Ireland Rugby: Class of 2018 on the cusp of world domination
For the impact of that night wasn't just experienced in the sweeping hills of Donegal, the biting coasts of Waterford or the packed taverns of Dublin. The aftershocks of Ireland's victory relayed instantly; no nation has dominated their sport for as long as New Zealand have in rugby union, and on November 17th, Ireland didn't just threaten that supremacy, they planted a knife into the heart of that impenetrable image.
November 17th 2018. Undeniably the crowning moment of this year's rugby calendar. As Wayne Barnes blew the final whistle at The Aviva to confirm Irish victory over the revered All Blacks, Dublin erupted into a sea of green euphoria and with it a tectonic shift in the landscape of the international game, one not witnessed in a decade at least.
For the impact of that night wasn't just experienced in the sweeping hills of Donegal, the biting coasts of Waterford or the packed taverns of Dublin. No, the aftershocks of Ireland's victory relayed instantly to a country some 20,000km away. No one man or nation has dominated their sport for as long as New Zealand have in rugby union.
On November 17th, Ireland didn't just threaten that supremacy; they planted a knife into the heart of that impenetrable image, and gave New Zealand their first inferiority complex in as long as it cares to remember.
The sequential impact of that shift is personified in the modern day with All Black dominion, but it steeps further when digging into the heritage of this fixture. The first time these nations met, at Lansdowne Road in the November of 1905, almost 113 years to the most recent night in Dublin, New Zealand claimed victory. After 29 attempts over 111 years, Ireland finally claimed their first, utterly unexpected, in the equally historical Solider Field. For a stadium that has witnessed some of America's greatest athletes and defining events such as Super Bowl winning wrecking ball William 'The Fridge' Perry, the 1927 Jack Dempsey Gene Tunney heavyweight bout in front of 104,000 people, and the opening ceremony of the 1994 football World Cup, the fact this game is still discussed by natives in the city of Chicago symbolises the magnitude of that first ever victory for Ireland.
Whilst nobody had expected that 40-29 victory over the All Blacks, that win had paved the way for hope to grow into, at the very least, an element of sceptical expectation when New Zealand arrived for the game this autumn. Tactically, Ireland shape shifted in their approach, varying the counter attacking game that has been so effective under Schmidt, with diverging elements of territorial kicking, putting the usually unflappable Barrett and McKenzie in positions of great difficulty. While the attacking game flowed, the defensive fortitude of O'Mahony, Ryan & co ensured the nation of Ireland tasted victory on home soil over the domineering masters of the sport for the first time in the countries history. All that came before and immediately after seemed to pale into insignificance as Ireland became tamer of the beast and kings of the world simultaneously on one night in Dublin.
That stunning victory was supplemented with wins over the United States, Italy and Argentina. Not a trio to gauge major progress on, but 139 points scored against 38 conceded is brutal for those nations on the receiving end, add only 9 to that tally for a total of 45 points conceded across all four of Ireland's Autumn internationals. The least points conceded across all eleven nations that competed against Tier 1 opposition in November 2018.
Whilst Ireland are the ultimate team, the individuals that form to create such a dynamic and crushing machine have all hit the heights at the perfect time. Sometimes it's best to start at the top of the page, other times it's easier to begin with the greatest performer, sometimes, and in Tadhg Furlong's case, you find yourself at both. The tighthead burst onto the scene as a 24 year old and his meteoric rise has been justified with countless crushing scrummaging displays, including 3 tests in the colours of The British & Irish Lions, and the young man has grown decades in the previous 24 months, catapulting him to be recognised as rugby’s leading scrummager/playmaking hydrbid.
Rested for the clashes against the United States and Italy, the 6'1" prop has the subtlety and skill of the likes of Quade Cooper whilst maintaining the crushing power of a raging bull. He is a key cog in the Ireland juggernaut and one that any coach or director of rugby would pay anything for. On the other side of that Rory Best sandwich, is the experienced Cian Healy. Formidable in 2018, with a 98% tackle success rate, and being directly involved in 7 scrums that have resulted in an Irish penalty, age is certainly not slowing him down, yet.
