BY KEN DOHERTY
How times have changed too with this totally deserved 13-8 victory at the Stade de France in Paris on Saturday night,
Once we couldn’t carry the mantle of favourites and win; now we relish it thanks to the brilliant leadership of Andy Farrell. He’s a modern day Jack Charlton the way he has the players believing.
Maybe we should have gone all the way in 1990 when Toto Schillaci’s goal in Rome saw us go out at the quarter-final stage. Remember the homecoming when a million people welcomed home the boys in green from Dublin Airport all the way into the city centre?
Thirty three years on, we dare to dream again. The hope is we can beat Scotland on Saturday week and emerge from Group B as table toppers, thereby qualifying for a quarter-final clash against New Zealand. For once that fixture won’t put the fear of God into Ireland – after our series victory against the All Blacks last year and the difference in form between the two teams since, we would feel hopeful and maybe confident of reaching the semi-final for the first time in our history.
Saturday night was one of those occasions where you will remember where you were twenty years from now. The clash of Titans between the World Cup holders and the World No 1 team in the Stade de France in front of almost 80,000 fans.
We didn’t start well but Farrell has taught this team not to panic and instead work out what they need to do to get it right on the night. Losing the first four throws-in seemed like a return to the bad old days, but we showed intelligence and resilience in not just getting back into the game but controlling large segments of the brutal and at times beautiful encounter.
Johnny Sexton is defying logic at 38 years of age the way he is improving his own play and those around him with his on-field strategies. What a general Farrell has to see that his instructions are interpreted properly by the lieutenants. Inside him 33-year-old Bundee Aki has become the player of the tournament so far with power plays that even the huge Springbok side could not deal with.
I know a lot of the rugby commentators are saying South Africa will be a different proposition if we meet them further down the road in this competition by having Handre Pollard at outhalf where his placing kicking will be the difference.
That logic is all well and good in that he seldom misses but he doesn’t create the way the current incumbent Manie Nibbok frees his three-quarters and we should also factor in that Ireland will hardly be as errant with the lineout next time around either.
This is a battle of first among equals and ultimately we will have to see who learns most from it. There is no doubt that the three-time Webb Ellis Cup winners will now go away, take stock and come back an even more formidable force; equally there is no doubt that psychologically Ireland will benefit greatly from coming out tops against a rugby force that managed to dismantle the All Black just over a month ago in the final warm-up for the two power houses to this competition.
That Ireland came out top in this arm-wrestle, thereby continuing their winning run to 16 games, showed how much Farrell’s squad has grown under his tutelage tese past 30 months.
Even when the so-called ‘bomb squad’ arrived (SA had seven forwards and one back in their replacement division), Ireland buckled a little to concede a try but still had the nous to vary their game so that the fresh forwards themselves had battle to face which drew them out of their comfort zone.
It was helter-skelter in this autumn swelter but aided by a rub of the green and a now benign ref, we got over the line to tumultuous cheers from the huge Irish galleries. What a moment listening to the crowd signing ‘Zombie’ – it’s something I will remember long after this event is over.
The good thing about this win is that it was a slender one, with plenty of weaknesses exposed in our play. Perfect then for Farrell and his cohorts to go to work on in the coming weeks when we get ready for some of the biggest days of our rugby watching lives. It starts with Scotland at the Stade on Saturday week. Can’t wait for the days to pass.
* As a Manchester United fan, I didn’t have much to crow about these past few weeks and frankly I think it might be a while before we get back up on the perch again. Still while watching Ireland on the ipad, I was flicking over on my phone to see United and Burnley on Saturday night in Turf Moor. Not a memorable match by any means except to see how well Johnny Evans performed and was also responsible for a sublime left-footed pass which allowed Bruno Fernandes in for the only goal of the game.
I met Johnny many years ago in the Radisson Hotel in Dublin when the North were playing us. I played a few snooker games with himself and Steve Davis (the soccer player) in the hotel and we had a lovely relaxed few hours talking about sports and having the laugh.
Great to see him chalk up his 200 game for United, after being allowed leave Old Trafford during Louis Van Gaal’s tenure there. What a loss he has been, particularly as we’ve never sorted out the centre halves properly in the past decade. After Saturday’s display himself and Rafa Varane may become the preferred choice for the rest of the season.
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