Thursday 18 January 2018

Five reasons to be hopeful for future

Despite the devastating last-minute nature of Ireland's defeat to New Zealand, the best display of Joe Schmidt's short reign provides plenty of grounds for optimism

Rory Best receives treatment from Dr. Eanna Falvey during the New Zealand game

The heartbreak aside, the game was a big step forward in the learning curve of what is an exciting new era in Irish rugby.

CAN MIX IT WITH THE BEST

The heartbreak aside, the game was a big step forward in the learning curve of what is an exciting new era in Irish rugby.

It will be scant consolation to Ireland at the moment, but coming within 30 seconds of beating what is now widely regarded as the greatest ever side in the world game, is certainly something to be positive about.

Following last weekend's turgid showing against Australia, there was always going to be a reaction from the players. At the start of the week, most people would have taken coming within a whisker of denying the All blacks their unbeaten year.

Sean O'Brien, however, dismissed that notion. "In the last few minutes you should be trying even harder. I think there was a little bit of trust needed. We set standards today and that's the way it has to be in the Six Nations."

With such a positive take from what was a sickening blow, Ireland are heading in the right direction, both mentally and physically.

UNDERSTANDING THE NEW GAME PLAN

After underwhelming displays in Joe Schmidt's first two games, Ireland pulled a performance out of the bag that was unrecognisable from the previous weekends. Gone were the loose kicks and the erratic defence and instead, a sell-out crowd inside the Aviva were treated to some of the most exciting rugby that this nation has ever seen.

Rory Best's try highlighted the expansive game plan that Schmidt has become renowned for. A quick interchange in midfield between Best and Cian Healy opened up the All Blacks defence and ended with Best applying the finishing touch to a move which he had started.

The defensive unit was much more cohesive while the imagination and spark going forward was at times breathtaking. It was always going to take time for the new game plan to be embedded. Yesterday's performance was a big step forward in the players' understanding of it.

INTENSITY AND THE CROWD

For the past couple of games, Ireland have failed to start with the intensity required at Test level. Yesterday was different – it was from another planet. Few people inside the stadium could believe what was happening before them when Conor Murray touched down after four minutes. Fewer would have predicted Ireland opening up a 19-point lead inside 20 minutes.

The sight of Cian Healy putting Richie McCaw on his backside summed up the sheer intensity of the midfield collisions. Healy, along with his entire forward pack, hit everything that stood in front of them with brutal ferocity. The huge intensity remained the same right throughout the squad as Declan Fitzpatrick illustrated when coming off the bench and swatting All Blacks defenders aside at will.

Much was made of the 'forced atmosphere' at the Aviva in the build-up to the game. The fact that the crowd were allowed to get into the game early on and weren't drowned out by a loud PA system visibly inspired the players to start at such a high tempo. The noise inside the Aviva stadium has rarely reached such deafening decibels.

Impressive

DEFENSIVE DISPLAY

WHEN THE WALLABIES REPEATEDLY SCYTHED THEIR WAY THROUGH IRELAND'S LACKLUSTRE DEFENCE LAST WEEKEND, THE ALL BLACKS MUST HAVE BEEN LICKING THEIR LIPS. WHAT THEY GOT, HOWEVER, WAS A DEFENSIVE DISPLAY THAT, BUT FOR A CRUCIAL LATE ERROR, WOULD HAVE BEEN TALKED ABOUT FOR YEARS TO COME.

Ireland's 'choke' and 'chop' tackles contributed heavily to their 15 turnovers at a breakdown, which, for large parts, they dominated. Paul O'Connell and Sean O'Brien's combined choke tackle a minute into the second half served as a timely reminder of how effective Ireland can be as a defensive unit.

Fingers will perhaps be pointed at the amount of defending Ireland were made to do in the second half as defenders inevitably tired. Conor Murray's last-ditch tackle on Israel Dagg stopped what looked like a certain try and typified the relentless commitment from a well drilled Irish defence.

PLAYERS REPAYING SCHMIDT'S FAITH

Gordon D'Arcy's inclusion ahead of Luke Marshall raised eyebrows in some quarters, but the experienced centre gave his best display in an Irish jersey for quite some time and fully justified Schmidt's faith in him. Murray bounced back from being dropped last week to put in the kind of performance that saw him end the Lions tour as the first-choice scrum-half.

Jamie Heaslip needed a big performance and he duly delivered. The No 8 had come in for plenty of criticism in recent weeks, but 25 tackles saw him lead the count by a considerable amount. His Leinster team-mate Rob Kearney also put a couple of disappointing performances behind him with an assured display.

Several of Ireland's experienced players made big statements, while Dave Kearney's contribution gave plenty of hope going forward.

Irish Independent

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