Before the last Rugby World Cup, the New Zealand coaching staff had a huge decision to make. Nehe Milner-Skudder was tearing it up in Super Rugby, had earned two international caps, and Hansen had to decide whether he was worthy of selecting him over previous World Cup winner, Israel Dagg. The phrase “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough” prevailed, and Dagg was omitted. Veteran Cory Jane also missed out.
Milner-Skudder went on to score four tries in the RWC before getting injured, and was also awarded World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year. The risk paid off.
In the same World Cup, Ireland reached the knockout stages. They suffered a few injuries, one player was suspended, and they lacked the strength in depth to overcome Argentina. Competition over.
The upshot is that Ireland coach Joe Schmidt took from that experience. There’s a saying, coined by Albert Einstein, that states “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Schmidt is far from insane.
On Saturday, the 5th of November, Schmidt coached an Irish team to arguably their biggest win in their history against New Zealand. They put 40 points on the scoreboard. An unbelievable performance that was hailed by Steve Hansen himself.
Ireland won that game without Sean O’Brien, Mike Ross, or Peter O’Mahony. Tadhg Furlong, 24, started at tighthead. Jordi Murphy, 25, started at seven, and, when he injured himself, was replaced by 23 year old Josh van der Flier. 21 year old Joey Carbery debuted from the bench.
Of the 23 man squad that made history, nine were 25 years of age or younger. To think that most of these players achieved something the likes of Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll, or Keith Wood could never achieve on their first try is amazing. Granted, Ringrose and Marmion didn’t make an appearance, but still, the future is bright.
The All Blacks will never instill the same fear in these players that they do others; these Irish players know the All Blacks are not untouchable. Don’t get me wrong, they’ll respect them. But fear won’t enter the equasion. As CJ Stander said:
I won’t say there has always been a mental block but now that barrier is broken, we have to start thinking about what we can achieve as a team, to put in a shift, make it two from two – that would be stuff you can write in your book one day.
A week later, 23 players were named to face Canada. Of these 23 players, 13 were 25 years old or younger. Not only that, but eight of the 23 man squad earned their first cap. Young Ultan Dillane earned Man of the Match. Ireland put 52 points on the scoreboard. Not too bad either.
Schmidt was often criticized for Ireland’s lack of running rugby and Heaslip’s try against Iraly in the Six Nations was probably the most exciting try Ireland scored for a while. Yet in their last two games, one of them being against back-to-back world champions, they scored a total of 92 points, scoring 13 tries.
On Saturday, Ireland will face the All Blacks again. Win or lose, it’s the performance that matters most. A win would be an awesome achievement, but you can guarantee Ireland will push themselves to the limit. But let’s look at some of the younger players, starting with the pack.
Jordi Murphy can deem himself extremely unlucky to be ruled out for an extended period. He was rewarded with the seven jersey by Joe Schmidt for a great summer tour. Although he has a lengthy spell ahead in rehab, he will come back swinging.
Josh van der Flier has had a fantastic couple of seasons with Leinster, and when he replaced Murphy against the All Blacks, the red scrum cap could be seen all over the pitch as he tackled everything that moved.
Ultan Dillane, who won the Pro 12 with Connacht last season, made an appearance off the bench against the All Blacks, and carried very well. The Kerryman went on to win Man of the Match against Canada the following week, putting his hand up for selection against the All Blacks. I’d select him.
Finlay Bealham, another Pro 12 winner, played 23 minutes against New Zealand, and was very impressive against Canada, offloading beautifully to set up a Tiernan O’Halloran try. Not to mention the hits he put in.
Tadhg Furlong became the master of the choke tackle and was praised nationally. Jack O’Donoghue, James Tracy, and Dan Leavy were all impressive against Canada. John Ryan is having a monster season for Munster and got his reward versus Canada.
Moving on to the backs, and Robbie Henshaw scored the try that out the nail in the All Black coffin. He was also very impressive in the last World Cup. He is still only 23.
Joey Carbery had the debut one could only dream of, beating the All Blacks in his first international appearance. Nine games previous, he was playing for Clontarf RFC in the AIL. Quite a rise, but as Steve Hansen will tell you, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. And trust me, he’s good enough.
We were forced to wait to see Garry Ringrose on the international stage, and I’m sure he was itching to get the opportunity. He played well against Canada, ghosting around defenders at times and certainly didn’t look out of place. I’m even willing to forgive him for the fact I bet on him to score twice. I’m sure the idea of moving Payne to 15 to open up a spot for him will cross Schmidt’s mind more than once this week.
All in all, these young players stepped up to the plate and performed. Creating history wasn’t a daunting prospect, and scoring fifty plus against Canada, although scrappy at times, was not out of their reach.
Carbery is improving with every passing week, and is now the third choice 10 behind Sexton and Jackson. Henshaw is one of the first names on the teamsheet, and Ringrose will continue to knock on the door. Nine remains a problem, as there is still too big a gap between Murray and Marmion, but give it time. I’m especially excited to see Niyi Adeolokun, another Pro 12 champion, get more game time. He’s electric, and a fantastic finisher.
The depth in the Irish pack is impressive. To quote Neil Treacy, Ireland have so many quality looseheads you could probably find one down the side of your couch. The ever present Mike Ross is now third choice tighthead. We have a plethora of second row and back row players, so many that Joe Schmidt will have a serious headache selecting a seven to join Stander and Heaslip in the backrow.
The game against Argentina in the last World Cup was a step too far because Ireland lacked the strength in depth needed. That weakness is now being assessed with every passing Test, with players stepping up when asked to.
Schmidt isn’t doing the same thing over and over again, hoping something will change. He’s ensuring that history doesn’t repeat itself.
A special shout out has to go to Billy Holland. He may not be a young man, but he worked tirelessly to achieve his dream. Congratulations, Billy. It’s well earned. Enjoy it.