Thursday 12 December 2019

Brendan Fanning: Ground-breaking day brings fresh life to ordinary season

Ireland's Sean O'Connor celebrates their victory over New Zealand during the Under 20's Rugby Union World Cup match at the City Academy Stadium, Manchester. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire.
Ireland's Sean O'Connor celebrates their victory over New Zealand during the Under 20's Rugby Union World Cup match at the City Academy Stadium, Manchester. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire.
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

With seven minutes to go in a sodden Manchester yesterday New Zealand wing Malo Tuitama slid over in the corner for a try that chilled the blood of anyone watching from the Irish side of the fence.

We've been here before. We know how it finishes. And already you were braced for the lines that would pour forth about gallantry in defeat for the boys in green.

A few hours later a similar scene was unfolding in Cape Town. In the last play of the game Springbok wing JB Pietersen was bundled into touch at the corner flag, and referee Mathieu Raynal went upstairs to see what was what.

If it had come back positively for the Boks then they would have had a conversion to win a match where they had enjoyed all the breaks. Schmidt must have been formulating the words in his mind.

In a unique outcome for Irish rugby, both stories had happy endings. The Springbok game was the eighth between the countries on South African soil, and it was Ireland's first win. The match in Manchester was the sixth time Ireland had taken on New Zealand, and it was the first time an Ireland men's team had beaten this opposition at any level. The turbo boost it gives the game in this country will take it well clear of what has been an ordinary season.

First the 20s. It's likely that the only place where negative thoughts were meeting a closed door was in the huddle of green shirts as Jordie Barrett lined up the conversion to Tuitama's try. That he missed was a bonus. Yet even had he nailed it the Kiwis would still have come second.

Ireland captain Rory Best, left, and head coach Joe Schmidt celebrate
Ireland captain Rory Best, left, and head coach Joe Schmidt celebrate

There is a remarkable resilience about this young Ireland group. Last week they found themselves floundering against Wales, the Grand Slam champions, who had knocked them about the place when the sides had met in the Six Nations. They were 17 points down, and looking like they might concede a few more before Wales would draw breath. Ireland won, with a point to spare.

In that game too there was a sweaty finish. And then, as yesterday, it was Ireland who finished cooler.

Two summers ago, in France, the Ireland women - led by Fiona Coghlan - laid down a marker in beating the Kiwis in the World Cup. She had been around long enough to recall days when the first thing packed in an Irish kitbag was a calculator to record the scale of the defeat. So it was fitting that she should experience the good times.

If that was the first brick removed from the wall that protects New Zealand teams from defeat by Ireland then what happened in Manchester yesterday knocked a hole in it.

There is a great big dent too in the container where the South Africans store their confidence. Wins over the Boks in Ireland are not uncommon, with four out of the last six encounters in Dublin going to the home team. Down there it's a different story. Usually it is one defined by end-of-season fatigue, having to play at least one of the Tests at altitude, and always struggling with the psychology of coping with a country who are savage in defending their own back yard.

Cape Town, at sea level and with the hosts unused to a new coach and new systems, was always going to be the best chance of a rewrite. And then CJ Stander was sent off.

Ireland players celebrate at the final whistle
Ireland players celebrate at the final whistle

It seemed that the flanker was penalised more for the effect of his action than the action itself. It is not illegal in rugby to jump in trying to block a kick. Stander fell in between looking like it was a genuine attempt to get a hand to Patrick Lambie's kick and letting the South Africa 10 know that he was in a game.

It was impossible not to feel for Stander, who is as honest as he is effective on a rugby field. And equally it was unthinkable that a bookie would have given you credible odds at that point on Ireland winning.

To see Robbie Henshaw follow the flanker soon after, on a yellow card, only fixed the idea that Ireland would be pummelled.

That they survived was down a mix of their own commitment and self-confidence, and the awfulness of the home team. There were a host of big performers, but Jared Payne at fullback - his best position by far - managed to overshadow his opposite number Willie le Roux, which is an achievement in itself.

Leadership is what it's about in situations like that, and Payne looked like he loved the responsibility. Which is a usual state of affairs for under 20 captain James Ryan. The second-row is in danger of being written up so much he'll need weights to keep him grounded. Anyone who has seen him as a schoolboy will appreciate what he has to offer. We recall him on a winter's night in Donnybrook two years ago turning around an almost certain defeat for Leinster schools against Australia with sheer force of will.

He was immense again yesterday. In a powerful scrum - the key to this win - loosehead Andrew Porter was outstanding, as was hooker Andrew McBurney and both tightheads: Ben Betts and replacement Vakh Abdaladze. And No 8 Max Deegan, who scored the try that put some heat on the Kiwis going down the home straight, has no shortage of the right stuff.

When these men needed to stand up they did just that. And it meant that, for once, an Irish story against New Zealand would have a happy ending. That it would have a positive postscript from Cape Town made it all the better.

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