IT would have been much easier if the last two November Series games were reversed.
The victory over the All Blacks would be a fitting end to any group of games but here we were on Saturday in Dublin with the US Eagles rocking up with a point to prove against a side they referred to pretty consistently as “the best in the world”.
The Irish side the US were lining out against only featured a few of the 23 that won that battle against the All Blacks - Ringrose, Henderson, Healy, Van Der Flier, Carbery - but the status that Irish rugby has these days means that when the opposition play against the green shirt (or blue one, in this instance) they’ll raise their game.
I wrote before the game in these pages that Ireland were probably going to win this game. I never really thought that might be a jinx - I’m not that superstitious - but I was a little hot under the collar in the first 20 or so minutes when I had visions of crawling back in this column today trying to explain how Ireland had conspired to lose this game.
The US were playing like a side that backed themselves to upset a superpower in this game and at 14-14 with Iain Henderson in the bin, there was no telling what might happen as the game developed out of the starter phase. That start might have surprised a few but the US have been on a roll this year.
They came into this game with a lot of momentum, for what it’s worth. They lost one game all year – a comprehensive beating at the hands of the Maori All Blacks a few weeks ago that they don’t count as a test, for some reason – but have spent most of 2018 collecting wins against a who’s who of Tier 2 and 3.
Canada, Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Russia and Romania (last week) have all fallen to the Eagles alongside more notable wins against an Argentinian XV and weakened Scottish and Samoan sides.
The biggest win for that group has got to be the win over Scotland. Sure, Scotland were down much of their front line squad and missed a kick at the death to win it, but it was good stuff from the United States. I felt that even a matching of that performance against Scotland would be enough to beat this Ireland side - and I was right - but my point was that they shouldn’t be underestimated.
Nobody in the Ireland squad or management took them for granted. Those days are gone and not because there’s a fear that the USA will smash and grab this one but because of the internal competition in the Ireland squad with Tokyo on the horizon.
In a way, the actual opposition in this game was Joe Schmidt’s eyeballs and when you look at the way some guys underperformed, it can only be from that internal pressure to move up the depth chart.
Like I said before the Italian game, that sounds like a disrespectful way to describe the USA, who’ll be looking to make a statement of their own in this fixture, but how the Irish combinations and individuals perform relative to what it takes to get into Schmidt’s Good Books was the biggest factor.
A mistake in this game would lead to consequences in game, yes, but you also couldn’t help but be alarmed at what that mistake would mean going forward. When you look at Ireland’s scrappy opening 30 minutes, it has a real bang of that.
The Eye of Schmidt-ron was glaring, like in Lord of the Rings, and that kind of pressure can affect first string guys, never mind guys down the depth chart. Ultimately, Ireland pulled away and racked up a score in the second half as they would have expected.
This wasn’t a flawless performance by any means and more than a few guys will be wondering about their status after the video review in this game.
John Cooney, Iain Henderson, Stuart McCloskey and a few others will be sweating - Henderson in particular. But I think that Scannell, Ryan, Beirne and Andrew Conway will be pretty happy.
That might be an understatement on Conway - his hat-trick of tries were about as good as you’ll see anywhere this weekend or next - and he’ll be delighted with his performance, even against a side like the US.
Ireland finished this November series on a high in the end. A bucket of tries against the US and Italy. A sticky but satisfying win over Argentina.
And a big fat victory over the All Blacks in Dublin for the first time ever. A few guys have shown they’re up to test level, a few more guys have shown they should be higher up in Schmidt’s plans than we thought and Peter O’Mahony showed that there’s not a team on the planet that he wouldn’t start for.
A pretty good November all told, no?
The next time we’ll be looking at green jerseys will be in the Six Nations.
Who knows what we’ll be talking about then but we’re on the road to something special, I think.