Tuesday 21 November 2017

Little wins at heart of landslide success over Boks

Every little victory on the field during Saturday’s game gave Ireland increasing momentum, according to Rob Kearney. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Every little victory on the field during Saturday’s game gave Ireland increasing momentum, according to Rob Kearney. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

There was a time when celebrating a try was perceived to be a crime around the Ireland camp. Postmen, we were led to believe, don't celebrate delivering a letter so why would a rugby player behave differently when doing their own job?

It was part of the mystique that formed around the Ireland coach, yet on Saturday his team were in a different frame of mind as they outwardly celebrated the little moments that helped them on their way towards the win over South Africa.

The Ireland full-back competes for the dropping ball with South Africa’s Jesse Kriel. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
The Ireland full-back competes for the dropping ball with South Africa’s Jesse Kriel. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Back in June, it was noticeable how the Lions forwards - Maro Itoje and Kyle Sinckler in particular - were keen to ram home every small win on the tour to New Zealand.

The duo didn't win any friends in their host country, but the point was to visibly show the All Blacks that the tourists were there to win and they weren't shy about showing it.

It's a trait that Itoje has taken from his club Saracens, who have led European rugby for two years now.

When someone is that successful, their habits end up being adapted by others and while humility was the major watch-word for almost a decade after New Zealand's success - this more abrasive approach is de rigeur.

Bundee Aki was feeling nervous before the game but came out of his shell once the whistle blew. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Bundee Aki was feeling nervous before the game but came out of his shell once the whistle blew. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Not that Ireland were rubbing South Africa's faces in it at the Aviva Stadium, but from Bundee Aki's tackle that took Coenie Oosthuizen out of the game and the scrum penalty that followed, right through to Jacob Stockdale's stunning hit on Dillyn Leyds in the 76th minute, they were racing in to congratulate their team-mates. It wasn't, Rob Kearney explained, pre-planned.

"It wasn't conscious, no," he said.

"But I was actually thinking the same thing on Sunday evening - that we were celebrating a lot of those small wins. There is a real good energy and togetherness in the squad at the moment.

"Sometimes you come into November and you don't have that, for one reason or another.

"I can't put my finger on it this time, as to why there is a good energy.

"But, certainly, that was something that we demonstrated at the weekend.

"It does make a difference. If you are on the other side of it and you see the opposition celebrating and having a real togetherness, it can get into your head sometimes.

"You probably try to put your own stamp on it. But I think there's a big difference between slapping your own players and congratulating them as opposed to slapping the opposition.

"There's a fine line there, so we'd be more in the line of congratulating our own players as opposed to antagonising opposition.

"At the weekend certainly we were probably doing it more for ourselves.

"Building up the energy and making each other feel really good and really strong in our own presence as opposed to trying to dictate anything to the opposition."

Kearney believes that the storm surrounding Bundee Aki contributed to their greater togetherness last week.

The New Zealander found himself at the centre of a debate about the three-year residency rule that was interpreted in the Irish camp as an attack on the player himself.

"When you are going out to represent your country in big games, you need a massive level of togetherness," he said.

"Brotherhood is a word you hear a huge amount of times between players.

"When you go out to battle like that it is something that you do need.

"We would have recognised over the last few weeks that Bundee was taking a little bit of stick for nothing that he's done.

"He has just wanted to come here and play for Ireland and it probably does bring you together a little bit more. Guys understand that maybe he needed a little bit more love over the last week or two than he had been used to.

"Certainly, as someone who I wouldn't have known a huge amount about until the summer camp and wouldn't have particularly have enjoyed playing against him over the last few years.

"It is nice to come into camp and get to know the person and be very pleasantly surprised."

The players knew that Aki was under more pressure than your average debutant, but once he made his first big impact they were confident that the debate around his inclusion wasn't going to affect his performance.

"When you're getting a huge amount of column space and you're on the front page of national newspapers the morning of the game, you do feel a little bit more pressure, and I'm sure he did," Kearney said.

Pleasing

"That's why it was all the more pleasing to see him have such a good game.

"He has been quiet. He has been keeping his head down and doing his work. He sort of came to life at the weekend during the game. He was quite nervous in the build-up to it.

"When you're feeling those sort of nerves and stuff in the build-up, you just want to get to the game, and when you get to the whistle you sort of come out of your shell a little bit, and that's what you've been building up to and that's what you've been waiting to do for the last couple of weeks.

"He was certainly very animated during the game and it was great to see, and great to be a part of.

"It (his tackle) set a massive tone, and when you see the opposition tighthead going off after 70 seconds, it's a nice feeling. It is.

"And then to go and win the scrum penalty straight away, it set down a real marker at the start of the game."

Cue the celebrations, but Kearney said Ireland won't be following England's lead by talking openly about becoming the best team in the world after last week's success.

They have to draw a line somewhere and they'll stick to their week-to-week approach.

"That's probably the nature of the English people, isn't it?" he said.

"As Irish we like to keep the heads down and play the underdog a little bit more so I can't see that changing."

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