It’s said that he who laughs last, laughs best. On that measure, All Blacks skipper Sam Cane will be laughing all the way to the bank.
Fifteen months after being described as a “shit Richie McCaw” by Peter O’Mahony, the Irish general’s brutal sledge came back to bite him in the most brutal way as Cane delivered a masterclass to help inspire the All Blacks to a famous quarter-final victory at the Stade de France.
Cane was stoic and ferociously unrelenting in defence, as he made 21 tackles and two turnovers. In doing so, he denied Ireland the quick ball they craved.
With the former two-time World Cup-winning captain watching on in the stands, his heir apparent turned successor delivered the same masterful performance McCaw would deliver on the world’s biggest stage.
Together in tandem with Ardie Savea, who according to Springboks legend Bobby Skinstad delivered the “best performance from a number eight” he’s seen, the back-row pair, as well as the bruising Shannon Frizell, outplayed their opposite trio. It was a telling battle won.
Reminded of O’Mahony’s comments in the post-match press conference, Cane, in his typically understated, no-nonsense approach, knew what was coming but didn’t give an inch.
“No, no motivation from that,” Cane said deadpanned.
“Look, we know they’ve got a few players, that like to get a bit… sort of try to get under your skin, I suppose, like that.
“We went into the game knowing that they were going to be like that, but really focused, consciously focused on just sticking to our jobs and worrying about executing our stuff.”
The 28-24 victory was vindication to the Ian Foster-led All Blacks side.
After four years of doubts and new lows – a historic loss to Argentina; first home series defeat in decades; lowest World Rugby ranking – Foster has not just kept a hold of the Bledisloe Cup but now moved them to 180 minutes of a fourth Webb Ellis Cup.
All along, Foster’s decision to appoint – and keep – Cane as his skipper has divided opinion.
Yet, in the All Blacks’ leadership moment of truth, Cane delivered while Foster’s use of the bench – props Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax were replaced in the 64th minute while neither replacement halfback Finlay Christie or outside back Damian McKenzie were used – worked a treat.
Foster tipped his hat at his skipper’s ability to stand up under adversity.
“I think Sam’s made for these sort of Test matches, personally,” Foster said.
“Tough Test matches, he does a great job with that. He was outstanding again and put his body on the line just about every second breakdown there.”
The victory was clearly the All Blacks’ most significant in the four-year World Cup cycle, but it also came a bit over a year after Foster’s side defeated the Springboks to keep the coach in the top job.
Foster was asked whether it was his most important win as a coach.
“I think South Africa was pretty important last year too (to save his job with a win),” Foster replied.
“This one was up there. It is a special day. The world has been talking about these two quarter-finals for 12 months now, even longer.
“France vs South Africa (on Monday AEDT) is likely to be the same.
“They are massive games, two very proud teams, desperate to win it.
“Sometimes the sweetest victories are when your opponents play really well and test you to the limit.
“We didn’t want to play Ireland with two yellow cards. We played a lot of that game with 14 men but I couldn’t be more proud of the players.
“I thought we looked in control of it.”
O’Mahony was later asked to give his own reaction to the incident last year, which came after Ireland sealed a historic come-from-behind series win over the All Blacks in New Zealand, but bluntly said it was a “bullshit question”.
“It’s a tough dressing room, probably the toughest I have been in to be honest,” O’Mahony added.
“But as he [Andy Farrell] said, there’s worse things going on in the world. We need to understand that over the next 24-28 hours.”
The defeat brought the curtains down on playmaker Johnny Sexton’s career.
But there is also a feeling that Ireland, who now face a changing of the guard with several players including O’Mahony unlikely to be in Australia in 2027, has let their great World Cup chance slip through their fingers.
Despite that, O’Mahony, 34, said he was confident the current group will have left the jersey in a better place.
“There’s a great group of young players there, and players who aren’t here or in the squad who can step up to the plate as well,” he said.
“There’s no doubt this team will have left Irish rugby in a better place. We have achieved a huge amount together over the past four years. We are disappointed tonight, but I think we can be proud of where we have left the jersey.
“It’s a terribly tough pill to swallow. Obviously we had plans to continue on for the next couple of weeks but I am proud of the lads and the way they have carried themselves. I am sure there’s lots of young kids who we have inspired to take up the game who might be in this position in 15, 20 years.
“It is the end of an era, there’s no other way of putting it. There are a group of senior players who are moving on.”