You learn more from defeat than victory, is a phrase often used in sport, and frequently that is the case.
Last night Ireland progressed through to the quarter finals of the rugby World Cup after a bruising encounter with France. Both teams desperate to avoid the All Blacks in the next round.
Ireland’s victory was one that will be remembered for many years to come. They lost fly half Johnny Sexton early in the match with what appeared to be a groin injury, and then on the stroke of half time captain Paul O’Connell was stretchered off with what looked a serious hamstring injury. Then to compound their injury woes Peter O’Mahony was also stretchered off with a knee problem. Yet with all of these disrupting injuries to key players Ireland did not stutter at all. The replacements came on, and did their jobs so efficiently that France were never given an opportunity to exploit the loss of key players.
Back in March at the same Millennium Stadium in which they secured a semi final berth against Argentina, Ireland lost to Wales 23-16 in the six nations Championship. In that game Ireland had 64% of the possession, but were unable to secure a victory. Wales to their credit made 289 tackles to repel the Irish. Ireland still won the Six Nations Championship in 2015, but that loss probably taught the team more than their victories over England, Scotland, France and Italy.
In that match in Cardiff Ireland were faced with a defensive wall they struggled to breach. There were some who said Wales desperation was the difference between the two teams. Last night Ireland showed their desperation, to a man, putting their bodies on the line for the sake of the team.
Yet the difference between last night and the game seven months ago was Ireland were trailing Wales. This will be their true test in the remaining three games should they survive to play all three. So far in the tournament they have not been in that position. Last night their bench showed that they have the cover for the big name players, Iain Henderson a more than able replacement for O’Connell and Ian Madigan doing well coming on for Sexton.
Ireland had 69% possession in the match and forced France to make twice as many tackles as they had to make, 181 against 97
They may have avoided the All Blacks, but do Ireland have the skill set the famed New Zealanders have when they need a try. The All Blacks handling across their whole squad is superb, as well as their accuracy. Can Ireland match that? Has Ireland’s New Zealand born coach Joe Schmidt managed to lift their game to that level yet?
As was to be expected New Zealand, Australia and South Africa are all in the quarter finals, all teams who not only believe they can win the World Cup, but all teams who have done so on two occasions. France, despite their loss will believe as a losing finalist on three occasions that they too can lift the trophy; they are the only team to have reached a final not to have won. Of the remaining sides, Wales, Scotland, Argentina and Ireland do they truly believe they can win? The key for all will be whether they can change gear and find some reserves of skill and accuracy of execution should they find themselves behind.
Joe Schmidt has been working on this with Ireland since that day in Cardiff back in March. The good news is they will be back at the Millennium stadium, a venue that their fans make feel like Aviva Stadium. A stadium where many believe this group of players came of age, in a game they lost, but had the chance to win.
Can Ireland go all the way? Having beaten South Africa and the Wallabies in November last year many believe they can. The big question is do the players believe they can? In 2003 when the only Northern hemisphere side lifted the World Cup, England did so as Six Nations Champions. Ireland hold that crown, so maybe the planets are aligned.