After an historic Ireland win over the All Blacks at the Aviva Stadium, the men who made it happen look back on their meteoric rise to the top of the world game.
Joe Schmidt was not in the mood for prognostication on Saturday night. And he and his Ireland team are allowed a chance to draw breath and reflect on a job well done.
There is little left for this team to achieve and while some attentions have already turned to 2019 and the upcoming Six Nations and the Rugby World Cup – let us pause first of all for a moment a celebrate a famous win.
The legends of Munster and 1978 have finally been laid to rest – Ireland have beaten the All Blacks on Irish soil after 113 years of trying. Add that to their Grand Slam earlier this year, their two other Six Nations crowns in 2014 and 2015, the series win in Australia this summer and this truly is a special time to be an Irish rugby fan.
Those were the words spoken by Cian Healy to Alan Quinlan at the full-time whistle on Saturday night.
And they speak to just how far this Ireland team have come under the guidance of Schmidt.
After their historic win in Chicago in 2016, Ireland have continued to climb the world rankings and sit No.2 to the All Blacks now with the gap closing all the time. And when you look at the most recent history – you see that the All Blacks have lost four Tests in the last 18 months and drawn another. Ireland? They’ve only lost one.
Rory Best was not getting too swept up in the emotion of Saturday’s victory – but he would allow himself a moment to reflect on yet another achievement.
The hooker and captain of this Ireland team has already spoken about making this performance their expected standard for the future. About using this game to motivate all future improvements and it is leaders like Best, Jonathan Sexton and Peter O’Mahony that have made a real difference in Ireland’s progression. While the youngsters like James Ryan and Jacob Stockdale have blossomed in 2018 – their bedrock remains their veteran core.
Those were Schmidt’s faint praise for the work of his defence coach Andy Farrell on Saturday. But while the head coach said that with tongue firmly in cheek, it does pay to dig a little deeper into Ireland’s phenomenal defensive work rate.
The All Blacks have not been held try-less in 17 months – the last team who did that? The British & Irish Lions – also coached in defence by Farrell.
Indeed, in only scoring nine points in the match the All Blacks were held to low not seen since the 2011 World Cup final (France 7-8 New Zealand). The numbers keep on coming, but what is beyond measuring is Farrell’s influence on Schmidt’s camp.
A new voice who only arrived two and a bit years ago, there can be no coincidence that their performances have gone up to the next level since his arrival. They have gone from a good to a great team and still the improvements can keep coming.
You can bet that Farrell and co are already working on ways to improve on Saturday’s masterclass with 2019 in mind. Now the challenge is for the rest of the Six Nations – England ran the All Blacks so close last weekend – to match the men in green.
It is not just defence that has helped Ireland go to the next level. Their strength in depth has also improved beyond recognition. Just think back to 2015 and the quarter-final loss to Argentina.
Without Sexton, Paul O’Connell and O’Mahony, Ireland’s depth was exploited. Three years later, and they have downed the All Blacks despite missing three experienced lieutenants in Conor Murray, Sean O’Brien, Robbie Henshaw not to mention the emerging star that is Dan Leavy.
The way Schmidt and co have worked to blend together the new and the old has brought the team to new heights.
How else can we explain why Rory Best at 36, Devin Toner at 32 and Jonathan Sexton at 33 are playing the best rugby of their careers?
Toner for one was exceptional on Saturday – proving that he can do far more than just call a lineout with his work rate around the park – the early hit on Brodie Retallick exemplified that. And with the likes of Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne, Quinn Roux, Ultan Dillane and a certain James Ryan in tow – the second-row cupboard is over-flowing. Toner has had no choice but to improve or face being left behind and look at Josh van der Flier. Nominally, Ireland’s third choice openside – he certainly didn’t play like it on Saturday.
Very few Irish press conferences take place nowadays where a question is not asked about James Ryan. Players and coaches are probably bored of talking about him but journalists can’t be blamed for continuing to ask the question. What the lock, at the age of only 22, is achieving in the international and club game in his short career is almost without parallel.
Throw in another wonderkid in Jacob Stockdale who has 12 tries in 14 Tests on the left wing and Jordan Larmour who ran riot against Italy at the start of the autumn and it is clear that Schmidt isn’t just relying on the tried and tested. Youth will be given a chance to shine, and shine it has.
But as Rory Best’s post-match quote about Ryan above demonstrates – they are not to be treated with kid gloves. The levels they have set themselves are now their benchmark, so whether you are 31 or 21 – you know your role.
Along with all of the above, one of the real calling cards of Schmidt’s reign has been their use of trick or ‘power’ plays. Schmidt is something of a master at preparing set-piece moves – Exhibit A being Stockdale’s short-side stunner against the All Blacks on Saturday.
For Exhibit B – take a look at CJ Stander’s score for Ireland to seal the Grand Slam at Twickenham, a move that is nominated for World Rugby’s try of the year.
Schmidt’s attention to detail is forensic – and he admits he takes ideas from wherever he can find them – including the Mitre 10 Cup back in his native New Zealand.
But in the modern game – where defences are so organised and physical, good set-piece moves are increasingly vital to score tries. And Ireland’s creativity in this field – it is not just Schmidt that comes up with them it must be said – has separated them from the field.
But first things first, you cannot pull off the fancy moves without good set-piece ball. And Greg Feek and Simon Easterby – scrum and lineout coach respectively, deserve serious credit for the way they have turned Ireland into the premier scrummaging and mauling side in world rugby.
Steve Hansen was all too happy to shift some of the pressure from his two-time world champion All Blacks onto Ireland after the game. But Schmidt was having none of it: “The World Cup in 12 months’ time? We are going to work hard to make sure we are ready for the USA this weekend!”
You wouldn’t expect anything less from a man of Schmidt’s humility and attention to detail – but Ireland’s rise to the top has continued unabated. And while Schmidt went out of his way to make excuses for the All Blacks – away from home at the end of a long season etc. – he wasn’t fooling many.
For so long the plucky underdogs, now Ireland will have to cope with being there to be shot at.