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Ireland 40 New Zealand 29: A perfect day for a humble group of warriors

By Tony Ward

One of the most eye-catching posters and billboards we've seen since landing in this magnificent city on the day the Chicago Cubs took baseball's World Series title for the first time in 108 years reads simply 'Goodbye Someday'. It needs little elaboration.

For Irish rugby on Saturday at the iconic Soldier Field, our 'Goodbye Someday' moment also arrived and, as was cleverly suggested at the post-match bash, our 111 years trying to beat New Zealand at rugby "blew the Cubs out of the water". We jest, of course, but what a day, what a game and what a winning performance for anyone remotely interested in the welfare of Irish sport on the international stage.

While it was inevitable that one day we would beat the All Blacks at the highest level, few if any would have put a wrapper on this being that time. Yes, there was a window of opportunity through the absence of three first-choice locks and no team, not even the greatest in the history of the game, can paper over that gaping hole without feeling the pinch.

Joe Schmidt identified the obvious and went for it with heavy artillery and all guns blazing by way of a selection designed with clear intent. The lineout was the target but it's one thing saying it and quite another doing it.

For 40 minutes, though, we pulverised the primary source of New Zealand possession and on the back of that established an incredible 17-point lead at the break.

But there were other factors too, not least Joe Moody's rank indiscipline just ten minutes in for a crazy tip tackle on Robbie Henshaw. Yellow was just about the right decision but on another day with another official he might just as easily seen red. In retrospect, I'm glad he didn't because on this day it was the team in green that won fairly and squarely and nothing should detract from that.

Mention of Henshaw and here again was a hero amongst so many heroes on a day when each and every individual had to be at the top of his game.

He may play in a different position to Jamie Heaslip but I see so many parallels with the Ireland No8 in how the Leinster centre goes about his business in every game he plays. He is selfless to a fault and while it is in the eye of the beholder as to whether he or Conor Murray was the outstanding individual on the day, Henshaw's willingness to lay his body on the line inspires every other player around him, particularly in a must-deliver match such as this. The Westmeath man was quite simply awesome.

So too the half-backs with Murray and Jonathan Sexton giving another display of pragmatic game management in the most pressurised of arenas.

Just one game into the northern hemisphere season and immediately the Irish pair are in pole position to face the same opposition in the Lions Test series next summer.

For sure they were that good with Aaron Smith called ashore by Steve Hansen and Beauden Barrett almost innocuous for the first time when wearing All Black colours this season.

But rugby is in essence a simple game sometimes made extremely complex. Get the primary game right in the scrum and out of touch and it allows half-backs to flourish and in Murray and Sexton we happen to have two of the best with ice in the veins in the red heat of battle. I don't think I've ever seen Murray get flustered or upset.

He is the personification of coolness which must rile every opposition coach never mind the troops they send out to get at him. In the Soldier Field he ruled like the marshal he is. I doubt he has produced a more complete performance in green and that's saying something.

Indeed if you were picking a combined team from Saturday's compelling evidence, I'm not too sure all that many in black would make it. Yes, Ireland were that good but, of course, we can expect a serious backlash at the Aviva on Saturday week next.

And what of Simon Zebo and the much-maligned Rob Kearney?

The full-back and wing produced minor miracles in the air and if Kearney will be disappointed with his defence for two of the tries, the moral courage he brought to Saturday's stage in claiming ball to which he had no right to claim was inspirational. Few backs can compete as effectively against forwards numbered four to eight on restarts. While Zebo, true to form, also oozed confidence.

I'm not going to even attempt at singling out forwards, so good was the pack from Jack McGrath out. Sometimes we talk about throwing down a blanket and every forward being underneath. The game has changed dramatically in terms of inter-changeability but this was one of those 'blanket days' when this Irish pack hunted as one.

They did feel the heat in the second half when New Zealand upped the forward intensity dramatically. Indeed when Zebo touched down just seven minutes into the second half, I thought we were home and hosed. You'd think I'd know better! And when they closed to four (33-29) just past the hour I thought our goose was again cooked.

But here was the difference, and it was emphasised heavily by the coach in the celebratory aftermath - the mental resilience fuelled by new energy off the bench brought us to a place we had never been before against the Blacks.

The Ryan Crotty heartbreak lesson had been learned and it was Ireland through the incredible Henshaw (how fitting) and Joey Carbery posting the final history-making points.

And of young Carbery, what do you say? That this kid excites is obvious. Imagine your first cap being in the acquisition of the most desired 'friendly' (a misnomer if ever there was one) scalp there is and you strut the pressurised stage with such confidence and still only 21.

The world is his oyster and with the maestro Sexton at the top of his game to guide him.

I'm not too sure it gets much better than this. Roll on the November series but what a city, what a venue, what an occasion, what a match, what a win. So proud to be Irish. No World Cup in the locker just yet but what a statement of intent for the future and with the most technically brilliant and humble of men safely secured to drive us.

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