Victory in the New Zealand series seals Ireland's deserved place at the top of the world rankings

Victory in the New Zealand series seals Ireland’s deserved place at the top of the world rankings

Ireland’s two-week stint at the top of the world rankings in September 2019 has always felt downright uncomfortable at the time, given the team’s inconsistent form this year. Certainly it was a bad omen for the World Cup. But sitting on top of the world today after completing a historic and titanic series of comebacks against the All Blacks doesn’t feel out of place at all.

In fact, aside from winning the World Cup, it’s hard to imagine what could actually top that.

Becoming only the fifth team in history to win a series against the All Blacks in New Zealand in more than 60 such ventures by all comers is a milestone – South Africa 1937, the Lions 1971, Australia 1986 and France 1994 emulated performance itself, perhaps the high point in Irish rugby history.

It’s not a coincidence either. The feeling that something special was building under Andy Farrell, particularly after his feat in recruiting Paul O’Connell, hardened as Ireland won 12 of their 13 Tests prior to this series.

But the reaction to the losses in both Paris and now Auckland over the last two weeks bears this out. This is a special Irish team and, if not already, has the potential to become the best Irish team of all time.

Farrell inherited a significant legacy from Joe Schmidt and in his own, comparatively benevolent way, both replenished and expanded that team’s staffing, ambition, mental strength and resilience. The unprecedented success of this tour would not have been possible without all of these ingredients, in spades.

Playing two more games against the Maori seemed borderline masochistic, so rebounding from losing the first two games and then winning the last three made it an even more rewarding tour.

But even he wondered if he was asking too much.

“Every day. Every day,” he admitted. “I was asking too much of myself and the staff as well, but that was the point, to see if we have excuses, to see if we have people who just have tunnel vision and start taking care of yourself instead of ‘team first’ – because that’s a big mantra of ours.

“So that way, we would always get the insights we were longing for. Of course, there is a bit of luck here and there, but there were never any excuses. Only these guys know – the people who are part of the group know the truth. We put them under a lot of pressure on purpose and they never missed a beat.

“Not one person had an apology, not one person revealed anything. They were incredibly easy to handle and they all bought in so it’s very special to come out with what is the hardest thing in world rugby in these conditions.”

More than anything, Farrell wanted to test the mental strength of the team and see it continue to grow.

“And you’ve seen it in abundance. The best part of the game, like I said, when they came back at us we stayed neutral. We never missed a shot, we got back on track. We knew they would always have a big purple spot because they always do. I found that mentally we are very strong and we are getting better and better at that.

“Are we anywhere near where we want to be? Were not. We are definitely not. You may think I’m just throwing this out, but it’s the truth. You got this guy (Sexton). We have people telling us to keep it at home (before we leave) so we can build something. But what an opportunity would have been to see it done right, set up a team, be a world-class player and believe so badly that little old Ireland could beat New Zealand in New Zealand. So bring your best players with you so they can expand the group.

On the notion of Ireland peaking too soon before another World Cup, Farrell countered: “It’s about growth and learning the lessons of the Tour so it’s up to us to make sure we keep going. But don’t let a little bit of success put you off, you know. Have you reached into the loops too early again? Couldn’t be further from our heads. The only thing that applies to us is: keep moving forward.”

Of course, at the center of it all was the amazing Johnny Sexton in the week he turned 37 as captain, tactical pivot, goalscorer and defensive cog in 10-channel with 14 tackles.

He cited the game against Twickenham as an example of the team’s mental growth in the white heat of battle when the tide is against them.

“Yeah, that’s something we’ve been working on really hard since the World Cup – first Faz and then Gary Keegan who has a big part to play,” Sexton explained. “But it doesn’t just change automatically. It was gradual. I think we saw some improvement through the Six Nations where the thing swung when we were playing against 14 men and we recovered from that.

Maintaining the theme, Sexton added: “It’s only been 18 months since we were completely written off, that shows that too, that shows steadfastness. It would be great to select some of the articles written about us and about me 18 months ago. But it’s amazing, you know what I mean? It would be good to go back and look and keep our feet on the ground. It shows how strong we are mentally for it.”

Sexton started all three games back-to-back despite some typically wild speculation about his well-being and lazy, loose references to a French doctor’s inaccurate comments that he had over 30 concussions, though the same doctor subsequently apologized to Sexton. In the days following the first Test loss, it was, as usual, an open season for Johnny amid the evidently negative reaction at home.

His starting in all three Tests and starring in Ireland’s two victories also contradicted Warren Gatland and Gregor Townsend’s rationale for not picking the Ireland captain on last year’s Lions tour. That decision looked wrong then and looks even more wrong now, but perhaps the Lions’ loss was Ireland and Sexton’s gain.

For the most part, knowledgeable Kiwis have been tirelessly generous in acknowledging that Ireland played wonderful rugby and deserved their success. Ian Foster was first among them, which may have been a means of distracting attention from his own coaching ticket, which was under siege by his assistants.

Their scheduled press conference yesterday was cancelled, prompting a statement from New Zealand rugby chief executive Mark Robinson.

“Congratulations to the Irish team on their well deserved win last night but the All Blacks’ performance throughout the series was clearly not acceptable as we know they reflected. We all know there is a lot to do. Our focus now is to work with Ian and his team to gain a thorough understanding of what it takes to improve performance and how to proceed ahead of the Rugby Championship. We will start this work immediately.”

It wasn’t exactly a creed, nor was it the dreaded vote of confidence from the football chairman, more of a last fortnight try for South Africa’s forthcoming two rugby championship games at altitude.

It will be interesting to see if Joe Schmidt, whose role in week one may have been overstated in hindsight, is now more hands-on than just a technical adviser and how the All Blacks fare against South Africa in those two games in particular.

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