Unquestionably, one of the greatest days in Irish sport
I'm emotionally drained after watching Ireland beat the All Blacks in Dublin. Are you? Are you wrecked, do you feel physically gone, your nerve endings shot? I just want to sleep and get up late on Sunday and drench the newspapers in tea and buttered toast and reflect. And I am not even a natural rugby guy.
For me, here's why.
When you grow up as a sports obsessive, everything is in the bargain. I didn't go to a rugby school, and the oval ball game was in the lower part of my pecking order behind hurling, soccer, horse racing, golf and gaelic football. However, as an obsessive, I religiously watched the late Fred Cogley's commentaries of Ireland's Five Nations games on television in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Ireland would bizarrely always tend to win in Wales, but the rest of it was a mass of misery. I remember Chris Oti running rampant at Twickenham in 1988. One could forget about going to Paris or Murrayfield and coming out on top. We were ordinary, but it was the amateur era, it was a different time. There were one off moments of course, such as the 1991 World Cup when we frightened the hell out of eventual winners Australia, or 1994, when Simon Geoghegan scored a decisive winning try against England. Stolen moments amidst the misery.
When I think of history, even the 'Golden Generation' era of Irish rugby feels distant now. The Triple Crowns collected under Eddie O'Sullivan in 2004, 2006 and 2007 and the Croke Park game are in my rear view mirror. The breakthrough Grand Slam win after 61 years, orchestrated by Declan Kidney in 2009, as Ronan O'Gara put away that drop goal in Cardiff is black and white in my mind. The legend of Brian O'Driscoll. The legend of Paul O'Connell. Those memories feel out of reach.
Why? It's all because of one man, a New Zealand native, Joe Schmidt. And it's because Ireland are no longer contenders in international rugby, they are world beaters.
Joe Schmidt has brought Irish rugby into unknown territory, the Magellan of Mullingar fame charting a path which a few hours ago earned Ireland their first ever win over the All Blacks in Ireland since the first encounter in 1905. 16-9 in Dublin. Fact.
Chicago and the win at Soldier Field and the monkey off the back of defeating New Zealand for the first time two years ago was important, but to me there was always an asterix beside that shock. It wasn't played here and we possibly caught the All Blacks unawares. Most regular club members couldn't travel to see it happen. Most importantly, Ireland hadn't put themselves in a position with that victory to make a statement that they are the best team in world rugby. It would be hard to argue with Steve Hansen's fresh as paint claim right now, in the wake of a no excuses defeat, that Ireland are top dogs.
Schmidt had won 2 European Cups with Leinster and 2 Six Nations titles with Ireland before this year, but 2018 has been a game changer for the Green Giants. Think about it, a Grand Slam claimed with matches on the road against France and England. The St Patrick's Day win over England was comfortable. Think about it. A first series win in Australia since 1979. Think about it. And now, a deserved win over the All Blacks, rendered tryless, bullied, doubting. Think about it. The whole shebang. All the chips in the casino ready to be cashed.
So it was the certitude that we could do it and execute that sets this day apart. Johnny Sexton and Jacob Stockdale ransacking Ben Smith into touch late on was the symbol.
In 2013, Ireland were so, so close to beating New Zealand, but they caught us at the death to win 24-22. I had never seen the new Lansdowne Road catch fire and become an amphitheatre until that day. You could bottle and sell it for a few minutes and then it slipped from our grasp. The atmosphere leaving the stadium was funereal. One had that sense that Ireland were contenders, but would always fall short against the very best. It was sickening. That is why beating New Zealand in Dublin means a great deal, whatever anyone wants to say.
There will be those that say it's just a friendly, that it's not the World Cup. Fine. Ireland's inability to reach the last 4 of a World Cup is lamentable, but this year has been a clean sweep, against the entire planet.
Those that diminish this maiden win over the All Blacks at home in over a century are missing a trick. I instinctively know what an atmosphere should be like when something matters tremendously and the capacity Irish crowd brought it for 80 minutes. When Brodie Retallick dropped the ball and the game was over, the noise was deafening, the joy unconfined. I have only experienced that feeling 4 times at matches; when the Republic of Ireland defeated Germany in 2015; when Brazil won the Olympic soccer final in Rio in 2016; when Russia beat Spain at the World Cup in Moscow this year and in this game. You cannot fake electricity and Ireland had it from the moment Bundee Aki sang the national anthem, to what I felt was an ineffectual Haka, to the game itself.
What a whirlwind; Ireland's explosive physicality setting the tone, taking it to the All Blacks, removing them from their equanimity, prompting indiscipline and rash penalties. Every Irish player is a hero, but there were some superhuman displays; Peter O'Mahony, James Ryan, CJ Stander, Tadhg Furlong. Devin Toner bossed the lineout. Johnny Sexton was Johnny. Kieran Marmion was assured under pressure. And in Stockdale, Ireland allied the carefree nature of youth to their crushing performance. Stockdale's 52nd minute try was a brave execution of insouciance, imagination and pace considering he had almost gifted Kieran Read a touchdown earlier on. Of course New Zealand were going to up it in the last 10 minutes, and they did, turbo charged, but Ireland weren't going to be denied. We were lucky at times, but we rode it.
Our strength in depth without Conor Murray or Sean O'Brien or Robbie Henshaw is startling. There may be those that downplay what's happened, but New Zealand will be hurting, smarting. They won't like it. Their media won't. Ireland have been a nation that has hoped to reach a World Cup semi final for over 30 years. Earlier this year most of us felt we could win the World Cup. Make no mistake, after this, Ireland can win the 2019 World Cup in Japan.