Saturday 21 April 2018

Vincent Hogan: Ireland summoned a performance that distinguished them every bit as much as the heroics in Soldier Field

Ireland’s Garry Ringrose, supported by Conor Murray (left) and Sean O’Brien (right), is tackled by Aaron Cruden (left) and Codie Taylor of New Zealand on Saturday. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland’s Garry Ringrose, supported by Conor Murray (left) and Sean O’Brien (right), is tackled by Aaron Cruden (left) and Codie Taylor of New Zealand on Saturday. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

The left side of Gary Ringrose's face looks like it's been tenderised by a butcher's mallet and there's a pencil-grey tint beginning to colour the bridge of his nose.

But his voice is so purposefully low it wouldn't disturb a Mother Superior's nap and there's not a question bouncing around our heads now that's going to change that. Ringrose has Swiss finishing-school manners and, but for the damage to his face, you'd never believe he's just stepped from the clattering furniture of a disquietingly brutal Test match.

The popular cliché goes that Ireland's rugby mothers fret about him.

He represents a throwback, you see, reminding people of when the game was less controlled by gym schedules and more in love with running. Ringrose's opposite number during his time on the field last Saturday was the weight of a flatscreen TV heaver and invited contact like someone who wouldn't break stride at a padlocked gate.

Malakai Fekitoa scored two tries too and - in between - summoned a challenge on Simon Zebo that made just about everyone's blood run cold in the stadium bar - it seemed - that of referee Jaco Peyper.

No matter. The game endlessly comforts itself in euphemism and double-speak and so the moral concerns about head-high contact, as projected by World Rugby, must occupy some kind of parallel universe for now. As the lugubrious Steve Hansen put it, Saturday's was "a fair dinkum Test match".

Hansen steve.jpg
New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen with Rob Kearney of Ireland following the Autumn International match between Ireland and New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Hansen has an unfortunate habit of rolling his eyes when facing a question, hence communicating a faint air of disdain for the source.

And, regrettably, his response to an enquiry about whether there might be managerial disquiet for the number of head-high challenges perpetrated by New Zealand on Saturday served only to amplify that impression.

"Yeah," he spat flaccidly.

The defeat in Chicago, palpably, offended him and his players to such an extent that, whatever the means required, they were not going to stomach a reprise in Dublin. There is a perpetual sense when playing the All Blacks that, above all, they intend to test your fortitude.

On Saturday, they went after Mr Peyper's too.

And the South African was found wanting, seemingly leaving his red card in the hotel room and accepting the kind of gratutious collision with which New Zealand captain Kieran Read flattened Seán O'Brien from kick-off.

True, the Blacks scored a sublime try off incessant pressure inside three minutes, yet Ringrose was off the bench soon after when Sam Cane's hit on Robbie Henshaw busied the stretcher-bearers and left Joe Schmidt shaking his head dolefully in the coaches' box.

The UCD centre was, essentially, walking into a war-zone.

He'd scarcely caught his breath when the match TMO was awarding New Zealand a second try on evidence not available to the naked eye and, against ruthless opponents, the courage of an elegant 14-stone replacement centre was about to be seriously stress-tested.

Just over 20 minutes in, Ireland were down Henshaw, Jonathan Sexton and CJ Stander and, accordingly, facing the obvious seduction of self-pity. To their credit, they rejected it.

Malakai Fekitoa is taken on by Garry Ringrose during the Autumn International match at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo: Sportsfile

If anything, they summoned a performance that distinguished them every bit as much as the heroics in Soldier Field. Because, mostly, New Zealand spent the remainder of the day spoiling and fouling and loitering on the edge of lawlessness. The penalty count - an astonishing 14-4 - spoke, above all, of their unease.

A view from the crime-scene?

Ringrose shrugs with that quiet, index-linked smile of someone whose grazes could almost have been self-inflicted. "A few scrapes on the face but thankfully nothing too bad otherwise," he says.

"It was tough, a really tough Test match. I suppose I didn't quite expect to be on as soon as I was, but Robbie took a rattling and I was grateful for the opportunity to be able to play in a game as big as that.

"You've got to respect them (New Zealand) and admire them for coming out with a fierce amount of intensity and with that chip on their shoulder from Chicago. It showed and congrats to them for the win."

There is a reluctance to communicate anything that might be interpreted as sour grapes or whinging here. He is, thus, on the same message as Schmidt and Rory Best before him, already focusing on tomorrow.

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Most physical game he's played in? "I suppose you come across a few big guys in the European Champions Cup and Pro12 so yeah I suppose it was tough, the cauldron that is the Aviva against the number one team in the world," he says with equanimity.

"It was a pretty cool occasion to be a part of. And it was incredibly physical. But it's what we expected and what the coaches demand of you during the week that you are mentally and physically prepared for.

"Playing against the best team in the world is always going to be a bit of a step-up, whatever about the physical edge they bring, they're very good skilfully too, so they're kind of coming at you from all angles."

He mentions ice-baths and recovery protocols and, when someone suggests that two of New Zealand's three tries might legitimately have been disallowed, Ringrose switches instantly to the language of a sports psychology manual.

He uses expressions like being "next-job focused" and "making our next action positive" and "controlling the controllables".

He is a gentleman to his bones, the kind you would happily see your daughter bring through the front door. But, if Saturday is rugby's future, it is a moot point if all that God-given magic of his can, long-term, survive without the significant addition of bulk and, perhaps, cynicism.

And rugby doesn't much like that conversation.

Irish Independent

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