They were oh so close. This present crop of Irish rugby players has given the people of Ireland a lot to be proud of, and they did so again in the final November International against the almighty All Blacks.
Ireland may have walked away without a historic win, but had the Autumn series finished after the Australia game, things would be a whole lot worse.
The Joe Schmidt era started on a positive note, a comfortable 40-9 win over a depleted Samoa side an easy initiation for the former Leinster coach in international rugby.
All the optimism surrounding the Samoan result soon evaporated, however, as the Wallabies strolled into town and dominated a lacklustre Ireland side, eventually running out 32-15 winners. Three points down at half-time, Ireland conceded 17 second half points, and looked out of sorts.
Australia’s third try was indicative of the sub-standard Irish performance, as Luke Marshall inexplicably missed a routine tackle to allow the impressive Quade Cooper stroll in for an easy try, and end the game as a contest. Suddenly, it was dejection and heart-break that dominated the Aviva atmosphere, a tone that Irish fans know all too well.
It wasn’t too dis-similar to the feelings that surrounded the final months of Declan Kidney’s reign as the Irish supremo – sheer disappointment and disillusionment – and wondering is this the end of the so called ‘golden era’ for Irish rugby?
The performance of Brian O’Driscoll in particular, was unusually subdued, and one has to wonder, has the end finally come for Irelands, possibly the worlds, greatest centre? His performance against an under-strength Samoa was decent – the pass that led to Sean O’Brien’s try was sheer class – but has his ability to compete against the bigger nations disappeared?
These questions and doubts, surrounding both O’Driscoll and the entire squad, were definitively answered in a monumental battle against the All-Blacks. Granted, Ireland lost 24-22 after the sickening concession of an injury-time try, having led for the entire game, but the performance levels of the Irish players were immense.
Ireland found themselves 19-0 up after less than 20 minutes, and clearly Schmidt insisted the Irish players used their physicality more robustly – and they did so with real vigour. Unlike the Australian game, Ireland dominated the breakdown, where Gordon D’Arcy and many others worked ferociously hard to yield positive results.
Seán Cronin, according to George Hook post match, had his ‘best game ever’ for Ireland, after he was introduced following an injury to Rory Best in the opening half. The Kearney brothers and Conor Murray also stood out on a memorable day, but unfortunately, the Irish team didn’t get the result, that in truth, they deserved.
Flat on their feet and mentally exhausted, the concession of the late try was perhaps inevitable, but now, once that’s forgotten, it’s time to look forward.
The benchmark for future performances has been set. The key for Joe Schmidt and his backroom team now is how to replicate this immense physical effort during the Six Nations, and to do so on a more regular basis.
Consistency has never been a trait of Irish rugby, particularly in recent years, but it has to become the norm if this team is to progress. Such a fluctuation in performances over one week shows that this Irish team is capable of doing just about anything – good, bad or indifferent – when it takes to the field.
Ireland must also become more accustomed to playing well without having their backs to the wall. The underdog tag shouldn’t be an incentive for Ireland to perform – they should perform well, regardless of the calibre of the opposition.
Nonetheless, as the international scene now takes a back seat with the winter setting in, the Irish players can be happy that they have ended a poor 2013 on a positive note, even if it was only a ‘moral victory’.
For Schmidt and Co. it is now time to make sure that Ireland compete with the same intensity in the upcoming Six Nations campaign – if the performance of the team can remain somewhere close to the New Zealand effort, there may be a rosy road ahead for Joe Schmidt’s reign as Ireland manager.