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Tony Ward: Never been more proud of our giants in green

We really took the fight to best team in world so let's not spoil it by crying foul

By Tony Ward

Published 22/11/2016

Under scrutiny: Malakai Fekitoa’s tackle was very high
Under scrutiny: Malakai Fekitoa’s tackle was very high

In four days' time at the Aviva Stadium we have the opportunity to complete the most incredible calendar year in Irish rugby ever.

Beating the world's second best team from 2015 is going to take some doing and, while nothing can take away from what was achieved in Chicago, Joe Schmidt knows better than any that beating the Wallabies, given the context, would put this Irish team up there at the top table of world rugby alongside New Zealand, England and Australia on current form. 

The quote from the head coach, with which we can all readily identify, reads "as far as looking at the overall series, if you had said to me before it began that we'd be two from three going into the Wallaby game I probably would have taken it".

No probably Joe, you definitely would, as indeed would anybody remotely in touch with global rugby at this point in time.

For a number of reasons in recent weeks the pride and belief I have in Irish rugby has moved to another level. We are nowhere near the potential World champion side some would have you believe, but small step by small step, and with a giant one taken in Soldier Field, we are edging in the right direction.

On Saturday we witnessed the most physical international I can recall.

It was everything we expected it to be in terms of no holds barred full blooded determination from the start.

Yes, at times it did cross that line, and yes, given that they shipped two yellow cards it was New Zealand in the dock, but now that the Citing Commissioner has deemed two cases to be answered (Sam Cane and Malakai Fekitoa) it is time to let due process take its course.

Do I believe New Zealand to be a team that takes the field with malicious intent?

No, no and no again. Indeed, of the two cases up before the citing commissioner it is Fakitoa's high tackle on Simon Zebo that warrants the greater scrutiny despite the fact it was Cane's hit on Robbie Henshaw that inflicted the greater damage.

These All Blacks can look after themselves as well as any and so can we. Despite losing by three tries to zip, which, given the stats governing position and possession (not far off 70% to Ireland), spells our greatest need at this point in time, although I would qualify that by saying when you lose your two midfield playmakers - Johnny Sexton and the ever more influential Henshaw - you are going to struggle irrespective of the quality of replacements.

Coming cold off the bench - mind and body - into the white heat of battle is difficult at any time. Against the world's best, primed on revenge, while not quite mission impossible, it's up there.

We have achieved so much over the past three weeks, specifically against the best team in the world. 50-49 on points, 7-5 on tries, and against the Canadians, too, in between, given the youthful make up of that Ireland side.

My feelings on dirty play are well established. I abhor any transgression outside the law, and I have been on the receiving end once or twice in my time, but in a game of pure physicality in which over the 80 minutes the better all round team won I would hate to see us belittle ourselves now through over the top whinging with everybody at fault from the referee through his assistants and on to the TMO.

Irish rugby, and this exceptional group of players, is better than that.

But back to the game itself and what a game of pulsating rugby from first whistle to last. The All Blacks may have won but undoubtedly it is the team in green the greater beneficiary over two extraordinary matches that will live long in the memory.

From an amazing front row, in which Tadhg Furlong announced his arrival as a Test class tight head, to Devin Toner kicking on from where he left off in Chicago, but this time against the best lock duo in the world in Brodie Retallick (who was equally immense) and Sam Whitelock.

On that massive platform did the Ireland backrow thrive with Sean O'Brien, Jamie Heaslip (can he, at this stage in his career, be given the credit he deserves as our most complete No.8 ever please) and CJ Stander (in his limited time on) outplaying their much vaunted opposites, Liam Squire apart.

As for Josh van der Flier, what can you say? If our Wexford tight head came of age at this level then so, too, our Wicklow breakaway.

I thought van der Flier was incredible. His work at the breakdown allied to his sumptuous lines of running represented intelligence and courage personified.

If Stander is fit, and with Peter O'Mahony back in the mix, what a problem for Saturday. For Garry Ringrose, too, a baptism of fire handled with growing maturity.

Belfast Telegraph

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