Tuesday 26 March 2019

So many moments on a day we will never forget

Ireland look to 2019 with belief that they can conquer the world

CJ Stander celebrates following the victory over New Zealand last night. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
CJ Stander celebrates following the victory over New Zealand last night. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

One of the great days. One of the very greatest. All week we waited with a sense of foreboding. The All Blacks were coming to put Ireland back in their box. They wanted to put down a marker for the World Cup. They wanted to remind us who's boss.

The worriers - and when it comes to the All Blacks who isn't a worrier? - feared Ireland might find out they weren't as good as we thought they were. The worriers were right. Joe Schmidt's team aren't as good as they looked when sweeping to Grand Slam glory and winning in Australia. They're much better.

Chicago seems small potatoes compared to this one. This time round the All Blacks were forewarned and nobody could claim that this wasn't an important fixture for them. This was going to be a world heavyweight title bout.

Now that Ireland have won it, it's hard to overestimate the significance of this victory. Those 2019 dreams don't seem at all far-fetched. This Irish team has been the world's best this year. Last night they displayed a physicality, a belief, a rigour, a seriousness and a bravery which we have not witnessed from any Irish team in any sport before.

This was something new. The first 40 minutes against England which seemed like sporting nirvana at the time now just seems like a warm-up for the real business. The implications of this victory can be teased out further down the road. But in the first flush of victory it is magic moments which stick with you. Think of Peter O'Mahony, who'd looked on the verge of going off not long before racing back on the hour to make a crucial interception as All Blacks three-quarters converged on a kick-through and looked favoured to run in a try.

Two minutes later, as the All Blacks went through the phases near the Irish line, O'Mahony summoned up one final effort to execute a vital turnover. It was a final contribution from a player whose performance defined the phrase, 'he left it all on the field'.

There'd been another huge O'Mahony turnover in the 46th minute which set in train a two-minute spell which seemed like a rapid-fire encapsulation of the game. A minute later the All Blacks replaced an entire front-row which in the later stages of the first half had buckled in a way New Zealand units never really do. Karl Tu'inukuafe, tormented throughout by Tadhg Furlong, trudged off the field like a pensioner presenting himself at a doctor's surgery.

The new front-row had barely arrived when the match-winning moment arrived. There was a time when wings whose ability to score out-of-this-world individual tries which struck fear into the opposition were the sole preserve of the All Blacks. Lomu, Rokocoko and Sivivatu were so deadly it seemed unfair to expect the opposition to defend against them.

These days the number-one dangerman wears a green jersey. When Ireland switched the direction of the attack and found Jacob Stockdale on the left wing, the Ulsterman had the merest glimmer of a chance. But that's all he needs. His chip ahead, the pace which brought him on to it and the battling qualities which saw him shrug off the attentions of the defenders to touch down brought back memories of a similar effort against England.

But this time it was the All Blacks who Stockdale made look like men playing against boys. There are many great things about this great Irish team but perhaps none are so important as the presence of a player who can score tries out of nothing.

So many moments. Johnny Sexton, almost crippled with cramp, trundling Ben Smith into touch near his own end-line seven minutes from time. Three minutes earlier CJ Stander had also propelled an All Black out over the line after manoeuvring him across the field like a man wrestling an alligator.

We'd expected the All Blacks to, in time-honoured fashion, target the Irish stars for special attention. Instead it was Brodie Retallick, the hardest man in world rugby, who found himself dumped backwards by Devin Toner and James Ryan in the first half and poleaxed by a resurgent Rory Best in the second. Amazement mingled with the pain on the great second-row's face. This wasn't what was supposed to happen.

Yet happen it did. The pace and relentlessness of the proceedings were like nothing you see in the Six Nations. This seemed a different kind of rugby altogether, the kind of game where a momentary loss of concentration would result in the severest punishment. Time and again the All Blacks have punished such lapses and pulled games out of the fire. This year alone they've twice overhauled deficits of 17 points and only last week came from 15 down to win.

Not this time. Ireland are a different kettle of fish to any other team the All Blacks have played. It will be no surprise to see the two sides meeting with all the marbles at stake next year in Japan. And after this tour de force nobody would predict an All Blacks victory with any great confidence.

So many moments. Rob Kearney picking off a Beauden Barrett pass which might have led to the All Blacks breaching an Irish try-line which they never did manage to cross. A lineout steal from Iain Henderson who then made a crucial catch on his own throw in the dying stages when New Zealand seemed to have finally worked out the Irish lineout. The monumental Furlong producing a couple of the deftest pick-ups imaginable after the All Blacks had spilled the ball under pressure. Cian Healy driving CJ Stander towards the line and within inches of a try.

So many moments to remember on a day we'll never forget.

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