“They were true champions. And they were classy.”
In faraway New Zealand, you earn accolades like that the hard way. Especially from former All Blacks coaches.
But it’s a measure of Ireland’s huge achievement that ex-New Zealand coach John Hart spoke so warmly about their performances this week. Like all true Kiwis, Hart was hurting deep inside at the All Blacks’ stunning series defeat.
But that didn’t stop him handing out praise. It’s the way they do it in New Zealand. Beat their men fair and square and they’ll be the first to congratulate you.
“The All Blacks were absolutely outplayed by a very, very good team playing 15-man rugby. Their distribution was fantastic, their accuracy superb. They just didn’t make mistakes. Ireland looked a complete team. They were well coached and their whole team was in sync. And they were driven by a guy in superb form,” he said.
“To me, there is no risk in retaining Johnny Sexton up to the World Cup. He fits what they are doing, he leads the orchestra. I think his performance was outstanding.”
But then, Hart saw quality at every turn in Andy Farrell’s squad.
“It was a very complete performance and every player added value. Some of those who have raised question marks about New Zealand have forgotten how good Ireland were.”
The All Blacks coach from 1996 to 1999, culminating at that year’s Rugby World Cup, talked with huge enthusiasm about some of Ireland’s lesser-known names.
“I thought their new hooker, Dan Sheehan, was fantastic. As for Peter O’Mahony, his performances right through were very special. He was a real trojan. And to watch three Kiwis (Jamison Gibson-Park, James Lowe and Bundee Aki) all shining on the world stage was revealing.
“None of them were ever close to becoming All Blacks when they were here. But that was a magnificent statement by those guys.”
So Ireland flew home, spirits soaring. But a nagging fear emerged. Have they peaked too soon with the 2023 Rugby World Cup in mind? Hart calmed Irish nerves.
“There is always a danger you show your hand too early. But if you are very strong, I don’t see that as a problem. I think they are in great shape. They look to be a very settled team from the selection point of view. For me, they’re in great shape to go into the World Cup. And what a series win like this does do is give the Irish self belief,” he said.
“What they have done is a very, very special achievement. Outside of Lions tours, we have only ever lost three Test series at home in our history. This is a huge achievement by Ireland. They are one of the top two teams in the world now.”
Hart has obvious concerns about the All Blacks. He maintains if you picked a World XV today, he suspects most All Blacks would struggle to make it. Maybe Will Jordan, perhaps Ardie Savea. But few others.
“Suddenly, we don’t have that depth of world-class available. We have some good players but world-class? Not so many,” he said.
There is something else from the pages of rugby history that should encourage Ireland.
In June 2003, just a few months before that year’s World Cup, England beat the All Blacks 15-13 in Wellington, even after being reduced to 13 men at one stage. They also beat the Wallabies in Australia, 25-14. Those wins fuelled England’s World Cup triumph five months later.
But one thing might prove an insurmountable hurdle between Ireland and World Cup glory. And Hart is one of many observers angry at the situation.
“It is a ridiculous draw. You have Ireland, France, New Zealand and South Africa all in the same half of the draw. It is a shambles. The All Blacks and Ireland could both be out before the Semi-Finals. Teams in the opposite half must be laughing. The draw should be made a year out, no more.”
Hart also pleads for more common sense in rugby’s laws.
“The scrum is killing rugby, it wastes so much time. And there has to be greater leniency to accidental hits. Red and yellow cards are becoming the bane of the game worldwide.”
It wasn’t just Ireland of the northern hemisphere teams who flew home all chipper and smiling at their tour outcomes. England brought through some promising youngsters in beating Australia. And Wales, who couldn’t beat Italy at home last March, took a Test off the South Africans, despite losing the overall series.
England certainly improved. But they’re lightyears behind Ireland in finding a settled, experienced team. Next winter in Dublin when the two teams meet should confirm that.
As for the wily French, they kept their top men at home, resting on the beach after a long, hard season. Sensible people.
Ireland look ready for the World Cup. They challenge South Africa and Australia at home in November and can beat both. Come September next year, they’ll have a core of experienced players who know how to beat the best in the world.
Bring it on!