Friday 22 March 2019

Schmidt delight as Ireland lay down World Cup marker

"I'm incredibly proud of this group of Irish players who went out and played like that tonight," Joe Schmidt said afterwards. Photo: PA
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Having been through the mill in 2013 in a game that was analysed to death in the aftermath such was its effect, it was hard to fathom that we were being transported back there in the endgame at the Aviva Stadium last night.

Had it ended differently, had Brodie Retallick, one of the game's great players, held onto the ball instead of dropping it; had New Zealand managed to put together another few phases and maybe got Rieko Ioane - their most dangerous player - over the line, it would have created a mess no one in Irish rugby would have been capable of cleaning up.

Instead Ireland made more history, the kind they will happily refer to at various points between now and the World Cup in Japan next year. It was their 11th successive home win; the first time they have ever beaten New Zealand in Ireland. While the win in Chicago two years ago was also a first, the fact that they were beaten by the All Blacks two weeks later, devalued the American experience a little.

So the stakes were enormous here, the first time these teams have ever met as top-ranked and second-ranked teams.

And for Ireland to come out on top when missing four virtual certainties from their match-day squad - Robbie Henshaw, Conor Murray, Seán O'Brien and Dan Leavy - adds to the value of the experience.

It was a huge night.

New Zealand left a couple of clear try-scoring chances behind them - Rob Kearney managed to intercept a pass close to the Irish line, and Kieran Read knocked-on with a clear scoring route ahead of him - but their coach Steve Hansen had no issues with what might have been.

"You couldn't knock the effort even if the execution wasn't as good as we would have liked," he said. "But we were beaten by a better team."

Hansen has had plenty to say about Ireland in the build-up to a game he was desperate to use as a statement of intent from New Zealand. "As I said earlier in the week this was number one versus number two in the world," he said.

"So as of now they are the number-one team in the world. So if you want to make them World Cup favourites, go ahead. I guess they are favourites."

For Ireland to have scored the only try of the night - the phenomenal Jacob Stockdale touched down for his 12th try in 14 Tests - was the key separator between the teams.

Naturally enough, they also provided the man of the match in Peter O'Mahony who twice saved his team with critical interventions.

"I'm incredibly proud of this group of Irish players who went out and played like that tonight," Joe Schmidt said afterwards. "We had a couple of really positive attacking moments, one we managed to score off. Super try from Jacob Stockdale. Super finish. It was a little bit reminiscent of his try at Twickenham to extend the lead in the Grand Slam game.

"We had to fight really hard in the end. I was pleased with how our scrum and lineout went, particularly in the first half. The work that Greg Feek did in the lead up to the game, the work Simon Easterby did was super and our defence, with Andy (Farrell) doing a super job. I think as a collective team they are all pretty relieved. This is our home and we haven't been beaten here in two years and we have pride in that."

Like Hansen, the Ireland coach batted away talk of Ireland now being World Cup favourites, which would he a remarkable turnaround for a country who have never reached a semi-final. Nevertheless, the implications for that tournament of this result are obvious. And indeed good business all round.

Earlier in the day, in Bucharest, the US Eagles beat Romania comfortably to give them an unprecedented nine out of nine in a calendar year.

Their bid for 10 from 10 brings them to the Aviva next Saturday when Schmidt will make wholesale changes to last night's squad as Ireland close the series against opponents to whom they have never lost.

A clean sweep in November brings a suitable end to a stellar year.

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