Black magic casts spell over Ireland as book slams shut on the Schmidt years
Ireland unable to find anything like the best of themselves against peerless New Zealand
Black is the colour. So Joe Schmidt’s six years in charge of Ireland draws to a profoundly disappointing close with the velvet colour of his native New Zealand defining both the brightest and darkest moments of his Ireland career. It finished 46-14 to the World Champions on a night which felt like a closing chapter in many ways here in Tokyo.
By the end, the All Blacks were playing for larks. Ireland’s year finished as it started, with a troubled and disjointed performance in which a seasoned team became haunted by mistakes and ball handling errors. In the end, they were vexed by their inability to recover the essence of their game in what was to have been their season of seasons.
There is nothing to be ashamed about in losing to one of the most formidable teams the game has produced and, as has been evidenced over the past month, one with a supernatural ability to shape-shift and reinvent. But it was a shame that Ireland could not at least find anything like the best of themselves over this night.
Ireland’s frustration could be distilled into one passage of play just before half-time. They were hanging onto their place in this World Cup by their finger nails, down 22-0 and inexplicably fumble-prone and skittish in the rare periods when they managed to get their hands on the ball. But in the minutes before the break, perhaps with the Kiwis taking a puff, they ran through a few phases and won a penalty.
Johnny Sexton had the ball under his arm and considered his options. Ireland were in a bleak place and from the stands you began to wonder. At what point does self-belief begin to drain from a team? At what stage does even a hardened and resilient unit begin to fold the tent in their minds and begin to resign themselves that a rough, rough night was all that awaited them.
Maybe Sexton would take the three: get something on the board. Optics and all that. No. He clenched his jaw and kicked to touch. And from the lineout, Ireland drove at New Zealand for 30 seconds of absolute fury which the All Blacks repelled. The exchange captured the thorny rivalry that developed over the past decade. And New Zealand would give them nothing here.
Another Ireland penalty was reversed when Peter O’Mahony was penalised for leading with the shoulder in the clear-out. Ireland trooped off to the dressing room scoreless, with Gary Ringrose and Robbie Henshaw both wearing heavy head bandages. The world champions bounced off the pitch. They were having the time of their lives.
Before the match, it had been very different. For well over two hours before kick-off, the atmosphere on the streets around Chofu had been buoyant and expectant. But as the minutes ticked down, inside the stadium, the evening turned weighty with significance. There were so many lasts on the line. As the teams went through their warm up paces, Steve Hansen, dressed in his regulation men-in-black attire, turned his back on Beauden Barrett, who was nailing a penalty from half way, and gazed down field at the Irish.
Schmidt, in his coaching gear, was so immersed in his coaching session that he might have been back in Palmerston North on some after school session. He was up on his toes, coaxing, calling, pointing. Maybe Hansen was just allowing himself a moment of reflection, enjoying the sight of his friend and rival sculpting and moulding the Ireland team into the unit that had enjoyed famous outings against his All Blacks in both Chicago and Dublin.
Or perhaps he was wondering if Joe, ever inscrutable and deliberate, had one more nasty surprise in store for him. He watched for a few minutes and then turned his back and moseyed up to where his own boys were warming up. When New Zealand returned to their dressing room, the response from the stands was warm. But for Schmidt, jogging off ahead of his squad, it was electric. And the din that emerged when the Irish squad marched back off the field wasn’t just deafening or celebratory. There was a hint of the feral about it.
It’s unlikely that any of these Irish players will ever again feel the stab of emotion that was generated by the hugely vocal Irish support during Ireland’s Call and, more spine-chillingly, when they drowned out the sound of TJ Perenara leading the haka with a sustained version of The Fields of Athenry. If anything could recalibrate the mindset and cussedness of Schmidt’s Ireland, this was it. It was a hugely evocative moment. The evening, too, was about perfect: 18 degrees and dry and no breeze. It was tempting, in that moment, to forecast a return to the vintage Ireland that had unsettled the world champions in previous outings.
But half an hour later, the scoreboard read 22-0. The statistics would show that by this stage, Ireland had already made 60 tackles and missed seven. The New Zealanders had made 33, missing zero. But there are no statistics to measure the degree of frustration and fury the seasoned Irish players must have felt at the number of errors, unforced and otherwise, they had already committed.
Gifting this New Zealand team the ball is, in the context of rugby, suicidal behaviour. No team can match their brilliance for alchemizing a moment of broken play or tiny errors by the opposition into devastating moments of swift, punishing brilliance. The worst moment for Ireland came in the 31st minute, when Sexton was hit by Sevu Reece as he tried to find Rob Kearney with the pass.
The fullback was running a line that was precariously close to Sexton anyway: the pass would have been difficult to make. But Reece jarred the ball loose and Beauden Barrett moved with that catlike suddenness of his and was clear, footying the ball forward and then calmly, inevitable following it and touching down for the try that killed the quarter-final as a contest. Nigel Owens asked for a replay, wondering if Reece had knocked the ball forward. But no: the ball had been prised free with his head. There was no knock on; no sparing Ireland.
Four minutes later, a routine exchange between Conor Murray and James Ryan led to another knock on. Joe Schmidt, captured on the big screen, allowed his head to sink low. It must have been like watching a team he didn’t recognise.
The second half brought Ireland back to territory they are all too familiar with: watching New Zealand teams perform in Rolls Royce mode against Ireland teams that are hurting physically and mentally and are beginning to look frayed and vulnerable. After Codie Taylor crashed home under Ireland’s post in the 43rd minute, it looked as if New Zealand were in the mood to deliver a severe hour of corporal punishment on the team that had eclipsed them a year ago.
They were able to do what they wanted with the ball by now. And after Matt Todd added another try, the talk in the huddle must have included an ambition to leave Ireland stuck on zero on the scoreboard. That would make it a night to remember.
There was a generous round of applause when Rory Best walked away from his Ireland career in the 63rd minute. The reasons behind Ireland’s mystifying and deeply disappointing failure to ignite in Schmidt’s last year will not be disclosed in the post-match discussions but will surely come to light in the years ahead, in memoirs and interviews when, one by one, the veterans of this team take their leave. They’ll get hammered for this performance in some quarters for failing to do what the last four years suggested they could: push Irish rugby into the closing stages of a World Cup.
That’s the game. But then you watched Joey Carbery and Garry Ringrose dancing through the thick black plumes of New Zealand defence and Robbie Henshaw, on a night of heavy frustration, getting across the line for Ireland’s first try and you couldn’t accuse them of having quit. It’s the roughest experience in sport: competing when you are sick to your stomach.
And it was, on some level, sad that Ireland and its supporters had been kicked back to wistful place of the old order, reduced to hoping for just the sight of a try against the New Zealanders. It came down to the old truth. Ireland is a small country and rugby is strong in just a few pockets. In New Zealand, it is close to the national religion. They haven’t lost a World Cup match in 12 years. And in the end, Ireland didn’t come close to troubling them. It’s difficult to predict when they might do again.