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Irish All Blacks defeat shares parallels with Cooper and Clay

By Niall Crozier

SUNDAY afternoon's Ireland v New Zealand thriller in Dublin may have revived a memory of another oh-so-nearly-upset that just did not quite happen.

Some readers will be old enough to have been around when Henry Cooper dumped Cassius Clay – as he then was – on his backside after catching him with the mother of all left-hooks at Wembley on June 18, 1963.

Two seconds from the end of round four, with blood streaming from two cuts, one above, the other below his left eye, the British heavyweight champion floored The Louisville Lip.

Had he thrown that punch just a few seconds earlier, the genius who went on to become Muhammed Ali and the world's biggest sports personality would have been knocked down the challengers' ladder and almost certainly would not have fought Sonny Liston for the world title eight months later.

Cooper went to his grave knowing that he had been within a whisker of writing what would have been a totally different worldwide boxing story.

Ireland's defeat on Sunday is another event which those of us who record such things will file away in our 'Remember the day when' drawers.

So now that the dust has begun to settle on Ireland's last-gasp defeat by rugby's world champions, let's pause to reflect not only on what happened but on what it might now mean.

Prior to facing the All Blacks, Irish coach Joe Schmidt said: "I think winning will take an exceptional performance."

Right on cue and contrary to all expectations, that is exactly what Ireland produced, proving that they can match the best in the business.

To have had any chance, they were required to show levels of intensity and accuracy that had been missing against Australia eight days earlier. To their credit, they did. They served up a performance so much better than anyone had dared to hope for that they were within seconds of bagging the biggest scalp in world rugby, something no Ireland team had ever done.

Instead, of course, it was their opponents who created history having set a new record by winning 14 Tests in a calendar year, ensuring it is they who will be remembered for that phenomenal achievement. And in years to come, when that 14 out of 14 run is recalled, almost inevitably the passage of time will serve to dim New Zealanders' memories of just how close Ireland went to denying them.

In the aftermath of his side's last-gasp 24-22 victory, the All Blacks coach Steve Hansen did something I had not seen before at any Press conference. Before taking any questions, he delivered a personal message of congratulations to the opposition, ending with the words: "I think it's important that we should acknowledge that performance from Ireland; it was pretty special."

What matters now for Ireland is that they move on from that. Schmidt's vision, energy, ambition and level-headedness, all of which will be vital, led him to reflect: "I would say (that) to push the best team in the world – the best team that's been in the world probably for the last few years – as close as we did, while devastating, is a small vote of confidence for us."

But November's Tests are over and as Schmidt pointed out: "France did a great job in last year's autumn series and then didn't put that into the Six Nations. The challenge is to get everyone back together again and redeliver what was a probably a benchmark performance."

With a home date against Scotland on February 2 to open their Six Nations account, it is imperative that Ireland build on that performance on Sunday when their intensity shocked, rocked and only just failed to topple the All Blacks.

Schmidt was spot-on when he said: "I think part of that intensity comes from desire and confidence and clarity. I think it's easier to be intense when you know where you're going and you know what your job is.

"The New Zealanders didn't look like they had to think about that last attack-play. They opened it up and attacked directly with some fire-power that was a little bit bigger and stronger than what we have.

"But at the same time, if we can get that massive amount of clarity it does help our intensity because everyone then knows their roles."

Back to work, then boys.

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