Sunday 23 September 2018

Tony Ward: Ireland ready to make history at World Cup as upward curve continues under best coach on planet

Under Joe Schmidt we are now serious players on the world stage. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Under Joe Schmidt we are now serious players on the world stage. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

In terms of quality it was never going to be a classic but Saturday's result is further proof that this Ireland squad is ready to make history at next year's World Cup by reaching the semi-finals - at least.

It's too early to claim that we will actually win it, but this has undeniably been Ireland's greatest season ever.

Ireland captain Peter O'Mahony. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland captain Peter O'Mahony. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Under Joe Schmidt, we are now serious players on the world stage and deservedly ranked No 2 behind New Zealand as Japan 2019 looms large.

I am still to be convinced that we have enough to beat the All Blacks when it matters most, as despite suggestions to the contrary the Kiwis continue to play the game at a different level to the rest of the world.

In Super Rugby and at Test level, New Zealand continue to lead the way, and by quite some distance.

While the three-match Lansdowne Cup was played with a ferocious competitiveness that will benefit both Australia and Ireland ahead of clashes with New Zealand in the coming months, there is no denying the gulf in class and tempo between what we witnessed from the All Blacks (against the French) over the last three Saturdays, and the fare across the Tasman Sea.

Schmidt said he was excited about his selection ahead of the decider in Sydney and so was I.

It was disappointing that Sean Cronin had to pull out at the 11th hour as he is the best all-round hooker available. Rory Best's leadership qualities will see him back in pole position come November but to argue a case for anyone other than Cronin on the bench defies logic.

And please may we be spared this 'scrum technique' nonsense. It is tactical snobbery. If a tight-five player is to be picked primarily on his ability to scrummage then we are in a bad way, and that is far from the case.

Saturday's game was always set to go to the wire and it did.

Michael Cheika can moan until the cows come home about every referee on the planet having it in for him and his team, but over the course of the last three weeks the better side playing the more measured and certainly more controlled rugby won the series.

It is not easy on the eye but as Schmidt has shown so often - since taking over from Cheika at Leinster - he can cut his cloth either way. It is why I feel he is the best coach on the planet, ahead even of the All Blacks' Steve Hansen.

Heaven help the rest of the rugby world if the New Zealand powers that be talk Schmidt into returning to the land of his birth as head coach!

He blew a golden opportunity in 2016 to take a series against one of the big three on southern hemisphere soil when losing to the Springboks having won the opening Test in Cape Town. The Boks were in crisis back then so despite a first ever win in South Africa it was without doubt an opportunity lost.

To come from losing the first Test in Brisbane and perform as we did (particularly in Melbourne) in taking the next two speaks volumes for a team on the up.

I still do not see us at New Zealand's level but as the Soldier Field result proved, on any given day anything is possible.

Ireland are now opponents that other coaches must dread facing, given our ability to soak up pressure while looking comfortable.

Schmidt gets every last ounce out of his players. The trust between management and players is reciprocal.

He has worked on developing a hard leadership core from Best through Peter O'Mahony and Conor Murray to Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney, while the growing influence of Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, Iain Henderson and Robbie Henshaw should not be underestimated.

To that I would add Devin Toner, who is simply this group's unsung hero.

If someone had suggested when watching this scrawny youngster dominate the lineout for Castleknock in the early noughties that he would develop into such a consummate professional, we'd have been calling for men in white coats.

Ryan is a nailed-on future Ireland captain, while the best of Henderson is still to come, yet Toner continues to deliver a level of consistency underpinned by that work ethic Schmidt espouses.

Yet again in Sydney when it really mattered he was outstanding.

So too Furlong (how good can he be?), both halves (as ever), O'Mahony (until injury), CJ Stander (like Toner a man who epitomises raw honesty and never hides), Bundee Aki, and while 'only' a sub in Sydney Jordan Larmour too.

I hate the unfair flak that Kearney ships. By and large it is undeserved.

He finishes a magnificent season as our No 1 full-back but come September will have the new kid on the block at Leinster and Ireland breathing down his neck.

I suspect Larmour could be the first name on the team sheet come Japan, yet would I bet on it?

But for all the technological advancement in this ultra-professional age when it really mattered on Saturday it came down to guts and grit.

On that we paddies bow to no-one.

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