Wednesday 13 December 2017

Overwhelmed Schmidt blown away by Ireland’s heroics in Windy City

Green heroes write their own history on Chicago's Field of dreams

Conor Murray leads the celebrations as Robbie Henshaw touches down for Ireland’s fifth try late in the game. Photo: Getty
Conor Murray leads the celebrations as Robbie Henshaw touches down for Ireland’s fifth try late in the game. Photo: Getty
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

At the end of a week they'll never forget in Chicago came a day that will live forever in Irish sporting history. Saturday's win over New Zealand has been a long time coming. A culmination of more than a century of one-way traffic, the odd near miss and a draw in 1973.

Ireland 40 New Zealand 29

This result doesn't erase the bad days, to do so would ruin the impact.

Joe Schmidt reaches up to shake Devin Toner’s hand after the game at Soldier Field on Saturday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt reaches up to shake Devin Toner’s hand after the game at Soldier Field on Saturday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

It took place on a faraway field for largely commercial reasons, but instead of enhancing the All Black brand in North America it brought about an out-pouring of joy that brought to mind scenes from Giants Stadium in 1994 as players and fans enjoyed a moment Irish supporters have waited for forever.

One hundred and eleven years, to be precise; three years longer than the Chicago Cubs' World Series famine that ended in Cleveland on Wednesday night.

On the eve of the game, Ireland's players watched as five million people thronged the streets below their team hotel to greet their heroes. Instead of blocking it out, they channelled the energy.

They also harnessed the emotion of an unforgettable Haka as they arranged themselves into a figure of eight in remembrance of Anthony Foley. Munster players were to the fore.

Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw hands off New Zealand’s Dane Coles. Photo: Getty
Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw hands off New Zealand’s Dane Coles. Photo: Getty

"I'm blown away," Joe Schmidt said as he gathered his thoughts beneath the impressive home of the Chicago Bears.

Complicated

"Blown away, because, you know, a number of things made it more complicated for us.

"Over half the squad played Pro12 last week. We got together on Sunday, trained Monday, flew Monday evening. We did a bit of a walk through on Tuesday afternoon, had a day off on Wednesday, trained and trained well Thursday.

"Everyone got a bit of confidence from us training well on Thursday. Everyone had obviously committed to knowing their role and being really motivated to be not just accurate, but enthusiastic as well. So that gave us a bit of confidence.

"Our Captain's Run got brought forward from 11 to 9am yesterday (because of the victory parade), so that was up pretty early. We went under the city, really, along by the railway tracks.

"Look, there's some fantastic experiences, seeing all these millions of people above us while we're sneaking underneath and when we were coming back I think some of them thought, because we had a police escort, that maybe there were some Cubs in the bus and were cheering us, or maybe they were just getting ahead for today; they were maybe more aware of how the game might turn out than we were.

"But in the end, just looking up in the crowd, how many green jerseys, how much enthusiasm was there and I think the enthusiasm was reciprocated by the players on the pitch.

"They really dug in and rolled their sleeves up."

That they did, but there was more to this win than blood and guts. There had to be.

During the Rugby Championship, the world champions shipped five tries in six games against Australia, South Africa and Argentina. In Chicago, they conceded the same number in 80 minutes.

It was just the fifth time New Zealand have conceded that many points, the first time they've shipped 40 or more since 2004.

The flow of the game was eerily reminiscent of the last meeting between the sides in 2013, but this time when the world's best team reeled Ireland's big lead in, the Six Nations side responded with a try of real quality that underlined what they stand for.

With the scoreboard at 33-29 and the All Blacks on the march after reducing Ireland's 22-point lead, Schmidt's side needed a defensive play and Andrew Trimble delivered with a thunderous hit on Liam Squire that forced the back-row to knock on.

That was job one done, but all week the players spoke of driving home their advantage, of continuing to play.

On their own 10m line, the under-pressure scrum was steady and the outstanding Conor Murray found the unflappable debutant Joey Carbery, who pulled the ball back to Jared Payne. The converted Kiwi delivered a crisp, flat pass to Simon Zebo and the winger chipped over Beauden Barrett. Despite 74 minutes of relentless action, the chase was superb as Zebo hunted Malakai Fekitoa down and, while he scrambled the ball to Julian Savea, Murray met the winger behind his own line to force the 5m scrum.

The scoreline suggested the game was still on, but that felt like the winning moment. As if to erase any doubts, Jamie Heaslip picked from the base of a rock-solid set-piece and executed the simplest of switches with Robbie Henshaw, who powered over.

Carbery picked up the first two points of his Test career as all around him the place went nuts.

Schmidt had spent months probing for holes in the most-vaunted team of all time and relentlessly exploited their lack of depth at second-row by dominating the lineout and driving their maul.

Ireland were clinical: they were 8-3 down when Joe Moody saw yellow for a tip-tackle on Robbie Henshaw and they scored two tries through Jordi Murphy and CJ Stander. When the prop returned, it was a vastly different game.

With Johnny Sexton below full fitness, Murray stepped up with a performance for the ages. He wasn't the only one; Rob Kearney rolled back the years, Stander and Tadhg Furlong were outstanding, Heaslip and Rory Best were relentless and Henshaw immense.

Murray's sniping try kept the scoreboard moving in the right direction and when Andy Farrell's defence shut out two big attacking sets either side of half-time, a cleverly worked reverse play saw Zebo score Ireland's fourth.

Even the years of hurt couldn't stop the belief seeping in at that stage, but 30-8 down the world champions found another gear; thanks in large part to TJ Perenara's introduction for Aaron Smith, who endured a wretched return.

Two tries in four minutes eviscerated the advantage. Deft off-loads from Dane Coles and Beauden Barrett set Perenara and Ben Smith up and the out-half found his kicking range and delivered the extras.

An obstruction from the kick-off allowed Murray edge it out a bit further as Sexton left the fray, but if Carbery was nervous on just his 11th professional appearance, he didn't show it as he threw himself into it.

More deft hands from Squire sent Scott Barrett over for the try that made it a one-score game and it felt like 2013 all over again.

Instead, Ireland trusted their systems and worked the all-important score.

"I didn't think anyone was going to stop Robbie when he got that ball on the inside from Jamie," Schmidt said.

They must do it all again in two weeks' time, but even Schmidt was allowing himself a brief break.

"Sometimes you don't get too analytical after a win like that," he said with a smile. "You just go, 'I'm delighted that happened'.

"I'll have a look at it tonight and tomorrow morning, I'll probably have another look at it on the plane on the way back in economy class with the rest of the management and the players will have a good sleep up front in business class."

IRELAND - R Kearney; A Trimble, J Payne, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton (J Carbery 59), C Murray; J McGrath (C Healy 6), R Best (capt, S Cronin 71), T Furlong (F Bealham 57); D Ryan (U Dillane 65), D Toner; CJ Stander, J Murphy (J van der Flier 26), J Heaslip.
NEW ZEALAND - B Smith; W Naholo (A Cruden 59), G Moala (C Taylor 72), R Crotty (M Fekitoa 26), J Savea; B Barrett, A Smith (TJ Perenara 45); J Moody (O Tu'ungafasi ), D Coles, O Franks (C Faumuina 60); J Kaino (S Barrett 46), P Tuipulotu; L Squire, S Cane (A Savea 60), K Read (capt).
REF - M Raynal (France).      

Irish Independent

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