Ireland might just have offered the Lions a foot in the doorway. Whilst Irish eyes will be positively luminous over the next two weeks, an unparalleled performance from the men in green has offered some hope that the Lions can be victorious when they head to New Zealand next year.
The match started as many thought it would, with the All Blacks looking lethal. Waisake Naholo’s scything run made a mockery of Ireland’s defence to set up an opportunistic George Moala and it seemed history would be repeating itself once more.
Yet what followed was one of the truly great performances of Irish rugby and one that was so typically Irish in its nature.
Joe Schmidt’s men were beautifully confident, tremendously well organised, ruthlessly efficient and uncompromising in both attack and defence.
Like all of Schmidt’s best wins since the beginning of his time in charge, this was a victory defined by Ireland’s ability to out-think the opposition, but also to put a stranglehold on their ambition.
In attack, Jordi Murphy’s try that provided the side’s early lead was built on pragmatism, determination and clinical finishing, and just the kind of score the Lions will need to achieve to stand any chance of being competitive against the world’s number one team next summer.
With CJ Stander’s dive over the line it was much the same, but the ingenuity in the build up to the try was symbolic of Ireland’s performance as a whole. It wasn’t flash like so much of New Zealand’s play, but it worked.
Conor Murray’s fantastic dart for the line came from his forethought and awareness of space. His vision led to the change in direction for Zebo’s beautiful walk in to the corner. His magnificent game in Chicago has surely put him light years ahead of his rivals in Wales and at stretch England’s Ben Youngs or Danny Care. The Lions jersey is now his to lose.
Of course, Ireland have been in a position like this before and as if locked in a Bill Murray-inspired timeloop the All Blacks started their traditional comeback with 30 minutes to go, with Dane Coles showing off his awe-inspiring offloading skills, Ben Smith diving over in the corner and Scott Barrett scoring one of the most impressive debut tries you’re ever likely to see.
Yet this was not to be a repeat of Dublin in 2013 – yet another tiny moment of inspiration would send records tumbling across the sport and cascading ripples of pure bliss across the whole of the island of Ireland. Jamie Heaslip’s inside pass to Henshaw, who had been so impressive for the previous 75 minutes ensured it would be the underdogs enjoying victory.
However, despite the colossal important this scoreline has for the Ireland team in a historical sense, it is the first loss the All Blacks have felt since their surprise loss to Australia in August 2015 and only their fourth loss since 2011. So what, then, does this victory mean for the Lions?
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Well, firstly, Warren Gatland needs to do everything he can to get Joe Schmidt on board for the Lions coaching staff. This writer has already suggested a coaching combination of the Welsh head coach and Ireland’s supremo could be a fantastic combination in New Zealand next year.
To beat New Zealand, it comes down to the bleedingly obvious: fantastic fitness, efficiency in defence and clinical finishing, and the ability to spring a surprise at the most opportune moments. Gatland’s Lions and Wales teams are usually excellent at the first two in fixtures of immense pressure, but those little twists in tactics and approaches to game management are what make Schmidt such an intelligent coach. A mixture of Gatland and Schmidt, with either England’s Paul Gustard or Ireland’s Andy Farrell in defence could provide an excellent make-up of both brains and brawn.
Secondly, the Lions will need to be relentless for every single minute and every single second of each match. Against New Zealand there can be no let up. Even though Ireland opened up a huge 30 – 8 chasm between themselves and their opponents, the All Blacks almost found a way back and at 33 – 29 it could have gone either way. That Ireland found that resolve to finish the job says an awful lot about them as a team.
It seems likely now that the Lions team will be mostly Anglo-Irish in nature, with some tasty competition in many key positions across the field. But there is enough talent across the four nations that make up the team to be competitive against the All Blacks, even in their own back yard.
So many commentators and so many fans have said that next year’s tour can be nothing but disaster primarily based on past results, but Ireland have proven that history is bunk. It’s now time for the Lions to do the same.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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