There are two main barometers by which to measure the strength of any side in the game. The IRB World rankings are one and the teams’ results against the All-Blacks is the other.
This current Irish side are as high as they have ever been in the world rankings since they were introduced in 2003 and Joe Schmidt’s side have laid down a serious statement of intent ten months out from the start of the World Cup in Japan with Saturday’s historic 16-9 victory over New Zealand at Lansdowne Road.
It’s not just hyperbole to say this is the greatest Irish side of all time. The facts are indisputable. Long before the IRB came up with the ranking system beating the best was always the yardstick to measure yourself against. More often than not the All Blacks were the team to beat. This was far more difficult in the early days of rugby, back then due to the distances involved the sides rarely met. Indeed Irelands first 7 meetings with New Zealand all took place in Lansdowne road. It wasn’t until 1976 that Ireland travelled to New Zealand to take on the All Blacks (an 11-3 defeat in Wellington). The three vintages that can lay claim to being Ireland’s best sides are the three teams that won Grand Slam titles.
The 1948 Grand Slam winning side, led by Jackie Kyle and Karl Mullen held the mantle of the greatest Irish side until the golden generation of O’Driscoll, O’Gara and O’Connell came along. Ireland didn’t get to play against the All Blacks in the 1940’s. Karl Mullen captained a British and Irish Lions tour to Australia and New Zealand in 1950. They faced New Zealand four times in an epic 29 game tour and their 9-9 draw in the first test was as good as it got. The next three tests were won by the All Blacks (8-0) (6-3) & (11-8). It was 1954 before Ireland got to test themselves against the All Blacks. A 14-3 win for the visiting New Zealand side was the result on that occasion.
It would be another nine years before their next meeting, once again Lansdowne road was the venue for the 1963 meeting between the sides. New Zealand edged a tight game 6-5. Fast forward another ten years and in 1973 Ireland avoided defeat against the All Blacks for the first time. A 10-10 draw in Dublin was to be the high water mark for Irish teams against the Kiwis’ until Chicago.
The IRB’s World rankings system was introduced In October 2003. England had just beaten the All Blacks in Wellington to top the rankings and Ireland were in fourth spot behind Australia, 6 ranking points off the top and 5 behind the All Blacks.
By the time Ireland had won their second Grand Slam title in March 2009, New Zealand were firmly entrenched at the top of the World Rankings. They were over 3 ranking points ahead of the Springboks in second place. Ireland were the only northern hemisphere side in the top five, sitting between Australia and Argentina in fourth spot, 9 ranking points behind the All Blacks.
Either side of that Six Nations tournament in 2009 that Irish team had been beaten by New Zealand. In the 2008 November tests prior to that Grand Slam victory, we had played New Zealand in Croke Park and the All Blacks recorded a 22-3 victory. In our next meeting in June 2010, New Zealand hammered Ireland 66-28 in New Plymouth. By that stage, Ireland had dropped a spot to 5th place on 82.03 points, while the All Blacks held the top spot on 91.68 points.
Then came our historic first win over the All Blacks in Chicago in November 2016. In the calendar year prior to that game, Ireland had lost to Argentina in the World Cup quarter-finals in Cardiff, then drew with Wales and lost away to France and England in the 2016 Six Nations to fall to 6th in the rankings, 15 ranking points behind the All Blacks. That win cut New Zealand’s ranking by two full points and added two points to Ireland’s ranking. However, we were still almost 11 points behind the All-Blacks.
This March Ireland secured their third Grand Slam title with a 24-15 win over England at Twickenham. By this time we had climbed to 2nd in the world on 89.11 ranking points, New Zealand still had over a four-point cushion at the top on 93.99 points. This morning, in light of Saturday’s historic first win over the All Blacks on Irish soil that gap is down to 1.37 points.
Not alone did we defeat the All Blacks on Saturday, we did so without four key players. Conor Murray, Seán O’Brien, Robbie Henshaw and Dan Leavy who was named as O’Brien’s replacement were all ruled out due to injury. Third choice Josh van der Flier who filled that back row spot in place of O’Brien or Leavy was one of Ireland’s best performers on the day. Ireland now have strength in depth all over the field. To lose three B&I Lions players to injury from any Irish side in the past would almost certainly have led to certain defeat against any of the world’s top five sides, now those coming in are more than capable of filling the void. Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath are not quite at the level of Conor Murray, but there is no greater compliment to them both than to say they held their own on Saturday against Aaron Smith and T.J. Perenara.
Irish rugby is in a great place right now, a Grand Slam title and a victory over the All Blacks in the same year surely cements Joe Schmidt’s current squad as our greatest ever and the World Rankings back that argument up. However, greater tests await this side and their chance to seal their place at the top of the pantheon of greatness awaits in the land of the rising sun.