And on Saturday night, in front of a packed out Aviva Stadium with the eyes of the rugby world watching on, Ireland beat the metaphorical “man” in this game and showed that they are the best team in the world; for now at least.
What a surreal sentence that is for me to type.
I’m a guy who grew up watching Irish rugby in the late 80s and 90s. That is to say, I grew up on a thin gruel of disappointment and misery but hey, I didn’t know any better. To say that those were far from the glory days of Irish rugby is an understatement on a par with “Brexit is looking a tad chaotic at the moment”. The late 90s and early 2000s saw a glimpse of what was possible when a group of young players and soon to be giants entered the national stage. A Triple Crown followed, and then a few more but those successes, as they were then, were still bookmarked with sickening defeats on the really big days. In 2009, I saw an Irish Grand Slam and couldn’t begin to imagine the road from where we were in the 90s – before the days of O’Gara, O’Connell, O’Driscoll and the rest – to where we were then in Cardiff. But even with that Slam, we were always the dark horse. Everyone’s outside bet for good things. The real status and prestige were kept for the real Big Beasts of the game – your Englands, your South Africas, your Wallabies, your Frances and, of course, your All Blacks.
A dark horse is a lot of things but a Big Beast it certainly ain’t.
We were always good for a brave performance here and there against those Big Beasts and “well able to beat almost anyone on their day” – remember that backhanded compliment? – but when the heavyweight prizes were being decided, Ireland were usually in the showers listening to the muffled cheers in the arena.
But then we began to evolve. 2013 showed how close we could get. Then back to back Six Nations followed. Then we won away in South Africa. Then we beat the All Blacks in Chicago. Then we won a Grand Slam in Twickenham. Then we won a tour in Australia. Then we beat the All Blacks in Dublin for the second time in two years, one on one, toe to toe, in a battle between the top two sides on the planet.
This is new territory for Irish rugby. We are THE Big Beast.
I have to admit that my natural tendency for pessimism rose to the surface during the end game. Ireland were 7 points up with the clock ticking away but at that point, a draw would have been the same as a loss and everyone in the stadium knew it. New Zealand were attacking and probing after Ireland, sensibly, kicked the ball away to trust their defence for one last sequence. The All Blacks, despite Ireland’s defensive efforts, were slowly gaining ground. Memories of 2013 began to flash through my mind but I had to remember that this is a New Ireland.
This Big Green Machine doesn’t break, it does the breaking.
New Zealand spilt the ball with the clock gone red. Ireland had won and, with that win, finally beaten the All Blacks in Ireland. Thomond Park in 1978 no longer stood alone. Make no mistake – this wasn’t a lucky win. This wasn’t a fluke against a weakened All Blacks side. This was Ireland subduing and beating the All Blacks going at full tilt in front of a watching rugby world. I was worried about 2013 because I remember too well how things used to be but 2013 was five years ago – about as long a time difference as that last 10 minutes actually – and it seemed like an aeon away on Saturday. How things used to be aren’t how things are now.
Ireland were controlled, physically dominant and ruthless, ruthless, ruthless. This is what the All Blacks used to do to us. On Saturday, it was what we did to them.
And listen, the All Blacks didn’t play badly either. They rarely do but this wasn’t some norovirus induced zombie walk from the Kiwis – they went at this full bore and only an immensely physical and clinical defensive performance from Ireland saw them remain tryless.
The opening salvo of this contest was as tight as you’d expect. Both sides were pounding the gain line and the physicality was bordering on brutal. New Zealand slightly edged the kicking game with targeted shallow kicks to the wing designed to stress Ireland’s defensive system finding green grass and good chase pressure from the All Blacks.
That lead to a lineout opportunity for New Zealand which they converted into excellent 5m pressure. Only outstanding Irish defence – the standout feature of this game – prevented the All Blacks from scoring an early try. After 12 heavy, heavy phases Ireland relieved the pressure through a clean penalty turnover from Josh Van Der Flier and CJ Stander.
It all happened inside the first five minutes but it felt significant in the settling pattern of the early exchanges.
When Ireland got a chance to attack off the resulting lineout, they did so with the kind of power and width that they would use to unbalance and puncture the New Zealand defensive structure.
Watch the initial width off the ruck – itself in the aftermath of an attacking reset after some good set piece defence – everything is designed to get the ball to the narrow All Black edge of the defence. Puncturing the gain line wasn’t a necessity when the ball went wide on these phases but any ground that Ireland gained against the 11/12 man All Black phase defences would pressure their defensive reset on the ensuing ruck.
When Furlong pulled the ball back to Sexton in midfield – one of two passes in this sequence – it allowed Ireland to hit a seam between the last forward and the first back.
Look at the picture on the reset;
This is what happens when you unbalance the All Blacks defensive system – gaps appear. Savea is faced with the prospect of being the first point of contact on a three-man Irish forward pod with Sexton tight behind.
He has to press hard to get momentum onto any collision with Furlong and that’s when Ireland get a look with a tip on that sets James Ryan free for another massive carry.
These little acts of subtlety and brutality set the tone for Ireland’s performance here. We consistently looked to find the narrow edge of the All Black’s defence in an attempt to unbalance their alignment and force bad resets.
When Ireland reset off this ruck and pinned a few more All Blacks in place, the space on the opposite edge – that unbalanced alignment arrived once again.
Quicker hands might have set Van Der Flier and Aki away here but, in fairness, the step up from Goodhue made Ringrose’s passing lane a little riskier than he’s have liked. The point is, we created opportunities and showed the plays we withheld (and learned from) in Argentina were worth the wait.
The scrum was outstanding, the lineout was rock solid (until Best, Toner and O’Mahony went off at least) and I’ll cover these in more detail on TRK Premium this week. It’ll be all good stuff – well, mostly.
