Irish rugby on an all-time high after superb victory over Australia
By Phil Rice
Last Saturday Ireland completed a month of exceptional performances that could only have been dreamt of before the Joe Schmidt reign began three years ago.
Make no mistake the under-stated New Zealander has transformed the standard of Irish rugby and has raised the bar for future Irish performances.
Sure there has been a number of quality players who have emerged during his reign as Head Coach but Schmidt has had the foresight to bring these players through at the right time and in the correct manner. He has built a quality team of coaches around him, the latest of whom, Andy Farrell, has had an immense impact on Ireland’s defensive structure.
With England extending their unbeaten run at the weekend the eagerly awaited encounter between the two nations in February promises to be something special.
Although the playing standard of the Irish players has improved greatly it is the change in the mental and psychological approach which has had the most impact. In both of the major victories this Autumn there has been a point in the matches when the opposition have got on top and historically Ireland would have accepted what they deemed was the inevitable. However on these occasions they dug deep and pulled off the result.
In Chicago the All Blacks clawed their way back to within four points with ten minutes to go, everybody expected them to finish Ireland off, but the boys in green had other ideas.
Last Saturday after a first half when Ireland had been completely in control, Australia scored just before the interval and came out with all guns blazing in the second half.
By the time the third quarter was complete the Wallabies led 24-20.
Ireland looked like a spent force but somehow they found the reserves of energy and the mental fortitude to score an excellently worked try and then hold out for the victory.
This is a team who have learned to believe in themselves. To trust each other and the game plan of their exceptional coach. The current elevated state of the team has not happened overnight. The strategy and preparation has been meticulously planned and implemented. The hard work and effort that has been put in over a three year period has resulted in a progressive improvement to the entire structure of our national game.
The young players coming through at the moment are being brought into a set up which is primed for the highest level of performance. The standards are high and the expectancy is high and as the young players are introduced to the team they are carried on the crest of a wave of top level performance that is uncompromisingly expected.
Players like Josh van der Flier, Garry Ringrose and Tadhg Furlong have performed to a level beyond their own expectations. The non-concession of penalties during this period has demonstrated the level of discipline the Coach has demanded of the team. The superior fitness they have displayed has allowed them to move to the next level of performance.
Gone are the days of a blistering 60 minutes followed by ultimate failure as they tire and weaken. Ireland are now setting the standards for the Northern Hemisphere in how to prepare and implement a meticulously planned performance.
The victory in Soldier Field set the standard for the Autumn internationals and it was carried forward with an above average display from the ‘A’ team against Canada. The second match with the All Blacks was an excellent performance and the margin of victory flattered New Zealand, but there were lessons learned in how to finish and capitalise on opportunities.
Saturday’s performance was the most complete of the four, with a first half of outstanding rugby and a display of dogged resistance in the final quarter.
Fortunately Schmidt has pledged his future to the Irish cause until the next World Cup in 2019. The measure of his success will ultimately be made on the outcome of that competition in three years time. But in the meantime there is a level of expectancy in Irish rugby which is unprecedented and this year’s Six Nations tournament has already got the nation salivating at the prospect of more of the outstanding rugby we have enjoyed this November.