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Ireland coach Joe Schmidt poised to make history

Win over Aussies would complete a matchless sequence of results

By George Hook

Saturday in the Aviva Stadium was the stuff of legend. At 5pm it was reasonable to assume that nobody in the 50,000 crowd thought Ireland could win and indeed had the Irish Bookmaker famous for his marketing stunts, offered a free €100 (£78.50) bet to everybody in the audience, he might not have lost his shirt.

This performance matched anything in the cinema, music or politics, The disgraced politician Charles J Haughey once described an extraordinary chain of events as Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre and Unprecedented. Supporters of the Irish rugby team more than matched his real life experience.

It was grotesque to watch South Africa revert to a game plan of 20 years ago where they abandoned any pretence to the new open game that had defeated New Zealand.

As the substitutions came thick and fast, the new arrivals, Adriaan Strauss, Bakkies Botha and Schalk Burger were throwbacks to the power game of the Afrikaaner past. It was also bizarre to watch the visitors make rudimentary errors.

Scrum half Francois Hougaard fumbled and fiddled and destroyed any hopes of a continuity. It reached a nadir when full back Willie le Roux dropped the ball without a defender in sight.

They were not alone the mighty Springboks were disorganised rabble without any semblance of leadership from captain Jean de Villiers or veteran Victor Matfield.

To the watching faithful, the unbelievable was happening in front of their eyes. Ireland throughout the game despite South Africa being the dominant team.

The Boks had over 60% of the territory, forcing Ireland to make twice as many tackles and the Irish scrum threatened to be an embarrassment.

Yet Ireland were never headed and a masterly game plan won out. This was unprecedented and may get better. Joe Schmidt in 12 months has a moral victory over the All Blacks, a championship and now beaten the second placed country.

Were he to fashion a victory against Australia in two weeks he would have achieved a series of performances unmatched in the long history of Irish rugby.

To prove superior to the might of the southern hemisphere is quite simply beyond compare. To put the achievement in perspective, Warren Gatland, since taking charge of Wales in 2007, has won only one of 26 matches against the three southern hemisphere powerhouses.

On Friday, Andrew Trimble suggested that the Irish coach demanded complete adherence to his game plan and techniques.

Clearly Schmidt's authoritarian style has unlike some of his predecessors, got a magical ingredient that has won over the players.

One imagines that after the last 12 months there will not be a dissenting voice in the dressing room.

Some of the contract negotiations with Irish players have lacked subtlety. Hopefully, they have it right with this man who in a short time has made such an impression.

Interestingly, the try in dying minutes by JP Pieterson may have denied Ireland third place in the world rankings. A win by 15 points would have catapulted Ireland over England and Australia. Fourth place ahead of England now seems likely.

The real test of a coach is how he performs with a team not in the front rank. I hugely underestimated Schmidt as I wondered how much was due to the quality of the players at Leinster and the groundwork done by Michael Cheika.

On the back of England winning the Rugby World Cup in 2003, the coach Clive Woodward went on to fame, fortune and a knighthood much to the chagrin of the players, who felt their contribution was diminished.

The victory if not conclusive of Ireland's place in the pantheon of great teams, conclusively proves Schmidt's right to be determined as one of, if not the best coach of the Ireland rugby team.

Jonathan Sexton was correctly hailed as man of the match but three player selections and their performances were worthy of an award.

Mike Ross was herculean in his endeavours and the centre partnership of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw was magnificent and the Connacht player won the battle to partner Gordon D'Arcy against Australia.

I suspect that Schmidt will not name the same team in two weeks. It is a different opponent, with a different style and on that unlike the hapless Boks is going to come prepared to play.

Twenty five years a ago 'The Wall' came down. In two weeks the wall of invincibility of the nations south of the equator could come down and like Humpty Dumpty never be put together again.

Belfast Telegraph


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