From ‘perfect start’ to darkest finale

Minutes away from an historic triumph – then all Ireland’s good work came to nought

Paul O’Connell and his team-mates show their devastation after the final whistle. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

Paul O’Connell and his team-mates show their devastation after the final whistle. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

 

The one that got away alright. From trepidation, to hope, to excitement, to belief intermingled with continuing doubt, to genuine belief, and then dejection and even tears. It’s been a long week, and the memories won’t go away.

For Eddie O’Sullivan to describe the performance against New Zealand as Ireland’s best ever was very generous, and given these All Blacks have only lost one of their last 35 games, it has a certain validity. On another day, as All Black captain Richie McCaw admitted, Ireland would have won. Against anybody else, they probably would have won.

Yet describing a defeat as Ireland’s best performance ever? Seán O’Brien wouldn’t thank you for that. Ultimately, for all the brilliance of the first half, Ireland failed to close out leads of 19-0 and 22-7.

“It’s exactly how we feel,” admits Les Kiss. “We’ve seen some things that are nice and to create an energy that people want to engage with is fantastic. However it’s a game we should have taken. We’ve got to take the real lessons and stay focused on the ‘W.I.N.’ and what’s important right here and now, in the next minute, and unfortunately we didn’t quite nail it, and as good as it all was, as Seanie says ‘we lost, and that’s all there is to it’.”

Risteard Cooper, comedian, actor, sometime columnist for these pages, who watched it all in the East Stand Upper, reckons the players needed the help of a sports psychologist this past week.

“I know it’s their job to recover but I’m finding myself in the middle of the hall just stopping and reliving the last minute and a half hoping for a knock-on or some mistake. I think it’s possibly the most heartbreaking scenario you could create. A good friend texted me on Wednesday saying: ‘When does the feeling go away?’”


The build-up
“The coaches let the players kind of take control of things on the Friday and the Saturday,” says Devin Toner. “Joe is really big in the detail and we are kind of spoon-fed, so Paulie and Drico took over from the captain’s run on the Saturday. Paulie spoke really well. ‘We have all our plays. We know what we’re doing. We just have to get emotionally set for it’.”

A week on from his first trip back to the Aviva since retiring, Ronan O’Gara felt both more comfortable in himself and in his expectations of his former team-mates. “I knew there’d be a huge response. We were all shattered after the Australian game, but the great thing about sport is you’re challenged every week, certainly in Test rugby.”

“I definitely sensed there was something growing, for sure,” says Kiss. “I think we all did. It was just the culmination of four weeks together, the guys getting their heads around some different directions.

“That’s not to say they’re not ready for every Test, and it shouldn’t be for a cause even though New Zealand is a big cause, but there was something special building. It can’t just be taken in the context of the day, but of the week. The frustration of the Australian game was obvious, and Paulie and Drico started to control the rest of the week. They went into that ‘huge game’ mode.”

“Paulie spoke really well before the game,” recalls Toner. “He was saying ‘this is one of the biggest games so we’ve got to go into it flying. It really helped our minds focus, seeing Paulie speak like that.”

First half
One try. Two tries, Three tries. 19-0.

“It just showed that when the simple things are done with intensity how effective a team can be,” says O’Gara. “It was just getting over the gain line, quick ruck ball, ball on a plate, Murray pass, change the point of attack, high intensity rugby.”

“But the big thing for me was ‘don’t ever underestimate the value of the crowd’,” adds O’Gara, a pitchside RTÉ pundit.

“And it was the first time in the Aviva we’ve had a crowd like that. People will say that’s the first time the team gave the crowd something to cheer about. Point accepted. But I think we need to find a balance between looking after the corporate sector, and the genuine supporter; the person in Thomond Park with his packed lunch. We need that to return.”

Perfect start
“The atmosphere was ridiculous,” says Toner, “and then we made the perfect start to the game. We started to believe from there. Our line speed in defence was good and we missed hardly any tackles. Our breakdown was good too, but that was wholly down to the ball carrier. If he gets past the first tackle, or finds a soft shoulder, it makes the ruckers’ jobs so much easier. Cian was like a wrecking ball.”

There were also spells of brilliant Irish defending, for this was a game of unusually high try-line action. “What was our good about our stuff, because we’ve changed a few things,” says Kiss, “is that they got their synchronicity right, and a continuity of body language in communication. It doesn’t all have to be verbal. Defence should serve attack and all the parts of our game were in a pretty good place.”

Kiss highlighted Toner getting to his feet and filling the blindside line which the All Blacks attacked before Israel Dagg spilled the ball into Rob Kearney’s hands for the third try. “They overplayed their hand with a miss pass because we didn’t give them any space.”

“When Kearney scored the noise levels and the belief went to a new level,” says Cooper. “We’ve seen it before with Ireland, the Gary Halpin days. ‘Don’t poke the beast’. But when you see that bit of luck, which we never, ever get against New Zealand, I thought ‘this is our day’.”

Cue the Julien Savea try, off a beautifully weighted Aaron Cruden chip. Kiss says: “You never like to concede any try but they had to find it through a kick which was a clue for us to stay strong and keeping backing what we were doing.” Even then, Sexton’s penalty made it 22-7 at the break.

“Sitting next to Shane Horgan and discussing it as friends,” recalls O’Gara, “I just said: ‘It’s going to be very hard to lose this now.’ For the ball to pop into Kearns’ hands and run 60 yards, on those kind of days you think it’s just going to happen. And (Dan) Carter wasn’t playing.”

