Wednesday 26 June 2019

Tony Ward: 'Schmidt's method and traditional Irish madness proving to be the perfect mixture'

Cian Healy celebrates after the match. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images
Cian Healy celebrates after the match. Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Let's cut to the chase. When news came through on Friday that Dan Leavy had been ruled out, momentum shifted for me from green to black. It wasn't that I under-rated Josh van der Flier - anything but - however the raw mongrel that is Leavy at the breakdown, with that more compact build, seemed to open greater possibilities for turnovers that are essential if you want to compete with New Zealand.

How delighted am I to have read it so wrong. Van der Flier was nothing short of sensational, marrying mobility with physicality and nuisance at the breakdown. But he was not alone in raising his game on Saturday. Indeed quite how Donal Lenihan, the one charged with the responsibility, managed to pick a man of the match was an achievement in itself. To a man, every Irish player was superb but like Lenihan if I had to single out any one sector for special mention, it would have to be the back-row.

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And bear in mind we are factoring in a quite extraordinary 80 minutes from James Ryan (it is scary how good he looks set to become) that was even better than his starring display against the Pumas seven days before.

But what a day, what an atmosphere, what a rugby match, what a sporting spectacle. It was without doubt the most passion-filled occasion since Lansdowne Road bowed to the bulldozers and the Aviva came into being.

Not since England in Croke Park in 2007 has 'Amhrán na bhFiann' been bellowed so loud and so proud. Even 'Ireland's Call' was passion-filled. For once the Haka was a mere civility to be endured as already the 15 Irish hearts and minds set to start were on fire.

For many years to come the 23 so privileged to be in the line accepting the Maori challenge will recall a very special moment in their lives. And so too will the 50-odd thousand present. I too have been so privileged to be there in 1978, 2016 and again on Saturday when All Black might succumbed to Irish opposition.

No token cup was won, not even for this over the best team in the world, but what a statement and what a psychological boost for Joe Schmidt, Rory Best and Irish rugby going forward to Japan 2019.

But back to what was a gladiatorial humdinger. I doubt if there have been many better one-try games in the history of international rugby. The battle at the breakdown was brutish but mesmerising.

As for the scrum? Did we ever think we would see an All Black eight hitting reverse against an Irish forward unit in that particular set-piece? They recovered and competed evenly but here again a very important statement has been made. Greg Feek, take a bow.

With no quarter asked nor given and commitment total on both sides, it was always set to take a mistake or else something rather special to separate the world's best at this point in time.

We knew Schmidt would have something up his sleeve and he didn't disappoint with the lead-up to the try by way of the switch in attack down the short side right out of the Schmidt manual of inventive play.

That in itself created the opportunity for Jacob Stockdale who, like Ryan, is a mere 'chisler' at this level, but what a finish. Twickenham revisited. He was nearly the villain just minutes before when Kieran Read blocked down an attempted chip inside his own half.

It was in retrospect the game-turning moment. This brilliant Ulster wing was majestic for the second week running and right up there alongside all eight Irish forwards and both Irish centres for that outstanding player gong. He was brilliant with ball and without.

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But if I was to single one aspect to Ireland's play that is now a serious factor when measured against the top opposition, it is the decision-making and comfort of each and every player when on the ball.

No longer is an opposition shirt the magnet it once was but instead what we are looking at is delicate lines and last-minute shifts in direction through dexterity of foot into contact paving the way for much more user-friendly offloads.

Cian Healy is but one of many to epitomise that now critical aspect of improvement to our game under Schmidt. I repeat it is Schmidt's method aligned to traditional Irish madness.

All that said, I must return to the input of the entire back-row - they were sensational. It was one of the great back-row performances and one to rank alongside if not ahead of John O'Driscoll, Fergus Slattery and Willie Duggan at their very best.

Peter O'Mahony, Van der Flier and CJ Stander (along with Ryan) were off the scale. But credit goes to each and every Irish player.

Kieran Marmion is not Conor Murray but his whiplash passing and general linking were par excellence. He had a corker.

His box-kicking still leaves a bit to be desired but even that was addressed in the final quarter when Luke McGrath came on board to close it out.

Rob Kearney and Johnny Sexton each the epitome of control and leadership. So too the skipper Rory Best who in that 80 minutes has extended his own career at this level in his own mind but more importantly in that of the head coach.

One final point and it relates to Kiwi captain Kieran Read - a class act and consummate role model. To see him exit the field last to depart and clapping the Irish crowd under the West Stand was a sight to behold. A most appropriate end to the perfect day.

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