Tuesday 26 September 2017

All Blacks run riot on day to forget for Irish rugby

Everywhere you turned last week you came across Kiwis sympathising. This would not be their default mode.

We lost count of their number who said that not only should Ireland have won in Christchurch, but the locals wouldn't have minded at all, seeing as they were world champions and they quite like the Irish. Implicit in their remarks however was the acknowledgement that a storm was coming, and that it would break over the tourists at 7.30pm on Saturday, June 23.

One of the more interesting characters we came across was former New Zealand prop Carl Hoeft. He had just come from an All Black scrummaging session. He said that they were "hurting". From the hurry-up Ireland had given them at this phase in Christchurch, he explained, not from the effort involved in improving it.

So, to avoid this payback from the All Blacks, Declan Kidney's side would need to do something they hadn't done in a long time. We reckon that you have to go back to February/March 2010, when they beat England in Twickenham and then Wales in Croke Park, to find the last time Ireland played well in succession against tier-one opposition. Even the World Cup run last autumn featured a minnow, in the shape of Russia, before it all went south against Wales.

Of course there are other issues at play on this tour -- the fatigue of a group who have been on the go for a year, plus the absence of six Lions from the mix yesterday -- but the failure to produce consistently good rugby has dogged Kidney every step of the way since the Grand Slam in 2009.

"You've got to have your values and your standards and keep hitting them, and then when you hit them, things happen," Ronan O'Gara said last week. He wasn't produced post-match yesterday but you can imagine how he might have summed it up. Along with Brian O'Driscoll, he has known nothing but failure in this fixture. And it's questionable if this trip taught him anything he didn't already know about winning Tests.

Equally, Kidney is happy to accept that consistency is something his team still hasn't nailed down, but he's not too clear on why it's happening.

"Without doubt, I'd agree with that," he says. "We've been inconsistent in terms of turning up week in, week out. But that's an approach. We never prepare the same week in, week out because you can't do that if there's a six-day turnaround or an eight-day turnaround but the overall mental, physical and skill approach is the same week in, week out, and we adapt the plan. It's just being able to go out there then and actually do it, and that's what we're going to have to take a look at."

His contract is up at the end of next year's Six Nations. Does he think the pressure will come on him now after the worst defeat in Irish rugby history?

"You'd have to ask them (the IRFU) that. That's the answer to that one. I didn't lose the run of myself when we won and I'm not going to lose the run of myself when I do that. I know how to fix it. That's for others to answer -- you'd have to ask other people."

Evidence would suggest he doesn't know how to fix it however, for the inconsistency bug has been untreated for so long. Writ in large letters in the Ireland camp all week was the need to start well, to stay in touch, to get to the end of the first quarter on the same playing field as the Kiwis. And then they were obliterated. The improved kicking game of a week ago, and the chase that supported it, was gone. You wonder did the players fear what was coming down the track. Rob Kearney maintains they went out expecting good things to happen.

"I genuinely did," he says. "After last week, I felt there was a real belief in the squad. We got in a situation where we knew a) that we could beat them and b) how to beat them. They're the two most important things you need to realise against any side. Tonight I suppose that all got thrown out the window a little.

"The first 15 minutes -- that's what killed us off. You're what, 20-24 points down? Game over. There and then, it's as simple as that. We started really slowly, we gave them cheap ball, like we did in the first Test. We turned ball over easily, we didn't look after the ball in contact, and we allowed them to run hard and throw offloads and those are the two things you can't do against this team. We did both tonight.

"Physically, we're all a little bit drained. That's only normal at the end of a 52-week season. There comes times in games and seasons -- I remember feeling after that Pro12 final against the Ospreys -- you take a bit of a drubbing and it can kick in really quickly and it's a sudden fatigue factor and I think that probably showed a little tonight. But I'm not going to use that as an excuse. Of course it's going to be a contributing factor, but that's the season that has been presented to us."

Kearney -- yellow card aside -- was one of the go-to players over the three Tests, as was Seán O'Brien, who was a marked man in Hamilton. Rory Best, Donnacha Ryan and Mike Ross all reinforced their credentials as quality international players, as did Jamie Heaslip whose shoes Peter O'Mahony struggled to fill.

You wondered why Kidney didn't play O'Brien at eight yesterday, with Chris Henry at openside. Or indeed why he reached for Paddy Wallace instead of putting Keith Earls in the centre and Andrew Trimble on the wing. And why did he opt to put Donncha O'Callaghan on the bench, leaving Mike McCarthy with a role as an observer, along with the other unused players -- Paul Marshall, Brett Wilkinson and Mike Sherry.

The coach also ignored an opportunity to give Seán Cronin a decent run. He is firmly cast as a last-lap merchant and it does him no good. One of these days he will be called on to start a game -- remember, the series was lost by the time we arrived at yesterday's stage -- and he'll be blinded by the light.

After the Barbarians game en route to here, Kidney said it was a pity there wasn't a fourth Test. A few jaws dropped when he came out with that one. So does he think Ireland could bounce back if asked next weekend, to reproduce what they did in Christchurch?

"Yes we could," he says. "If you get the first 25 minutes right. You let sides like New Zealand get that number of points in front and they're going to do that to you every single time. The trick is not to let them do it."

It's a trick neither coach nor players are close to pulling off. The longest season ever has ended with a record defeat, and when they come back to this level, in November, it will cast a long shadow.

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