Another man who has become accomplished in this set up over November is Josh van der Flier. The young openside has formed a formidable partnership with O'Mahony and Stander at the base of the Ireland scrum, but it's their versatility around the park, most notably young vdF who have kept the worlds best at bay. 30 tackles in the games against New Zealand and Italy all whilst being a constant pest at the breakdown. His performances are even more impressive after returning from a rough 6 months out through injury that forced him to miss most of the Six Nations. Another one with impressive success in the tackle (95%), with the numbers he's producing in defence, and the involvement leading directly to turnovers and penalties, he's put to rest the worry he might not be the same after his ACL rupture in Paris on the night Sexton delivered that timeless drop goal to seal the two point win. Ireland seem to have cracked the ever elusive balance at back row code that so many teams come so close but not close enough too, and how well it is serving them.
Whilst van der Flier was recovering, O'Mahony and CJ Stander were relentless. The pair featured together in all but one of Ireland's Grand Slam campaign (Italy), and they did it with frightening productive numbers. O'Mahony managed 40 tackles across the competition with counter part Stander denying waves of opposition attacks on 43 occasions, in one less game. Strikingly, Stander carried for a total of 125m accross all four games, and capped off a stunning quartet of outings with a try to seal it against England. A monumental year for Irish rugby solidified by the front 8 being crushingly effective and consistent. There are so many different styles in this Irish side that makes them so effective, and the ultimate Game manager, Johnny Sexton, coagulates them.
Fresh after winning Ireland's SPOTY, from that staggering aforementioned drop goal in Paris, to the complete performance in Dublin against New Zealand, Sexton is showing the versatility and athletic flexibility of a man 10 years his junior. The mind, hands and boot of Sexton are in complete harmony with one another, and its shows with output fine-tuned as the engine of a Rolls Royce. Across 2018, Sexton has amassed a total of 99 points, all from the boot, with 78% accuracy. Ball in hand and live play saw 306 passes, 113 kicks open play kicks, 62 tackles and 2 turnovers to complete what could, or maybe should, be the perfect preamble to a career defining year in 2019.
There are so many stars in this Ireland camp that it would be kinder to release an audiobook than the biblical proportioned scrolls required to detail all the elements that have made this side tick. Whilst there are no obvious weaknesses in this side, entering into Schmidt's final year will be an interesting one for incumbent Andy Farrell. Focusing on what he needs to deliver now for Ireland whilst capturing all of the learning he can mentally and physically withstand will be a daunting challenge, but one that he will likely relish.
2019 will be a fascinating one for this side. Defending a Grand Slam, they start with England, a side on the rebound offering multiple world class talent of their own, who will argue that 2019 is also their year. Next a trip to Scotland, where they played the part of loser in a repeat of this fixture in 2017. Italy in Rome and France both on home soil should be comfortable enough, with a showdown in Cardiff to cap off what will be an intriguing opening to the international season. The risk is Ireland fall foul at home to England, they have been successful in their last two attempts in Dublin, but the victories have been shared with two apiece since Ireland moved to the Aviva.
Next is Scotland, which is an altogether different conquest than it has been in the past decade. With Wales waiting in Cardiff, Ireland have at least three mouth watering challenges to overcome. A title or better, a back-to-back grand slam, the Irish go into Japan as hot favourites. Loose in Scotland or at home to England, emerge with injuries to ket talent, the questions will begin to be asked, and just as Ireland did to New Zealand in November, their own cloak of invincibility will fall.
For now at least, Ireland are the most formidable, threatening and dynamic team on the planet. The results and statistics speak for thsemselves. And whilst there may not be many certanties in life, one is sure, any team wishing to attain the Web Ellis Trophy in Japan, will most certainty have to go through Ireland first.