Ireland's third-choice openside puts in a first-class performance 2 years ago

Ireland's third-choice openside puts in a first-class performance

It's a tough position to be in when you're the third-choice player in your own position yet one of the most promising flankers in the world.

Lyon flanker Liam Gill was a hugely talented player for the Queensland Reds but was just unfortunate enough to be around at the same time as Michael Hooper and David Pocock.

It became clear from a relatively early stage of Gill's career that as good as he was, and he was very good, he was always going to be just not good enough.

Luckily for Josh van der Flier, Sean O'Brien can simply not stay on a rugby pitch, through no fault of his own, while Dan Leavy has battled his own injury issues since the summer tour of Australia.

Injury creates opportunity and Josh van der Flier grabbed his with both hands on Saturday when Leavy withdrew earlier this week with god knows what, but with what the IRFU have described as 'general tightness'.

And so in goes van der Flier, the PRO14's record holder for the most amount of tackles made in a single game.

van der flier made 34 tackles without a single miss in Leinster's hard-fought 21-18 win over Connacht at the RDS earlier this year so Joe Schmidt knew exactly what to expect when he brought him into the Ireland starting side.

The quality of our expectations determines the quality of our action and van der Flier certainly got involved in plenty of action with 11 tackles in the first-half alone.

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van der Flier and Leinster teammate Devin Toner had made 21 tackles between them with four minutes to go in the first-half as Ireland suffocated a New Zealand attack that just never got going in the first-half.

One particular tackle from Toner on New Zealand counterpart Brodie Retallick summed up Ireland's intensity in defence as the Meath man sent the former World Player of the Year stumbling backwards before second-row partner James Ryan came over the top of the ball to disrupt the All Blacks ruck and prompt a turnover.

New Zealand didn't make it any easier for themselves by conceding nine penalties to two but Ireland did an outstanding job of building possession, gaining territory and taking their chances when the penalties were presented.

It's to New Zealand's credit that they conceded nine penalties and 63% possession and still only found themselves three points down at half-time but the All Blacks still managed to make 89% of their tackles, and more importantly, the tackles that stopped Ireland from getting towards their line.

Ireland's scrum dominated New Zealand's set-piece, they crossed twice in the first-half only to be brought back for being held up over the line, but maybe the most impressive facet of the hosts play was not anything in particular that they did on the pitch, although there was an awful lot to like, but rather the players that came in and looked not only like they belonged, but like they were outperforming their All Black counterparts.

Kieran Marmion combined brilliantly with Garry Ringrose down the short side, van der Flier was everywhere and was one of the first to congratulate to Jacob Stockdale after his incredible solo try and also the first to the ball when Beauden Barrett's blocked clearance bounced all over the turf.

Devin Toner was overlooked for both Argentina and Italy but came back in and not only provided some stability to a malfunctioning line-out, but also leveled his counterpart and the world's best second-row in Brodie Retallick.

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This was one of the most complete Irish performances in sometime and symptomatic of Irish Rugby under Joe Schmidt.

Bench players stepped in and performed superbly in the absence of regular starters. Rob Kearney, who has scored just one try in his last 80 games, was selected over the electric Jordan Larmour and showed exactly why he still has Joe Schmidt's faith with such an assured performance under the high ball.

For all that Ireland have achieved under Joe Schmidt, and three Six Nations titles and a Grand Slam in five years is certainly a very sweet return, this may be his greatest moment as Ireland head coach.

He faced the two-time defending world champions, who averaged 37 points a game in the Rugby Championship and held them to just nine points in an absolute masterclass.

With Steve Hansen likely to step down as All Blacks head coach after next year's Rugby World Cup, New Zealand Rugby will do everything within their power to tempt Schmidt back home and will surely ramp up the pressure after Saturday's win.

For Ireland, it's the crowning achievement in what has been the best season in the history of the union.

The first win for an Irish team against New Zealand on Irish soil. It's hard to say if it will be the first of many, or if this is simply a rare win for an Irish team at the peak of their powers, but given how close the last four games have been between these two sides, New Zealand may have finally met their match.

And for Ireland, and indeed for world rugby, it's a very welcoming sign.