There is no more iconic image of the All Blacks than an aerial shot of them pulling on their famous black shirts. But it was Ireland’s turn to touch the sky on Saturday after New Zealand’s historic win in this year’s Rugby World Cup.
The “allblack” is a nickname of the New Zealand national rugby team. The All Blacks have been undefeated since 1953. In that time, they have won 77% of their games and have never lost to Ireland. However, this match was closer than expected.
Ireland’s victory was celebrated in a way that has not been seen at the Aviva Stadium since before the Covid era.
If Andy Farrell had to come up with an one moment to represent his Ireland team’s comeback, he could have chosen James Lowe’s match-winning defensive read.
No one represented the early Farrell period troubles quite like Lowe, who was dropped with orders to concentrate on his defensive game.
And now, nine months later, he’s blitzing off his flank, clattering Rieko Ioane and preventing the All Blacks from exploiting an overlap that would have given them the lead with seven minutes to play.
The events that followed went on to tell the rest of the narrative.
First, Peter O’Mahony, whose reckless red card in Ireland’s Six Nations opener basically ruined their ambitions of fighting for the championship in record time, grabbed upon Ioane. Despite the presence of multiple All Black clearers, the Munster man was adamant in his refusal to move.
Joey Carbery was next. He was touted as Ireland’s next great fly-half prospect, but he was missing from Farrell’s early games in charge due to a string of injuries that threatened to destroy his career. But there he was, with a penalty on halfway, sucking the fight out of New Zealand and increasing his team’s advantage to six points.
Each moment was amplified by the fervent audience, whose deafening roar brought to mind the echoing, lifeless games performed in front of empty seats during the previous 18 months.
The first wave of joy that greeted spectators returning to stadiums was mostly missed by Test rugby’s schedule. Under the lights in Dublin, though, the importance of 51,000 fans, all of whom were practically as committed in the game as the players, was not lost on anybody.
The mood wasn’t the only thing that changed.
Since Andy Farrell took over as manager, Hugo Keenan and James Lowe have been brought to the squad.
The prognosis was dismal after a dreadful performance against France at home, which resulted in a second straight Six Nations loss. When faced with the possibility of playing a resurgent Scotland before their main tormentors, England, arrived in Dublin, one wondered where Ireland might turn for inspiration.
With Farrell’s arrival, Ireland might make a clean departure from the ultra-structured Joe Schmidt era, which had passed its course by the time Ireland arrived at the 2019 World Cup, despite being highly successful and even entertaining in sections.
Irish supporters had ideas of swashbuckling excitement from the start, having been promised an ambitious attitude.
In retrospect, the players’ reluctance to understand the newfound freedom on offer was an example of things being easier said than done.
It’s logical. After years of working in a system that methodically planned every aspect, play, and game circumstance, the new direction to play what they saw would have felt as strange to the squad as it did to the audience.
But Ireland has not been vanquished since that setback to France, and something has clicked, though no one knows what it is.
A mental game was changed.
There are observable distinctions that assist to understand why the turnaround occurred. Ireland’s starting front five have combined for an average of 20 passes per game in their past three games, compared to nine in Farrell’s first three.
The system provides a sense of security that didn’t exist in the outset. The transformation necessitated not just a change in appearance, but also a movement in mindset.
The Irish threw caution to the wind against the All Blacks in the first half, controlling territory and possession only to be blocked by otherworldly tryline defense until Codie Taylor’s sucker punch try saw the visitors take a lead into the sheds.
It was, they admit, a situation that might have squeezed the life out of Ireland not long ago.
“Previously, we would have claimed we didn’t take our chances, and we wouldn’t have given up, but we would have put our heads down,” Johnny Sexton said.
“This squad has put a lot of effort into improving our mental game.”
“It’s a tribute to the management, the leadership group, and the players themselves that they were able to bounce back and come back.”
‘From here, it’s hardly a direct route to the World Cup.’
As the ecstatic crowd departed into the Dublin night, Ireland was left to consider the implications of their triumph against New Zealand.
Sexton noted in the locker room that they were quick to recognise how different this triumph had to be from the memorable victory in 2018.
That was the most Ireland could hope for throughout Schmidt’s tenure. It established them as the greatest team in the world a year before the World Cup; by the time they arrived in Japan, they were nowhere near the top five, despite the ranking system’s quirks still placing them first.
They may be able to take advantage of the fact that the next event in France is still two years away this time.
From here, it’s hardly a direct route to the World Cup. Before then, there are two Six Nations tournaments to contend with, as well as a three-Test trip to New Zealand.
Warning: Ireland’s current undefeated streak will end before the World Cup.
This isn’t a negative thing. Because, if Ireland has actually learnt from their victory over the All Blacks in 2018, they will have acknowledged that hiccups on the path will occur, and that when they do, they will not produce a crisis.
For the time being, Andy Farrell and his Ireland side may take comfort in the knowledge that they now have a fully working system that is capable of challenging any team in the world.
That’s not the same as defeating any side in the world when the stakes are high during a World Cup.
However, it’s an excellent place to begin.