Let’s be clear – there was no trophy won on Saturday. That comes next year and that will be the target for this group. But that doesn’t matter right now.
What Ireland won on Saturday goes beyond silverware in the context of our position in this sport. We know now that Chicago wasn’t a fluke or an aberration. We know now that we can go toe to toe with the All Blacks as a peer, and match their aggression and physicality head on, and win. We know now that, for this year at least, we’re the unofficial top dogs in this sport. The rankings say differently but everyone watching the game knows what the result and performance mean. This was no fluke. This was no hiccup. This was two heavyweights swinging for the fences and Ireland prevailing.
Favourites for the World Cup? Joe Schmidt won’t go for that tag publically but he’s smart enough to know what we’re capable of. Talking about it to the press? It’s not his style. Steve Hansen certainly thinks Ireland are favourites – or at the very least thinks that labelling us as that is useful to him – and said as much. You know what? Bring it on. Bring on the favourites tag. Fuck the Dark Horse life. We’ve felt what being a Big Beast is like and we’re never going back.
As per usual, players are rated based on their time on the pitch, if they were playing notably out of position, and on the overall curve of the team performance. DNP means the player did not feature and N/A means they weren’t on the pitch long enough to warrant a fair rating given the way the game went.
Josh Van Der Flier
You don’t beat the All Blacks in 2018 without 1-23 showing up locked and loaded. Everyone, to a man, was immense here. I’m already at 1700 words, so I’ll keep it to a select few to save time.
CJ Stander was his brutish best in the tight exchanges and carried the ball with the kind of power and venom usually reserved for artillery shells. You don’t beat the All Blacks without relentless, cruel monsters in your pack and there were few men on the planet more aggressive than CJ Stander was on Saturday night.
I mean, would you fuck with that guy? I thought not. Nobody would. If Stander was in the Avengers, Thanos would have just handed the Infinity Gauntlet over to him five minutes in and shagged off to the farm just to put as much distance between him and CJ as possible. Stander played with the brutality and edge you need in a game like this and was a dominant physical presence in the middle of the field.
James Ryan continued his freak of nature performance level with 16 monster carries, 19 tackles and exudes the kind of intimidating aura we’ve been waiting for in the second row since O’Connell retired. He might just be the best rugby player on the planet right now when it comes to what he can do athletically. He was Ireland’s second top ball carrier in the forwards and our top tackler with TWENTY, as well as working the hard road in the scrum and maul on both sides of the ball. I could show you any number of carries and tackles but this one was unreal for me. Look at the quick ball he generates at this ruck while coming at this from a bad angle.
Best is in his clearing lane, but that’s no bother to James Ryan. Look at the pace at which he shifts around him and how well he gets low to get that dominant clean in. This guy is a freak.
He’s just got no fear.
And why would he? Look at the fucking size of him, first of all. And when you’re finished that, look at his CV. He’s a Heineken Cup and PRO14 winner. A Grand Slam winner. He’s beaten New Zealand at u20 level and now he’s cracked them in his first game against them at senior level. He really makes you think what the hell you were doing at twenty-two years of age.
Tadgh Furlong might not have had the statement carries of the 2016 encounter but he more than made up for that with a dominant scrummaging performance that ended up with the All Black front row marching off with 45 minutes just gone on the clock. It was as good a tighthead performance as I’ve seen. He brutalised his men in the scrum and was a key factor in Ireland winning the physical battle in the front five.
He is the Jukebox and the big hits kept coming for the entirety of his time on the pitch. He came off grimacing but that’s what happens when you eat two looseheads raw in one sitting. The best in the world at what he does.
Finally – Peter O’Mahony. The Hibernian Gangster. The Baddest Man on the Planet. The War God of Temple Hill. Certain players go up in level as the occasion demands and, in those lofty altitudes, they show you what greatness looks like. Paul O’Connell could do it. Peter O’Mahony can do it too. I mean, we knew this though, right? We saw it when he took apart England in the Aviva on St. Patrick’s Day when he was meant to be benching. Seeing O’Mahony play like this isn’t new.
He is the master of the small moment – the ruck that needs winning, the lineout that needs managing, the scrum that needs bracing, or the maul that needs killing. When it comes to the Big Moments, he’s a maestro.
Need a breakdown penalty to get field position? He’ll get it for you. Need to take the ball off the top under massive pressure, he’ll get that for you too. Need someone to snatch the ball right out of Ben bloody Smith’s hands with the try line gaping at him? Who you gonna call?
There’s just no stopping him when he plays like this. It’s force of nature stuff. You’d be better off fanning the tide back with a rolled up newspaper. When Ireland were under the pump heading into the last quarter with the All Blacks rocking and rolling as only they can, it was Peter O’Mahony who killed them stone dead with the jackal of his life 12 phases into the defensive set.
Look at the pressure he’s under in that GIF. He survives two clean out attempts and one after the whistle went while clamping straight onto the ball. There was just no moving him. You’d need a court order and a crane to pry him off that ball and even then, you’d be fecking fortunate.
As individual performances go, it was as good as it gets from the Cork man. The 63 minutes he put down in the Aviva on Saturday are up there with any performances in that stadium, old or new, Irish or otherwise. Peter O’Mahony was gargantuan. People wonder how the likes of O’Connell, O’Gara and O’Driscoll became the icons they are in this sport in this country. They became legends by playing like this on the big days.
This performance from O’Mahony is the stuff that legends are made of. He came off hurt – it’s about the only way you’d get him off that grass, in fairness – but he went off to an ovation from an Aviva Stadium that knew well what they’d witnessed. One of the best performances I’ve ever seen. ★★★★★
There’s much to cover in this game and I’ll be doing that in TRK Premium all week long with GIF and Video Articles. Be sure to check out the Post Match Wallycast on Monday.