By Phil Rice
Last weekend produced another step forward for this special Ireland rugby team, led expertly by Joe Schmidt. They deservedly beat the number one country in the world. This victory franked the previous victory against the All Blacks at Soldier’s Field in 2016.
The victory at the weekend was based on a superbly organised defence and Andy Farrell, the defence coach must take great credit for the performance. New Zealand had scored at least four tries in each of the Rugby Championship matches this season.
Last Saturday Ireland’s defence was so solid that when a try-scoring opportunity arose for the All Blacks they muffed it through their anxiety.
All Black coach Steve Hansen paid tribute to Ireland’s defensive play after the game.
“Their defence is great, Andy is a great defence coach. They’ve become a team that believes in themselves how they are playing. They’re fitter so whoever is doing their conditioning work needs a pat on the back,” he said.
Possibly with tongue in cheek, Hansen added, “So as of now, Ireland are the number one team in the world, regardless of the rankings. If you want to make them World Cup favourites, go ahead. I guess they are favourites.”
Ireland have certainly put together an impressive coaching team and should Schmidt decide to leave after the RWC 2019, the strength of the coaching team will mitigate against the impact of his loss.
No Irish player played poorly on Saturday but some individuals were outstanding. Man of the match Peter O’Mahony was injured early in the game but gave an incredible display of committed rugby laying his body on the line again and again.
Josh van der Flier tackled himself into the ground and put himself back into contention as the first choice openside flanker.
CJ Stander has been criticised as too one-dimensional and predictable recently, but he smashed the hard yards at the weekend and the All Blacks visibly wilted under the incessant pounding they received from the Irish ball carriers.
Ireland were missing Conor Murray, Robbie Henshaw, Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy, whereas New Zealand only missed Sonny Bill Williams from their first choice team.
Yet again the Irish replacements stepped up to the plate and that aspect of the team’s development must provide Schmidt with the most encouragement.
As Ireland build towards the 2019 World Cup there is a genuine confidence that they are better prepared for potential injuries to key players than at any time in the past. Conor Murray was considered one of the team’s three or four indispensable players but Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath deputised admirably.
The final match of the Autumn series takes place this Saturday at the Aviva Stadium. The USA provide the opposition and most if not all of last weekend’s team will be rested.
Joe Schmidt will take the opportunity to test the depth of his squad and the fringe players will have one of their last chances to impress the Irish Coach in the build-up to the World Cup.
The game will give players like Jordan Larmour, Tadgh Beirne, Andrew Conway, Joey Carbery and John Cooney the opportunity to display their talents.
Many experts feel that Tadhg Beirne, in particular, could add a different dimension to the Irish team and his performance will be scrutinised closely.
The cover for Ireland’s captain Rory Best, at hooker, is also undecided and a strong performance by Niall Scannell could put him ahead of Sean Cronin whose lineout throwing at the weekend was less than perfect.
The support for the Irish team has grown and grown. Tickets were fetching €800 for last weekend’s game and the Aviva is expected to have a full house again this Saturday.
Within the next few weeks, Joe Schmidt has agreed to notify the IRFU regarding his coaching intentions at the conclusion of the World Cup.
Most commentators believe that Ireland’s most successful coach will now move on to pastures new.
It is believed that New Zealand are keen to avail of his services but that may just be media speculation at this stage. The IRFU are desperate to retain their Coach but there was a resigned tone to their recent statement regarding Schmidt’s impending announcement.
Schmidt has transformed Ireland’s international team and he will be sorely missed if he decides to move elsewhere. There are a number of names being mentioned as possible replacements but whoever does will have very big boots to fill.