Gordon D’Arcy: Ireland are serious contenders for World Cup

Gifted generation ensure New Zealand fully aware now of the threat to their crown

Ireland celebrate as  Jacob Stockdale scores the game’s only try. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Ireland celebrate as Jacob Stockdale scores the game’s only try. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

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Late, late Saturday night, when finally emptied from the Aviva Stadium, there wasn’t a rugby player among us.

Despite being in the company of Liam Toland, Mal O’Kelly, Peter Coyle, Bob Casey and our partners, all I saw were awestruck Irish fans who just witnessed a lovely moment of sports history.

“Even at my peak I don’t think I would have survived out there,” said Coyler as nostalgia briefly got the better of our former Leinster prop.

We laughed all the way home. That was the height of rugby reminiscing. Not a night for the war stories. It was about the here and now, as it should be after such a titanic Test match.

What comes next will take care of itself. Ireland are serious contenders for the big tournament in Japan; this we all know, and so do New Zealand.

We witnessed a team that plays for each other, no matter what comes at them. From their solitary step towards the haka to closing the circle around the leaders’ last few words, it was a special and unforgettable occasion in Dublin.

I convinced myself in the days and moments leading up to kick-off that Ireland would struggle to beat these All Blacks. No Conor Murray – a doubt in the mind. No Seánie [O’Brien] and then Dan Leavy was gone– further doubt.

Battling without Robbie Henshaw, worry and doubt.

I know why these thoughts invaded my mind – I’m not a rugby player anymore. I’m not in Carton House feeling anger well up inside when the media questioned our chances 24 hours before we almost won the 2013 meeting.

It means I can only imagine how the culture and belief systems have been nurtured and grown in the following five years under Joe Schmidt.

We see now. We believe now.

The public’s perspective changed, perhaps forever more when it comes to the Ireland rugby team, around the moment when Pete O’Mahony grabbed hold of the Beauden Barrett grubber intended for Ben Smith to score.

That was a certain New Zealand try any other time they have played Ireland. The space was there, O’Mahony and the defensive line had rushed up, Barrett toe poked it perfectly to bounce up for Smith.

Finally, they had broken our line.

On board

When, somehow, O’Mahony turned and grabbed the ball something must have clicked in the All Black psyche. Of course they kept pounding away but Andy Farrell’s defence was not for cracking. That’s twice now, Lions and Ireland, that New Zealand have been kept tryless by the Rugby League legend’s defensive structures.

No fiver-pointer must seem so alien to them.

Let’s not be so hasty. Let’s not get too carried away. Let’s say Pete’s left hamstring had given up three minutes earlier than it did and Smith went under the posts. Barrett’s conversion would have made it a three point game, 16-13 to Ireland, with 15 minutes to play.

Where’s your money then?

That’s a genuine debate now. I don’t see us crumbling, by the way, not anymore. I see us manufacturing another score.

James Ryan: he played more like an All Black lock than Retallick and Whitelock on the night this record-breaking partnership struck 50 caps together. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty
James Ryan: he played more like an All Black lock than Retallick and Whitelock on the night this record-breaking partnership struck 50 caps together. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty

But I stopped thinking like a player last week. It’s over three years since the boots were unlaced in Donnybrook for the very last time.

Players are simple creatures. They always believe victory is possible over any team if the process is adhered to and everyone does their job. Dev Toner said afterwards that the Ireland team had never felt so confident, so mentally tuned into the job at hand.

They expected this performance. As should we.

It’s the rest of us who need to get on board. No need for arrogance on the level we’ve seen from other successful sporting nations but let’s get comfortable expecting the highest standards, because I can’t see this Ireland team dipping.

Look at the injuries again: no Henshaw (Bundee Aki nailed all his duties and some). No Seán O’Brien or Leavy (what a player Josh van der Flier has become). No Murray (Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath executed every task).

In contrast, the All Blacks badly missed Joe Moody at scrum time, Sam Cane in so many aspects of openside play and Sonny Bill Williams’ incomparable offloading ability.

The Jacob Stockdale try sits among the great moments in this ground: Simon Geoghegan eat your heart out, Stockdale rightly takes the plaudits but see the way Johnny Sexton manipulated Dane Coles into the big hit. The hooker was only on the field and wanted to put a shot on the seemingly brittle Ireland 10 [that old fable].

Coles got what he was after and it left gaps in behind.

Change direction

That’s how the move is supposed to work. The point is to sniff out space on the short side. The All Blacks come up clumped behind Coles to hit van der Flier or smother Garry Ringrose out the back. The switch to Bundee Aki forces them to rewire their brains. Everyone is wrong-footed (Kieran Read is laid out having fallen badly contesting the lineout with O’Mahony) so Ben Smith and the locks, Retallick and Whitelock, along with Aaron Smith must change direction to stop Stockdale.

Surely this Irish winger won’t try to chip two towering Kiwis?

Lesson learned from a few moments earlier when blocked down by Kieran Read, right? Carry and recycle. Play it safe, kid, and watch how the black jerseys turn you over.

Stockdale’s chip takes out the winger and locks while he destroys Aaron Smith for pace.

This move has been in the Leinster playbook since Joe landed in 2010.

