Tuesday 18 December 2018

Neil Francis: 'World Cup is now a realistic objective'

Jacob Stockdale of Ireland scores his side's first try despite the tackle of Damian McKenzie and Aaron Smith of New Zealand. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jacob Stockdale of Ireland scores his side's first try despite the tackle of Damian McKenzie and Aaron Smith of New Zealand. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

A signature performance, a demonstration of resourcefulness and ruthlessness. A match played with murderous intensity. And Ireland the winners.

Ireland, yet again, had to deal with a degree of cynicism that was breathtaking, yet they prevailed and were by far the better side on a wondrous day.

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The performance was one of resolution and self-reliance, of superior group intellect, of anticipatory skill and a resolve instilled by a headmaster who is without question the best coach in the world. Experience teaches only the teachable.

Ireland learned from their heart-breaking experience in 2013 and again in the return match in 2016 at the Aviva after the win in Chicago. If they had not lost those matches over the last several years they may not have won yesterday.

Ireland can play with such confidence where the game plan that is presented to them, although not flawless, is the correct one, and they are imbued in how to carry it out. This was Ireland's and Schmidt's finest moment and that includes the Grand Slam win in Twickenham seven months ago. The reason it supersedes that performance is because New Zealand were here to put us back in our box, they were not here merely to win but to do a job on the scoreboard that would leave us in no doubt as to who the masters were.

The final moment in this game said everything. Mo'unga threw a pass into Brodie Retallick's bread basket, the New Zealand lock would catch such a pass 99 times out of 100, but they keep telling us that skills break down under pressure and despite a dominant performance in New Zealand's lineout in the second half Retallick looked frazzled. Maybe he was thinking three or four phases ahead as the All Blacks would normally do as they go chasing the game, but he failed to deal with the here and now. That was a consequence of the previous 80 minutes inflicted by an Irish side that never let up and that put them under the sort of pressure which they don't even experience against the Springboks playing in South Africa.

His captain Kieran Read looked on in disbelief at an inanimate object made of leather which lay motionless on the floor. He could not restart the move. The ball, like New Zealand's hopes, was dead and a rarity from Read, a 1,000-mile stare which reflected his team's plight.

The All Black revival had been coming. It was inexorable and at times it looked like it would be unstoppable, but Ireland had read what New Zealand were going to do literally on every play and the quality of their tackling and their ability to snuff out the offload told you that this performance had been plotted over the last three or four years. It would have been a travesty had New Zealand scored a late try for the draw, yet that is what New Zealand are capable of, producing a performance on the scoreboard which does not reflect the trend of the game.

Combat athletes won this game on the gain line. Before New Zealand head to Japan they will have to come with a new combination in their back row. Liam Squire is a poor man's Andy Earl and Ardie Savea, despite his athleticism and prodigious talent, operates in tandem with nobody else but himself. The excellent Read gave an intermittent performance and over the course of the full 80 reflected his age and the number of miles on the clock. He, like Rory Best, might struggle to keep it all together for another year.

Ireland's back row were simply sensational and while Peter O'Mahony - as he usually does in the big matches - came up with several significant big plays, it was the consistency of Josh van der Flier which stood out. I think he wears that red scrum hat so that people can log how much work he does around the park, how much effort he puts in, how much space he closes down and how quickly he gets up off the gain line. Third-choice openside, but the best player on the park by a street.

The game plan may be prescriptive. At this stage we know that Joe Schmidt is so much more a pragmatist than an innovator and his side played with a magisterial flow yesterday. It is the key to coaching: there's no point in having the best game plan in the world if your team don't play to it. All his lieutenants executed admirably yesterday.

I do not wish to strike a mean blow after such a magnificent team performance, but I cannot understand why Kieran Marmion was picked to start. His box-kicking and his passing are just not at this level.

There were many absentees yesterday. New Zealand were without Joe Moody, Sam Cane and Sonny Bill Williams and their replacements were not up to standard. Cane especially was badly missed. This is the difference though. I thought the absence of Conor Murray and Dan Leavy might turn the game, but the fact that Van der Flier was the dominant personality tells you something about where Ireland are at this moment in time.

Bundee Aki was full of energy and a decision still has to be made about our optimum midfield combination. Garry Ringrose put in yet another superlative display at outside centre. We talk about Murray and Sexton being the best in the world - Ringrose's name will enter that venerable corridor if he keeps playing the way that he did yesterday.

For Steve Hansen this has been a bad tour. It will give him pause for thought and maybe he will conclude it is time to shake things up. New Zealand have many weaknesses which came to the fore yesterday when they were put under the sort of pressure that they are rarely put under. Schmidt is just a genius and without getting carried away after what is admittedly one of our best performances ever, no team will now discount Ireland in Japan next year.

The trick now is a difficult one.

The trouble with superheroes is what do they do between telephone boxes? Do they throttle back as they wait for England to come here in February, or ramp it up again? The World Cup, if it was not before, is now a realistic objective.

Congratulations to all on a victory that will make Irish people all over the world proud.

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