Tuesday 11 December 2018

Roy Curtis: 'Peter O'Mahony's bottomless courage epitomised Ireland on a night of nights'

Peter O’Mahony of Ireland is tackled by Sam Whitelock and Owen Franks of New Zealand during the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Peter O’Mahony of Ireland is tackled by Sam Whitelock and Owen Franks of New Zealand during the Guinness Series International match between Ireland and New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Roy Curtis

IF a UFO was reported streaking across Irish skies last week, here, it a very large green man who most closely resembled the celestial citizen of a distant planet.

A floodlit Aviva, with its diadem glint, can resemble an intergalactic spaceship and standing on its bridge calling the shots was an extra-terrestrial by the name of Peter O’Mahony.

O’Mahony – the entire Irish back-row, the complete pack - delivered a performance from another universe of ferocity and composure and high voltage power.

And, most of all, bottomless courage.

Ireland’s Incredible Hulk – don’t make him angry, you wouldn’t like him when he is angry – burst out of his shirt, flexed his biceps, seized ownership of the contest.

O’Mahony crocked his hip, was in evident agony, yet continued to put his body on the line.

It was the very definition of superior leadership, inspiring.  What a visceral impact the Leeside warrior exerted.

When he limped off, spent, entering the last quarter the acclaim could be heard on his home planet in that distant galaxy of superheroes.

The Corkman was not alone in his spiky, magnificent defiance.

Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy scrummaged with the ferocity of Visigoths at the gates of Rome as the home side pulverised the world champions at the set piece.

Healy could hardly stand as he left the field, his lungs heaving and burning, every joule of energy left on the field.

Furlong announced himself again as the planet’s finest and most forceful, game-changing front-row.

CJ Stander and Josh Van Der Flier and the remarkable James Ryan might have landed from a faraway cosmos where gravity, fatigue and big-game stress are unknown concepts.

Devin Toner, floating on air, general of the line-out, soared like one of the late Stan Lee’s otherworldly superheroes.

When Jacob Stockdale delivered an infusion of lacerating wing-play to leave New Zealand with twisted blood, it was as if fellow Ulsterman, George Best, had descended from the heavens.

Stockdale’s chip and chase was a triumph of daring, balance, speed and poacher’s instinct; it yielded a 12th try in 14 internationals and the noise could be heard from Saturn.

It was not so much a roar as the soundtrack of rapture.

Joe Schmidt’s side were imperious, sovereign:  New Zealand, yes New Zealand, were backtracking, gasping and, in the end, beaten.

That November night in the New World, when Ireland ignited Chicago’s Soldier Field and so much of their home nation, has lost precious little of its historic sheen.

Two years on, just ten months out from a World Cup where Ireland will reach out for the highest achievement, on a wild, overwhelming night, it was bettered.

On this evidence, propelled by this combination of passion and accuracy, Ireland will arrive in Japan next September as legitimate contenders for the biggest prize of all.

As Ryan, O’Mahony, Stander and Van der Flier made carry after carry, the Aviva, charged with electricity, roared like a belligerent giant, a hyper-animated home crowd recreating the rush that blew in over Lake Michigan in 2016.

Johnny Sexton offered the kind of authority at Number Ten that must have had Teresa May green with envy.

When his 74th minute tackle forced New Zealand into touch, the out-half punched the air and yelled manically.

The entire 50,000-strong Aviva cabinet rose to salute him.

Kieran Marmion stepped into Conor Murray’s giant shoes and found that they fitted perfectly.

Rob Kearney was as secure as a vault deep in the catacombs of some Swiss financial house.

At every scrum, through each phase, Ireland ransacking the oval ball Caesars, driving the most enduring, dominant empire rugby has known into rare retreat.

Healy, Furlong, Best, Ryan, Van der Flier, O’Mahony, Stander and Toner, snarled and nipped and salivated like uncontainable pit-bulls. The intensity was terrifying.

New Zealand, cynically, desperately, conceded penalty after penalty.

At half-time, Ireland led 9-6, but New Zealand had taken the heaviest blows and were wobbling.  The home side were relentless, executing with precision, suffocating.

When these teams last collided in Dublin, New Zealand physically bullied and dominated Ireland, their dog soldiers planting the Silver Fern flag in the combat zone.

Not this time.

Schmidt had predicted a spiky encounter this time and the feral look in Irish eyes backed up the notion that the home side were unwilling to take a backward step.

One Toner hit on Liam Squire flattened the New Zealander and shook the foundations of the East Stand.

The Aviva crackled and sparkled and snapped.

Sexton kicked three penalties from in front of the posts, the reigning World Player of the Year taking his unrivalled grasp on the tactical reins.

This might have been Kinshasa on the night Ali and Foreman rumbled in the jungle.

Auckland-born Bundee Aki devoured oxygen as he belted out an emotional Amhran na bhFiann.

In the finale, the Ballsbridge boom-box speakers threatened to detonate.

Lansdowne Road at fever pitch was a sparkling fortress in the dusk.

No wonder, then, that Schmidt noticed “a bit of extra anxiety” in the dressing-room before kick-off.

It had evaporated by kick-off.

The pace and intensity and bone-shuddering brutality evoked recollections of peak-era Mike Tyson.  And it was Ireland who were the baddest men on the planet.

When New Zealand attacked, Ireland’s resistance was unbending.

It was UFO – Unbelievable Fortitude and Organisation – rugby, marshalled by a Corkman from another planet and his fellow giant green men.

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