next weekend can knock the All Blacks off a perch they've made their own for nine seasons, one that comes with as many dangers as it does plaudits.

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One of the things that makes the world champions so good is how well they play despite having a large target on their backs.

That's one of the major challenges for this Irish team as they approach a year full of promise where they will defend their Six Nations title as overwhelming favourites and go to the World Cup as realistic contenders to win the tournament.

Irish teams have gone to World Cups with expectations before and failed miserably, but what Joe Schmidt has built feels very different.

The visit of the United States to play a much-changed team next weekend will close out the greatest calendar year in the history of the game on this island, but the coach is already talking about how his team must get better to stay ahead of the chasing pack.

Johnny Sexton leads Ireland off the field as the defeated All Blacks applaud. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton leads Ireland off the field as the defeated All Blacks applaud. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

New Zealand are leaders of that pack and, as Schmidt readily conceded, were unlucky at crucial moments of an even game at the weekend. However, having come out on the right side of the result, Ireland must get used to the pressure.

"You know it's constant," Steve Hansen said. "It doesn't go away. It's just something you have to embrace and have to accept and get on with.

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"It's not going to go away whether you want it to be there or not, and I dare say it will stay there for us, whether we see ourselves as the No 1 team in the world or not the favourite for the World Cup, everybody will still have huge expectations for us.

"Now Ireland will have mounting expectation on them, and that can bring about pressure if you're not used to dealing with it. Success can do that to you. I look forward to seeing how they go with it."

Stockdale is supported by Peter O’Mahony as Ben Smith tackles. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Stockdale is supported by Peter O’Mahony as Ben Smith tackles. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Steadily, over his five years in charge, Schmidt has built something special with an Ireland side who have made historic firsts their calling card.

A first win over New Zealand at home extended the best winning streak Lansdowne Road has seen, continuing a run that has seen Schmidt break records and deliver all-time great moments with alarming regularity.

The one gnawing itch that cannot be scratched for another 11 months is winning a quarter-final.

As Hansen reminded everyone, if things go a certain way the last eight clash could be a rematch of Saturday's game. Otherwise Ireland will come up against a rapidly improving South Africa, coached by the familiar presence of Rassie Erasmus.

Conor Murray looks on from the stands during Ireland’s victory. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Conor Murray looks on from the stands during Ireland’s victory. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

These wins are all about building towards Japan, but nothing is guaranteed once you get there.

And coping with the additional pressure is something they'll have to get used to.

"For us, we do live in a bit of a bubble. We manage our own expectation," Schmidt said.

"We want to be as good as we can be, so we try to create our own expectation and, that expectation… we'll benchmark tonight and say: 'Can we reach that again? Can we make sure that we deliver at that level.'

"Now, you might deliver that again and an All Blacks team might beat you, because I've discussed three of the chances that they created tonight - they might score one or two or three of those.

"But you know you're in the ball-park, you know you can foot it with the big boys when you can eke your way through an arm-wrestle like that."

Just because you are the top team at the end of 2018 doesn't guarantee anything next year, and that's why Schmidt is targeting further improvements.

Having Conor Murray back will be a big help, while Robbie Henshaw is another who will add another layer to the Irish options. Seán O'Brien and Dan Leavy will return, but they now have a major job on their hands to wrestle the No 7 jersey off Josh van der Flier, who was immense.

Standing still is not an option for a coach who has improved this team immeasurably.

"You've got to keep getting better. If we don't get better than that I know the next time we play the All Blacks they will be," Schmidt said as he spoke of the improvements the other European teams have made.

"All that projects forward to what will be a very competitive Six Nations again. Yes, there'll be some expectation because we're the current champions and have been three out of the last five years, therefore we expect that there should be some pressure on us to produce performances.

"But at the same time we're realistic, because we know how good those other teams are and we know how good we're going to have to be."

This week they'll wind down before Schmidt's big decision on his future.

Hansen confirmed yesterday that he'll also announce his post World Cup intentions in the coming weeks and the clamour for the Ireland coach to replace him is sure to grow.

"I'm not that good at many things but I compartmentalise really well. I'm happy to just park that," Schmidt said.

"To be honest, I'd like to think about it but it's very much a family decision and I haven't really seen my family since I went to Chicago... We haven't discussed it. We had a pretty good chat about it over the summer and then we'll just confirm things, one way or the other.

"I definitely don't want it to become an issue that you get a win like that, you know, it'd be very much a sidebar, because those guys (the players) were front and centre. They were massive tonight. Huge."

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