Wednesday 22 March 2017

Fear and foreboding shaken off

Kidney's men can take heart from cavalier approach, writes John O'Brien

THAT Ireland lost was of no great material consequence. In truth, winning was always beyond them. At least in the approach they adopted anyway. Few teams could be so cavalier, so intent on taking the game to such a great New Zealand side and hope to emerge unscathed. So Ireland threw caution to the wind and flung themselves about with abandon, not to vanquish the All Blacks, but to win the respect and admiration of their public. This they managed with something to spare.

The margin of defeat looked grim at the end but there was comfort in it. It was poignant to think that if you erased the five minutes straight after the interval, there was precious little between the teams. In that time, New Zealand ran in two soft tries and the contest, as an illusion, was buried. For 40 minutes, Ireland had been sure-footed and heroic in their resistance. In two strokes all that good work was wiped out. That was the disappointment.

It helped that the game arrived at a time when the country is thankful for any small mercies that come its way. Maybe the All Blacks had a plan that involved taking the best of Ireland's resistance early on and then, when they were done, subjecting them to the deadly finishing of Sonny Bill Williams to turn the screw. It was to Ireland's credit that it didn't turn out like that. The scoreboard never got as ugly as, at one stage, it threatened.

It is some time, surely, that this celebrated Ireland team started a day saddled with such a grim sense of foreboding. That was a measure of its fall. It wasn't a question of 23 vain efforts to beat the All Blacks becoming 24, it was how badly would they fail. In the build-up the voice of Paul Weller rang around the stadium, urging his audience to "Wake Up The Nation". For Ireland, the Aviva Stadium would be a good start.

It was some time before respite came for a nervous home crowd. New Zealand were onto Dan Carter's kick-off in a flash, immediately punching holes in Ireland's rearguard, failing narrowly to exploit an overlap on Ireland's left flank before the minute-hand had turned a full revolution. They had gone through maybe eight or nine phases and threatened Ireland's line before it took a combination of Rob Kearney, Tommy Bowe and Jonathan Sexton to finally heave Ma'a Nonu into touch.

The thrilling thing was the early pressure didn't panic Ireland or frighten them away from their expansive game plan. With their first possession they had a go at finding a gap in New Zealand's defence. That attack got nowhere but it signalled a sense of adventure they didn't let go until the end. When they managed to cross New Zealand's 22, Kearney hit the line with precise timing but the ball was lost forward in the ensuing ruck.

For longer than you'd have bargained for, their game plan worked. They soaked up the best that New Zealand could throw at them for 20 minutes like a sponge. In the ring Ireland were like the sacrificial pug, swaying upon the ropes, waiting for the final savage blow, but then slowly realising that his opponent's punches didn't carry that much sting after all. They began to inch forward from the ropes, taking on the fight, landing a few stinging blows of their own.

The extraordinary thing was the fear and torpor that afflicted them against lesser sides was nowhere in evidence here. Ireland still committed the odd handling error but, given the sense of adventure they brought, that was entirely forgiveable. They were solid and organised in defence as they needed to be. Gordon D'Arcy executed a try-saving tackle on Richie McCaw early on and that set the tone. When they needed to be, the tackles were nailed.

For 40 minutes they made it a contest and thrilled the crowd in the process. Mick O'Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip roused them with bullocking runs inside the New Zealand half. Eoin Reddan had them at the edge of their seats when narrowly failing to chip through for Bowe. When Anthony Boric crossed for New Zealand's first try in the last move of the half, It meant Ireland trailed by six and that was rough justice for all the verve they had shown.

When they sit down to view the highlights reel, they will see more good than bad. Even when in front they never managed to rattle their opponents, but New Zealand were under sufficient pressure at times that they started to become a little sloppy. There was one moment when the prop Tony Woodcock got turned over in midfield and conceded a penalty which Sexton converted to level the scores. For the next 10 minutes Ireland surged with confidence and were the better side.

The choice of Sexton over Ronan O'Gara was vindicated. The expansive approach Ireland adopted suited him and it was only the width of an upright that prevented him leaving the game with a perfect four from four attempts. It paled in comparison with Carter's seven from seven, but Sexton didn't seem out of place alongside one of the best No 10s the game has seen. Carter wasn't familiar with Sexton when the young Leinster outhalf's name was brought up in conversation during the week. After yesterday he assuredly is.

For those like Sexton, Cian Healy, Stephen Ferris and Tom Court, players who are considered the future of Irish rugby, it was an important day in their development. They stood toe to toe with the greatest side in the world and, although they came away beaten, they managed to emerge with their damaged reputations renewed and, possibly, enhanced. You could even say that Ireland played with more purpose and commitment than in their previous five games combined and still they lost by 20 points.

That's what they have to stomach. Ireland are hardened enough to know that the world of international rugby can be a very unforgiving place, indeed.

Sunday Independent

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