Monday 16 September 2019

Brent Pope: 'Special moment with legend Ollie Campbell summed up what All Blacks scalp meant to Irish rugby'

17 November 2018; Josh van der Flier of Ireland celebrates at the final whistle of the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
17 November 2018; Josh van der Flier of Ireland celebrates at the final whistle of the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Brent Pope

On top of the world has a nice ring to it.

Sometimes after a performance like Ireland produced on Saturday evening you just have to eat humble pie. As a rugby pundit most of us thought that Ireland could win this match, but probably wouldn’t.

Even the Irish coach pre-match played down his team’s chances a bit - Ireland would have to play out of their skins and the All Blacks have an off day for an Irish win. In the end, the All Blacks didn’t have an off day at all, they were simply beaten by a better team.

As professionals we often lead with the head and not the heart. We should have known better, this team under the world’s best coach is something special.

Things changed for me last week. Ireland struggled against Argentina and I wondered if they could pull it all together in a week. They did, and more rewarding, against a team that had come to town fully focused on winning.

While the technicalities of the scoring system does not allow Ireland to take over as officially the 'best rugby team in the world', in the minds of Steve Hansen, the All Blacks and even the New Zealand media and public, they are.

I have worked on RTE for over 25 years, and this was Ireland’s best ever performance for a number of reasons. I was in Chicago for that historic victory, and while that too was also an extraordinary win, I felt that Ireland had caught the All Blacks a bit cold, distracted on many fronts.

On Saturday, this result was different. The All Blacks wanted this win more than any other this year, they feared Ireland more than any team, and they rocked into Dublin with stern faces and ice in the veins, focused on getting the job done. The use of the alternative Haka, only reserved for the big occasions, was served up as a mark of respect for Ireland, and with two world class second rows missing in Chicago back in harness, they thought they were ready. Boy were they wrong.

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Ireland outmuscled the All Blacks at their own game, they choked the mighty Blacks into submission by not allowing the men from New Zealand any space to play their width attack. For the first time in years, the All Blacks looked rudderless, unable to find a plan B.

Even in the dying minutes they were aimlessly kicking away ball, exhausted in trying to find a way through an unrelenting wall of Irish defenders. In a country where rugby is still not the most popular sport, what the IRFU and a succession of coaches all playing their part have done over the years is simply incredible.

Ireland were dragged kicking and screaming into the professional game, they did not think they had the resources in playing numbers or financial clout to dine at rugby’s top table. Well, Irish rugby take a bow, as not only are you dining at the top table, you are now the maître de.

In a game like this with so many heroics, it’s hard and possibly unfair to single out any one player. All were outstanding. My memory will be the sight of Cian Healy leaving the field gasping for air, having emptied the tank for his country, or one moment Peter O’Mahony was unable the walk, yet in the next moment he was tracking back to make a try-saving tackle.

But for me, the young players need a special mention, a new breed of Irish hero that does not know what it’s like to lose, that have the same mentality as the players they faced yesterday.

Joe Schmidt has created a culture of winners, of players like lock James Ryan who bubbles with confidence, that no matter who Ireland or Leinster for are playing, it makes no difference.

Or adopted players like CJ Stander or Bundee Aki who leads the Irish haka at the end of a match, and beats the crest of his new country with all the pride of a true Irishman. On Saturday Josh van de Flier had to come in for the unfortunate Dan Leavy, who in turn replaced the unfortunate Sean O’Brien. The transition is seamless, as it is with Joe Schmidt’s sides.

The New Zealand public are saying that they need a Josh van de Flier, such is the compliment. In a game of so-called equal physical training, how van de Flier kept going is a miracle. Try-scoring hero Jacob Stockdale could have just as easily lost heart when his exit kick was charged down by Kieran Read, a kick that, had the All Blacks captain managed to take the offload, could have changed the result.

But rather than hang his head, Stockdale raised his hand in apology to his team, and minutes later scored a fantastic solo try. He did not let that single incident break his focus, he simply made it his new focus to put things right.

On Saturday after the game, I failed to a recognise a man under a peaked cap with what I thought was a bundle of programmes to sell. It was no less than one of the greats of the Irish game, Ollie Campbell. So excited was one of rugby’s true gentleman that he was collecting them for posterity, so proud of his country’s achievements in finally doing what he and so many great Irish players never could, to beat the All Blacks on home soil.

But it showed to me what it meant to the history of Irish rugby, and that these 23 brave, inspirational men will be forever etched in its rugby tapestry. History. Like the mighty men of Munster so many years ago, they deserve to dine out on this result for years to come. The only slight drizzle on the parade is that it was not a World Cup final, and as a Kiwi said to me last night, 'that’s great some other nation can now take on the expectation of being world’s best, game after game.'

It will allow the All Blacks to go back, rebuild and think about what changes they need to make before Japan. But Joe Schmidt will run with that target on his team’s back, he knows that it will mean that every team that comes to the Aviva will up their game,  but that’s what you must expect when you have such lofty ambitions. No one team plays the perfect game, there is always something to work on, but to me Saturday was as close to perfection as you could get. I will never forget this match, and proud to say I was there.

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