WHAT it all means can go to hell for all I care.
At the top end of this sport — test match rugby — it’s all about the heavyweight battles between the Big Beasts.
For years, Ireland were a wooden spoon earning pygmy. Then we morphed into dark horses.
On Saturday night, we made a strong claim to be the best team on the planet right now bar none.
If you have a long enough memory — and I’m cursed with one longer than a hangover jog up the Long Mile Road — you’ll remember when Ireland were “have-a-go-heroes” against the All Blacks. Good for 20 minutes, then 50 minutes, then 60 minutes.
We’d Give It A Lash, sure, and we might get lucky and keep it under 20. On Saturday night I saw an Irish side deliver the best performance I’ve ever seen from an Irish rugby side — ever. Bar none.
Ireland bossed New Zealand physically in defence, at the set-piece and with the ball in hand.
We didn’t’ Give It A Lash’. We went out there and played New Zealand like a team that not only thought they could win but EXPECTED to.
And then actually did it.
This is new territory for Irish rugby. I have to admit that my natural tendency for pessimism rose to the surface at the end.
New Zealand were attacking and probing. Slowly gaining ground.
Memories of 2013 began to flash through my mind but this is a New Ireland. This Big Green Machine doesn’t break, it does the breaking.
New Zealand spilt the ball with the clock gone red.
Ireland had won and, with that win, finally beaten the All Blacks in Ireland. Not only that, Ireland had gone toe-to-toe with the best in the game in a fixture billed as a clash between the two top sides in the world and came out on top with a bit to spare.
This wasn’t a lucky win. This wasn’t a fluke against a weakened All Blacks side.
This was Ireland subduing and beating the All Blacks in front of a watching rugby world and an ecstatic Aviva Stadium.
I was worried about 2013 but 2013 was five years ago — about as long a time difference as that last 10 minutes actually — and it seemed like an aeon away on Saturday.
Ireland were controlled, physically dominant and ruthless, ruthless, ruthless. This is what the All Blacks used to do to us.
On Saturday, the boot was on the other foot and now Ireland have an extremely credible claim on being the Best Rugby Team On The Planet.
It’s almost surreal. If to be the best you have to beat the best, then Ireland have done just that when the glare of the world was on them.
It was supremely impressive. To get that win, Ireland would need a massive collective and individual performance and by god, did they ever get it.
The backs were excellent to a man, starters and replacements, but the real praise has to go to as good a forward performance as I’ve ever seen anywhere.
Cian Healy, Rory Best, Devin Toner and Josh Van Der Flier were outstanding. CJ Stander, James Ryan and Peter O’Mahony played like how you’d dream of playing in a game like this as a boy.
They tackled and carried themselves into the ground.
CJ Stander was his brutish best in the tight exchanges and carried the ball with the impact of an artillery shell all through the line. James Ryan continued his freak of nature performance level with 16 monster carries, 19 tackles and the kind of intimidating aura we’ve been waiting for in the second row since O’Connell retired. He might just be the best rugby player on the planet right now.
Tadgh Furlong might not have had the statement carries of the 2016 encounter but he more than made up for that with a dominant scrummaging performance that ended up with the All Black front row marching off with 45 minutes just gone on the clock. It was as good a tighthead performance as I’ve seen.
But what about O’Mahony?
The Munster captain won three breakdown penalties, carried incredibly well, prevented a certain try for Ben Smith and won the lineout contest that led to Stockdale’s winner. As individual performances go, it was as good as it gets from the Cork man, who won the man of the match award on a day when 10 Irish players had a shout for it.
The 63 minutes he put down in the Aviva on Saturday are up there with any performances in that stadium, old or new, Irish or otherwise. He was gargantuan. But they all were, really.
There was no trophy won on Saturday but that doesn’t matter. What Ireland won goes beyond silverware in the context of this sport.
We know now that Chicago wasn’t a fluke or an aberration. We know that we can go toe to toe with the All Blacks as a peer and win.
We know that for a while at least, we’re the unofficial top dogs in this sport.
Favourites for the World Cup?
Steve Hansen thinks so. I agree with him. Bring it on.
After Saturday, anything is possible.