Croatia’s World Cup Success Is No Fluke

By Dylan Cleaver

In this sports writing game we’re always told not to get too far ahead of ourselves but come on, who now isn’t thinking about the knockout stages of the World Cup?

The All Blacks and Ireland could meet again as early as October 19 or 20 should either Scotland or South Africa pull off upsets in their respective pools. That would be a hell of a shame, because on the evidence of Saturday, Ireland v New Zealand is the final all rugby fans deserve.

It would pit the ascendant versus the transcendent: like Ali v Frazier, or Borg v McEnroe. It might not happen, but it shouldn’t stop us dreaming.

All Blacks defeats are normally accompanied by a period of national mourning, but this is different.

When it comes to all matters rugby, New Zealanders might be arrogant, we might be entitled, we might be poor winners, but we know when we’re well beaten.

Saturday was one of those occasions. There were times in the last 15 minutes when you thought the All Blacks might find a way of playing their way back into the match, but deep down we knew it wasn’t deserved. On another day, Ireland might have won by 15.

When Munster beat the All Blacks 12-0 in 1978, a feat still dined out upon today, wing Stu Wilson, stealing from the Bill Shankly book of quotes, said his team “were lucky to get nil”.

Watching the weekend’s match, watching Ireland win every contested possession, watching them win every collision, where you couldn’t help but think the All Blacks were lucky to get second.

There will be debriefs and post-mortems. There will be questions about the All Blacks tactics and patterns — particularly on attack where they looked predictable and impotent — but mostly there will be admiration for the way Ireland refused to genuflect in the face of the visitors’ talent.

Ireland had more than 20 on-field heroes. You can take your pick out of Peter O’Mahony, Devin Toner, Rob Kearney, or Jacob Stockdale who was the most important player on the park but it doesn’t really matter.

It’s like arguing whether Lennon was better than McCartney — individually they had their moments but as a combination they were unstoppable.

The real difference maker was probably Joe Schmidt.

As an interview for the role of All Blacks coach from 2020 onwards, it could not have gone much better.

There is a groundswell of opinion in New Zealand that the continuity that has served the All Blacks well for the past two World Cup cycles is beginning to get stale, that a new tack is needed after 2019.

Schmidt just underlined that. He outcoached the best and did it without any real tricks beyond an emphasis on territory and an extraordinarily well disciplined defensive line. Write him a Bank of New Zealand cheque with a few fat zeroes on it now.

What you probably want to know, from a New Zealand perspective, is if there will be panic in the Antipodes.

Not really.

Ireland were not No 2 in the world by fluke. We know they can play.

Add in the fact that the All Blacks are at the decaying end of a long, long season, that they were playing away from home, that they were under the whistle of a Northern Hemisphere referee (who, it should be noted, did nothing wrong), and you have the perfect storm for an upset.

It is a nice reminder of their fallibility but not a sign the apocalypse is upon them.

They have issues. For the second week in a row, they kicked far too much and their attack structures were weird. Captain Kieran Read, a brutal and brilliant warrior, is starting to carry the scars of every one of his 33 years and 117 caps. The midfield lacks a cutting edge and that means less time and space for the Beauden Barrett.

But the talent is there and the willing is there.

If you think that Ireland is going to roll into Japan and cast everybody aside in the manner of Saturday, then you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.

Ireland is the best side in the world. That is undisputed… for today at least.

Tomorrow is another day. No team in history has dealt with tomorrow as well as the All Blacks.

Enjoy today. Drink heartily from the cup of success.

Ireland and the All Blacks are destined to meet again next year — write them off at your peril.

- Dylan Cleaver is the sports editor-at-large for the New Zealand Herald

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