Sometimes you can just tell when a certain moment has shaped the future of a particular team, club or sport.
When Manchester United won the club’s first ever treble under Sir Alex Ferguson in 1999, their triumph capped off a remarkable period of success for the club. United had just won their fifth Premier League title of that decade, as well as their first European Cup in over 30 years, and while that particular season ultimately led to Alex Ferguson becoming Sir Alex Ferguson, it was also the season which catapulted Manchester United into the global sphere as a brand, as much as a tremendously successful football club.
Similarly when the Boston Red Sox ended their 86 year drought for the World Series title in 2004, they also ended the Curse of the Bambino, and in the process laid the foundations for another decade of success that included another two World Series title wins.
Ireland’s win over the All Blacks in Chicago on Saturday may not be the start of an unprecedented run of success for Joe Schmidt’s side, but what it could do is rejuvenate international rugby and restore some belief that this New Zealand side can be beaten.
Over the last five seasons under Steve Hansen, New Zealand have won one Rugby World Cup, four Rugby Championships, five Bledisloe Cups and just recently clinched the world record for consecutive wins with 18 straight victories.
Before Saturday’s defeat to Ireland, the All Blacks boasted an average winning margin of 27 points throughout nine Test matches in 2016. They had lost just three games in the last four years under Hansen, and were facing a side that had never beaten them, at a stadium where they had scored 74 points just two years earlier.
They say gambling is a mug’s game, and it is, but matches like Ireland’s win over New Zealand on Saturday showed exactly why it’s cruel, unforgiving game. Every conventional statistic and relevant piece of data available to gamblers supported a comfortable win for New Zealand and it should have.
The All Blacks were facing an Irish team that had lost to both England and France in the Six Nations, as well as a side that had blown a 1-0 summer series lead against South Africa, a team that New Zealand had just routed 57-15 in Durban in their last test match a month ago.
But gambling works on probability and there are no certainties, as one New Zealand punter found out on the weekend.
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However, gambling aside, Ireland’s win on Saturday was gigantic for the team, union and country, and also ended a 111 year run of losses against the All Blacks.
The jubilation and sheer joy on the Irish player’s faces after the game demonstrated just how much that win meant to the Irish team, but their triumph could end up meaning so much more for international rugby as a whole.
If you want to know why the English Premier League is the most popular league in world football, it isn’t because of its manager’s larger-than-life personalities or the atmosphere at the games, as much as Sky Sports and BT may beg to differ, it’s because the league is competitive, particularly in comparison to it’s European counterparts.
Over the last four seasons the Premier League has had four different winners each season. By comparison, the Italian, French and German leagues have all been won by just three clubs over the same time period, while Spain’s La Liga has only recently become a three horse race over the last few years.
Obviously there are marketing and cultural factors that are at play when assessing a league’s popularity, but nevertheless, fans want to see competition.
If one team routinely dominates, a competition will inevitably become stale. With the exception of the 2003 Rugby World Cup, the southern hemisphere trio of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand have largely dominated international rugby.
The bridge between Australia and South Africa, and the European sides and Argentina, has definitely narrowed over the last decade but New Zealand has recently entered a league of their own in the last five years.
Steve Hansen’s New Zealand team co-exist in a rarefied territory of dominance seen by only a small handful of other sporting teams.
The current rendition of the All Blacks are among the most dominant teams in world sport, and their ridiculous level of success has probably bettered international rugby as a whole.
More and more international sides are starting to emulate New Zealand’s attacking, expansive brand of rugby, and as a result the sport is becoming a much better spectacle, which is particularly beneficial when you’re trying to break into the highly lucrative, yet extremely demanding and unforgiving American sports market.
But rather than trying to copy New Zealand’s exciting style of play, Ireland’s victory on Saturday was a throwback to an increasingly fading brand of rugby – a no-nonsense, confrontational style of rugby which focused on disrupting the opposition’s line-out and scrum, winning the territory battle through expertly placed tactical kicking and a great kick-chase, and scoring through pressure and a solid set-piece.
Who would have thought that such a style could still prevail against an All Blacks side that has cemented itself as the greatest attacking juggernaut in rugby history.. but it did.. and international rugby desperately needed it.
Ireland’s historic win on Saturday probably won’t derail the All Black dynasty, nor will it dramatically improve Ireland’s chances in next year’s Six Nations, particularly given the strength of Eddie Jones’ England, but what it could do is restore belief throughout international rugby that this All Blacks side is beatable, even when everything else tells us they’re not.
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