Ireland’s systematic dismantling of the All Blacks in Dublin affirmed their status as the standout Test side of 2018, writes JON CARDINELLI.
We’ve all seen the All Blacks movie before. The New Zealanders start slowly. They score either side of half-time. They gather momentum around the 50-minute mark and then shift into high gear on the hour.
Most of the time – as their record of 35 victories in 41 Tests since the 2015 World Cup attests – they go on to win the big games.
Things did not go according to script at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, however. The 50th minute arrived. Then the 60th. Then the 75th. On each and every occasion, the scoreboard confirmed that Ireland were in control.
The result in Dublin was very different to the one achieved in Wellington this past September. The Springboks will mark that win and performance against the All Blacks as a turning point. The All Blacks could have won that game, though, via a drop goal or if a refereeing decision had gone their way in the dying moments. They needed only three points to win, and the opportunity to do so was certainly there considering they were in possession at the death.
In Dublin, however, the All Blacks were outplayed by a more physical and tactically astute Ireland side for most of the game. It’s not often that you see a New Zealand side getting absolutely crunched at the scrums and collisions, and losing the aerial contest to such a telling degree.
Head coach Joe Schmidt and defence guru Andy Farrell – who enjoyed some success with the British & Irish Lions in their series draw with the All Blacks in New Zealand last year – certainly did their homework. Steve Hansen and his lieutenants, on the other hand, will have to reassess in the wake of this result.
It’s been an unforgettable year for Irish rugby. Leinster, with Lions and Ireland flyhalf Johnny Sexton pulling the strings, won the European Champions Cup as well as the inaugural Pro14. Ireland powered their way to Grand Slam glory in the Six Nations and then went on to claim a special 2-1 series victory in Australia.
Hansen said that the winner of this one-off contest between the No 1- and 2-ranked teams should be recognised as the world’s best side. Ireland and the All Blacks went into the game in Dublin with similar records as far as the 2018 season was concerned. Following Ireland’s win, it’s fair to say that the question regarding the best team of the year has been emphatically answered.
Give Ireland their due for what they have accomplished in 2018. At the same time, consider what the most recent result could mean for world rugby, and how it may stimulate the All Blacks to revise and tweak their game – which has been the envy of opposing nations for the better part of a decade.
The Bok win in Wellington was a triumph in isolation. Ireland made history when they beat New Zealand for the first time in Dublin. These are the one-off results and performances that people will be talking about for years to come, and for good reason.
The All Blacks have been the No 1 side in the world since 2010, though. They’ve enjoyed sustained success, winning seven Rugby Championship titles and two World Cups.
They haven’t been at their best in 2018, but one gets the feeling that they will come back stronger next season. After just two defeats, it’s too early to talk about a New Zealand decline.
The challenge for sides like Ireland and South Africa in the lead-up to the 2019 World Cup is consistency. Ireland have to back up their performances in 2018 with another dominant showing in the next Six Nations.
The Boks may end up facing Ireland at the global tournament in Japan next year. If the Boks finish second in their pool – or more specifically, if they lose to the All Blacks in the opening game – they will face the winner of a pool including Ireland and Scotland.
The All Blacks will travel to the next World Cup as favourites. That said, what the recent results in Wellington and Dublin have shown is that the Boks and Ireland can beat the All Blacks in a one-off.
Perhaps the biggest lesson to take from the recent games is that we should expect the unexpected. After watching the Boks guts it out for a win in Wellington, and after witnessing Ireland outmuscle and outsmart the All Blacks in Dublin, we have no reason to put all our faith in a script that ends with a late New Zealand surge and victory.
Come 2019, we will be watching a different, less predictable movie. That can only be good for a game that has, until recently, been dominated by one team for too long.
Photo: Phil Walter/Getty Images