I remember using it down in Montpellier in 2011 – me being the Bundee reverse runner who needs to throw the flat pass – the theory being we punish a team for putting their hooker at the tail of the lineout.

If Coles hadn’t gone so hard they might have been able to recover.

Ireland punish New Zealand for targeting Sexton. He knows he’ll be hit late. Johnny calls the move. He keeps possession until the charging bull fully commits.

It’s the genius of Johnny’s playmaking abilities – use the opposition’s analysis against them. They know we like to hit it up in midfield to set up phase plays. Johnny sees Coles eye balling him from 10 metres away and calls the play – like a great quarterback doing an audible on the line of scrimmage in the game of the year.

Any team can be manipulated. We showed them one way against Argentina.

Change the flow. Now, the move is designed to create easy yards.

Against Montpellier it looks like I throw the ball into touch but their lock deliberately knocks on my pass for Isa Nacewa and Sexton kicked the three points. Put Stockdale on the end of it and this happens. Joe Rokocoko was watching from the far touchline.

Stockdale, Ringrose and James Ryan are the children of 2009. When all of this began to seem possible. Not realistic, like everything has become after Saturday night, but possible. Penny for their thoughts back then is no longer needed. We know what these young men were dreaming about.

We watch them live it with pure happiness.

Gifted players

I met the great All Black centre Conrad Smith during the week – in slightly quieter confines than Brian and Tana. Also lacking the grandeur of that reunion – when we spoke about the Kiwi ways. You avoid contact, where possible and target space. Garry Ringrose does this every time – his kick that led to Barrett being bundled into touch was top-class execution.

It must be something special for Rob Kearney, Rory Best, Dev Toner and Johnny to be crossing the generational divide. They are watching gifted players who don’t have specific individual skills – pace, handling etc – they have everything in their locker.

And they will only get better.

Ryan played more like an All Black lock than Retallick and Whitelock on the night this record-breaking partnership struck 50 caps together.

There is something unique about him even in the company of Ringrose, Stockdale, Tadhg Furlong and others. His engine over 80 minutes and ability to carve out gaps. The reverse pass, via Devin, to put CJ Stander over the gainline. That’s not to take away from Furlong. The difference between Andrew Porter and Tadhg, at the moment, is you can get in Andrew’s way and he should go down. Do that to Furlong or Ryan and they’ll put someone else in the clear.

Stockdale, Ringrose and James Ryan are the children of 2009. When all of this began to seem possible

Imagine those standards. Only Sexton is better than the prop and lock in terms of distribution. Makes you laugh out loud, doesn’t it?

Now, I’m not one for getting carried away. Not anymore than I already have.

If we’re honest, what’s the real difference between the end game in 2013 and 2018?

My answer is Aaron Cruden’s game management.

The All Blacks have a problem. Too much talent! Not sure Steve Hansen, hand on heart, could tell you his best backline if the World Cup final was tomorrow.

Ben Smith is their ideal fullback but the need to get Damian McKenzie into the team leaves Smith on the wing and out of some important moments. Since losing to South Africa they are finishing with Richie Mo’unga at outhalf as Barrett goes to fullback. Inside centre also needs a permanent name.

What a very odd trap to fall into: the All Blacks remain a seriously good side but their directional players aren’t as effective. By not having the same support structures as his predecessor, Kieran Read is swimming on his own in so many instances.

Nobody will ever be able to emulate Richie McCaw’s calibre of leadership by deed and decision-making but McCaw had the finest lieutenants in Read and Dan Carter while Cruden, never mind Carter, instinctively knew where the chinks could be found (see his skip pass before Ryan Crotty’s 2013 try).

Scrumhalf king

To my mind, Conor Murray has become the undisputed scrumhalf king during his five-month hiatus. Aaron Smith has a pass from the heavens and TJ Perenara is a brilliant player but when New Zealand were under the pump Smith struggled. Same goes for any half back in that situation – except Murray.

In cold, wet New Zealand winters Ireland always gave the All Blacks a serious rattle – more than we didn’t – but we were unable to contain them because of how they backed themselves. They used to love contesting short restarts. That put us under enormous stress. They hunted our ball, took it off us, beat us down.

Last Saturday they didn’t contest the restarts in the same manner. Was that a window into these All Blacks’ soul? Did they truly believe in themselves when Ireland refused to wilt.

This is nit-picking.

It’s about to get very interesting. What do you think Hansen and Co are going to do during the New Zealand summer? They won’t be surfing and sipping beers. They will be deep in the hole trying to figure out how to stop Ireland or South Africa from becoming the undisputed world champions in Yokohama on November 2nd.

The All Blacks usually return from the crossroads with dark intent and new methods to bring the game to a level none of previously imagined.

But we have Joe, Johnny, Andy Farrell in a similar bunker.

Right now, we know the All Blacks are vulnerable. Beatable.

Things will change.

New Zealand rugby will unearth unknown riches between now and the World Cup. Remember, Jonah Lomu only appeared in the weeks before the 1995 tournament. Nehe Milner Skudder was a global surprise in 2015. We know they need a blindside to live beside the legends of Jerry Collins and Jerome Kaino.

But that’s for another time.

Let’s enjoy the afterglow.

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