“Watching the body language of the players as they went into the dressing-room was brilliant. I’ve been there, when you’re part of a team that feels something special is happening, and it’s a special feeling.”
Half-time

“There was a controlled energy more than anything else,” recalls Kiss. “There wasn’t any disbelief or backslapping. It was important the players had their two or three minutes to suck it in because we’d made 78 tackles in the first half, and we did a fair bit with the ball in hand.”

“The message was ‘this wasn’t about shutting up shop’. We wanted to encourage them to stay in the space they were in, to keep trusting and building and growing on those things they’d be doing. We also stressed it was important to score again, preferably early in the half.”

“We dropped a few balls and that meant they spent more time in our 22,” says Kiss. “We made 152 tackles in the second half – 230 in the game – which is massive and that meant an accumulation in fatigue. We didn’t manage things as we would have liked, right through the half.”

52 mins: Cruden penalty makes it 22-10 after Devin Toner inadvertently blocked Wyatt Crockett’s charge. But look again at the first camera angle of Sexton’s clearing kick and Big Dev had clearly stumbled. “Just as I got there I stood in the ground and practically tripped into him,” recalls Toner. “And it’s so annoying because I didn’t mean to do it. But I could have killed myself.”

Soon after Ben Franks’ try Toner was replaced by Mike McCarthy and he admits: “That first half was one of the quickest games I’ve ever played in my life, and one of the most physical as well. So I was fairly blowing when I came off. But one thing I noticed immediately, you could hear so much more than when I was playing, especially when we got that maul going.”

“To be honest I didn’t have any doubts,” maintains O’Gara. “The counter argument is we didn’t score for 40 minutes but they didn’t have too many chances either.”

That Sexton took five or six seconds longer over the fateful 74th minute penalty, according to O’Gara, “makes absolutely no difference. There’s only one person who will ever know what happened the kick and that’s Johnny, because everyone else’s opinion is an opinion. I’ve been there. I’ve missed kicks, against Northampton (in the 2000 Heineken Cup final) and I just think it will be the making of Johnny. But no game is decided on one incident.”

That O’Gara is Sexton’s kicking coach at Racing seems more opportune than ever. “That’s a pressurised environment which no other player has. If you put your hand up to be the goal-kicker, you take that responsibility. You’ve a direct influence on every game. Indirectly, you have the mood of a nation on your shoulders. And don’t tell me we don’t think about these things.”

The replaced players stayed fairly quiet. “It was tough to watch,” says Toner. “You’re sitting there in your own world. Willie Bennett, our masseur, said: ‘Can we do it Dev? Can we do it?’ It was when they had a little chip over the top and Mads collected it. I was like: ‘Yes, we can. We can do it’. I was full sure on 78/79 that we were there. And then it happened.”

79 minutes, 33 seconds
: “Number 17, straight off your feet.” Nigel Owens.

“To give away a penalty 60 yards from your line you expect a team to be capable of defending,” says O’Gara. “For the All Blacks to have the mentality to do that under pressure is simply stunning . . .”

It really didn’t really matter that Aaron Cruden was permitted to re-take his conversion and duly secure the All Blacks’ 14th win out of 14 in the year. As Schmidt said afterwards, they wanted to do something that no Irish team had done before. “Once they scored the try I was on my way out anyway,” says Cooper. “I’ve never known an atmosphere like it – even in the old Lansdowne Road. People are comparing it to the (1991) quarter-final against Australia. I thought it was better than that. Apart from anything else the standard of the game was higher, and also our best ever player and the whole history he has with New Zealand. You just would have loved to have seen him get one over them. Just once.

“I couldn’t not shed a tear,” admits Cooper. “Going down the staircase there was a woman with her son, who was maybe 14 or 15, and he was just in pieces. The two of them were weeping, in a way I hadn’t seen before. He was obviously deeply affected, and a lot of people around me were in tears.

“Some people were really angry. Other people were just kind of: ‘well, typical, that’s what happens ’cos we’re Irish.’ I felt all those things. ‘What a stupid idiot for feeling that we could actually do this.’ And you felt kind of betrayed by your own emotions. It really put us through the ringer.”

The home dressingroom was morgue-like according to Toner. “It was very silent. Not much was being said. Head in the hands kind of thing. It was the biggest game of my career, but also the most disappointing.”

The postscript
“For the first two days I couldn’t leave my house,” admits Toner. “I walked around town on Wednesday and I must have had seven or eight people coming up to me. They’re still talking about it and it’s nearly a week later.” He keeps getting flashbacks. “Thinking about what could have happened. ‘What if this happened? What if that happened? What if I didn’t give away that penalty?’ Just ifs and buts, and still replaying it in your mind. I still am.”

“We knew it was a very emotional game because of all the history going into the game. But we can’t just feed off the All Blacks, we’ve got to be doing it in the Six Nations. As Rog said we’re a really good once-off team, but we can’t be. We’ve got to take it as a benchmark.”

“Ireland will improve,” says O’Gara, “no doubt about it.” The squad come together for two nights over Christmas and there is a Wolfhounds game against the Saxons in Kingsholm a week before the Six Nations opener against Scotland.

“Those two windows of opportunity are important,” says Kiss. “There’s a bit to learn and a bit to take forward and build on, because it’s not all doom and gloom. But it won’t just happen. We don’t want to be a talk team; we want to be an action team, and we’ve got to make sure that we leverage what we got out of it, and learn from what we didn’t get out of it.”