Thursday 13 December 2018

Comment: Ability to get over the line in tight finishes sees Joe Schmidt's side second only to All Blacks

Hold The Back Page

Tadhg Furlong. Photo: Sportsfile
Tadhg Furlong. Photo: Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

It's hard to see how Ireland's tour to Australia could have gone much better. They could of course have won the series 3-0 rather than 2-1, but the loss in Brisbane was to an extent invaluable. It showed Joe Schmidt how his team reacted to adversity and it scotched any delusions of grandeur which might have followed the Six Nations campaign.

Their momentum broken, Ireland had to regroup and meet their biggest challenge yet at the end of a long and arduous season. The likes of Israel Folau, Kurtley Beale, David Pocock and Michael Hooper posed problems which the Six Nations had not thrown up. And when Beale scythed through for a try in the first minute of the second Test, it prompted the thought that a rude awakening might be on hand.

Instead we witnessed a revival whose most encouraging feature was the way Ireland coped with the Aussie stars who'd caused them most difficulty in the first Test. Folau's aerial dominance in that game was never to be repeated while Beale cut an increasingly frustrated figure as the series wore on. Australia's dominance at the breakdown was broken by an outstanding individual performance from Peter O'Mahony in that second Test and by an overall increase in Irish ferocity illustrated by two emblematic hits from Tadhg Furlong.

The first, in Test number two, conclusively cleared out Pocock. The second, in the following Test, left Hooper unable to continue. Furlong's increased influence encapsulated Ireland's growing relish for the task at hand. He'd looked slightly jaded in Leinster's final couple of outings and when he and his front-row colleagues conceded a vital penalty in the first Test you found yourself saying, "It's been an awful long season. The man is only human."

Big mistake. In the final two Tests an entirely rejuvenated Furlong reminded everyone that he is probably the world's finest prop. Normal service returned in the scrum. In the loose the Wexford man was a gargantuan presence.

He'd actually come off the bench in that first Test as Joe Schmidt started an experimental-looking John Ryan/Rob Herring/Jack McGrath front-row. This was in keeping with Schmidt's stated aim of providing quality game-time for as many players as possible.

Joey Carbery got a start at outhalf ahead of Johnny Sexton, Niall Scannell had a chance to prove himself the heir to Rory Best, Tadhg Beirne made his international debut, Jack Conan got the start he'd been denied in the Six Nations, Jordi Murphy excelled throughout, Andrew Conway bagged a try in an unfortunately truncated second Test appearance, Jordan Larmour started none of the Tests but injuries meant he played close to two full matches and once more enhanced his reputation.

While winning a first southern hemisphere series in 39 years was one priority, improving strength in depth with an eye to next year's World Cup was another. That Ireland were able to achieve both goals speaks volumes about where the team is right now. The creation of new options was in its way almost as encouraging as the world-class displays of Sexton, Murray, Furlong, Ryan, O'Mahony and Stander. Bundee Aki and Devin Toner are hardly fringe players but both played their best rugby of the year in Australia and will be hard to omit from future first 15s.

In the fourth quarter last Saturday, with Ireland clinging on to a 17-16 lead, the game appeared to have shifted inexorably in Australia's direction. Yet nerves were assuaged by the memory of how often Ireland have eked out victories from similar situations. Bernard Foley had a penalty to put Australia ahead and missed it. Johnny Sexton had one to give Ireland breathing space and nailed it. And Ireland held on in a frantic finale which, with the Australians seeking to go over in the corner and the TMO being called into action, was spookily reminiscent of the dénouement in Paris four years ago when Ireland won their first Six Nations under Schmidt.

They are a much stronger side these days, but that ability to prevail in a tight finish has pretty much remained constant. With away wins over Australia and England to their credit this year, Ireland have an unassailable claim to be regarded as the world's second best team.

Can they go higher? Well, watching the All Blacks dismantle France it was hard to escape that old feeling that the New Zealanders play at an entirely different level to anyone else. But we thought the same thing before last year's Lions tour which proved that Steve Hansen's side can sometimes be vulnerable when given a rigorous examination.

Right now, Ireland look the team best equipped to provide them with such a test. Roll on next season.

The Last Word

Seeing people criticise the VAR system on the grounds that it’s not entirely perfect reminded me of the time FIFA abolished the back pass. In the first few months after the rule change pundits queued up to complain that this wasn’t fair to goalies who hadn’t been trained to kick a ball rolled back in their direction and might even suffer injury while attempting to perform such an outlandish move.

In reality, minor delays are a small price to pay for an increase in fairness. Listening to the complaints about VAR, I couldn’t help thinking about the 2010 Leinster final and Joe Sheridan’s last-gasp goal. Back then Louth were advised to suck it up on the grounds that the experience of being cheated would somehow make them stronger. Last weekend the Wee County lost to Leitrim by 10 points in the qualifiers. Sporting injustice isn’t easily redressed. That’s why lessening its incidence through VAR is a no-brainer.

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Munster rugby has had many great European moments. But everyone will always have a special place in their heart for Peter Stringer’s try against Biarritz in the 2006 Heineken Cup final.

Everyone knew two things before that final. The Munster scrum-half would get a tough time from Serge Betsen, then the most feared back-row forward in the game. And Peter Stringer’s one weakness was his reluctance to make breaks for the line.

Yet in the 31st minute there was Stringer picking up from the base of the scrum, running round Betsen and diving over for a try which proved to be a match-winner. It was perhaps the crowning moment of a career during which the Stringer-O’Gara partnership played a pivotal role in Ireland’s return to international respectability.

Stringer was the ultimate proof that bravery, intelligence and talent can compensate for physical disadvantages. The little general has just announced his retirement at the age of 40. He left it all on the pitch.

* * * * *

If any player ever had good reason to make a political gesture it’s Granit Xhaka. The Swiss midfielder’s father Ragip did three-and-a-half years in jail at the age of 22 for protesting against the Yugoslavian communist regime in 1986. Xhaka’s parents are ethnic Albanians from the province of Kosovo. After the break-up of Yugoslavia, Kosovo’s demands for an end to rule from Serbia led to cruel repression by Slobodan Milosevic’s regime and a war which resulted in almost 15,000 deaths.

So it was understandable that Xhaka and another son of Kosovar parents Xherdan Shaqiri did the Albanian Eagle gesture after scoring the goals which gave the Swiss a 2-1 win over Serbia. That Serbian manager Mladen Krstajic compared the failure to award Serbia a penalty in the game to the ‘unfair’ treatment of his country’s leading war criminals by the International Criminal Court in The Hague showed why at least some Serbs deserved to have their noses rubbed in it.

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