Barrett-inspired defeat a missed opportunity for wasteful Ireland
Ireland 9 New Zealand 21
Published 21/11/2016 | 02:30
Amid the all the darkness, Beauden Barrett's black magic won the match on Saturday.
As the Aviva Stadium raged against the referee on a night that could be summed up by a series of shots of Rory Best's desperately beseeching Jaco Peyper to punish New Zealand aggression, the world player of the year rose above the relentless collisions and claimed the spoils.
It was a three-tries-to-nil win for the world champions that felt like the closest of contests. It was a relentless, nasty, enthralling game of rugby that allowed us a glimpse into the dark heart that beats beneath the marketing machine.
The All Blacks smile for the cameras and say the right things to promote their brand, they speak of humility and sweeping the sheds as the reasons for their relentless success but in reality it is a force of will that underpins this team for all of its skills.
This is what the bear looked like once Ireland had poked it. It was furious, at times it was out of control but in the end it restored order.
The frustration for Ireland was that this was a game that, for all the questionable decisions, they could have won.
They have ready-made excuses and legitimate ones at that. To lose Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and CJ Stander within 23 minutes of kick-off derailed their plan, to see so many big calls go the way of their opponents undermined their effort.
And yet, they were undone by their own inaccuracy.
They beat New Zealand up around the fringes and a number of individuals came close to career-best performances, but whenever they got into the 22 the white-line fever descended. The All Blacks defended well and pushed the limits of the laws, but there were unforced errors that let them off the hook.
The penalty count was 14-4 in Ireland's favour, they played against 14 men for 20 minutes but only came away with six points.
They dominated possession (66pc) and territory (70pc) but made only four clean breaks and couldn't score a try.
Their lineout malfunctioned at critical moments and their attacking structure crumbled as the epic effort took its toll.
They started slowly and were playing catch-up from the off, their famed line-speed struggled to get going and they missed one tackle in five.
With less ball and limited access into the game, New Zealand managed more metres and 11 clean breaks thanks in a large part to their playmaker.
Ireland's main man was off the pitch and Schmidt believed Sexton's absence, along with Henshaw, was a key factor.
"Sometimes you get the points on the board and sometimes you don't," he said. "I felt that we were right in the game today. I think line-breaks, we were up there. Certainly possession and territory we were well ahead, discipline we were well ahead and the number of times we crossed the line was pretty similar to theirs.
"That's how fine the margins are, so we weren't that far away tonight and they weren't that far away two weeks ago in Chicago either. At 33-29 they made a couple of errors and potentially could have snuck a victory there.
"Losing a No 10 and your 12, how many times does that happen? CJ was huge in Chicago and losing him as well, it does make it a challenge especially during the week; you sort of train two-and-a-half, maybe three times, the guys who start tend to get the bulk of that time.
"Therefore you tend to get a little bit potentially slower to take opportunities, you lack a little bit of clarity and suddenly if there's any lack of clarity they're getting off the line and putting pressure in your face and it's very hard to play because they are very pro-active and very physical."
So, Ireland come away from their two Tests against New Zealand with the world champions' full attention.
On aggregate, the All Blacks edge it by 50-49 but for all that there is disappointment at the result on Saturday, there is no doubt that this team are moving in the right direction.
If they can beat Australia despite their injury problems, it will confirm their place in the elite and complete a unique year in which they'd have taken the scalps of all three southern hemisphere giants.
"Northern hemisphere rugby is different to southern hemisphere, it's a lot more non-compromising and physical, and very much a hard grind up front," New Zealand coach Steve Hansen said.
"The environment causes that, it's not always nice and dry and there's a bit of snow about occasionally, it creates a different animal and a different beast.
"The games aren't as free-flowing, you've got to grind them out and it's been good for this group to go through some of that and feel what that feels like, and then find an answer for it.
"I don't think there's any gap between the top team and you can go down eight or nine slots. If you have a bad day you are going get hurt. Ireland, England and France are good sides. Wales on their day can hurt you and Scotland have already shown what they can do.
"We can get carried away with the scoreboard at times but it's not really relevant because what happens one day doesn't necessarily happen the next. Everyone is striving to be better and that is great for the game of rugby.
"If we can have real competition among the top eight or nine teams in rugby then it's good for the supporters and it makes us all get better."
It's just a shame that these sides don't have another chance to do it all over again this week. This series of games deserves a decider.
Perhaps it's best for the health of the players that it isn't, but with the Wallabies chasing a Grand Slam after their narrow, bruising win over France on Saturday night, the intensity levels are likely to be high again.
Ireland can't afford to start as poorly as they did against New Zealand as Malakai Fekitoa crossed for a try within five minutes thanks to a clever Barrett kick and an aggressive start.
The out-half skinned an undercooked Conor Murray for his side's second score in the minutes after Henshaw went off following a head-high hit from Sam Cane that was adjudged by the referee and his television match official Jon Mason to have merited only a penalty as the contact was head-to-head. Hansen agreed, although replays suggested otherwise.
It was one of a number of controversial calls in an epic encounter, but for all their effort Ireland just couldn't break the ultimate line.
They came out after half-time with the harsh words of Schmidt in their ears, but again the black wall held and a wonderful sequence involving Barrett, TJ Perenara and a borderline forward pass to try-scorer Fekitoa - recently returned from the sin-bin - put the result beyond doubt.
This morning, Ireland begin to try and finish November on a high.
"If you had said to me before the series that you'd be two out of three going into the Wallabies, I probably would have taken it because that means we'd have to have beaten New Zealand in one of those two games," Schmidt said.
"Considering we hadn't done it in 30-odd times of trying in 111 years, you'd probably put your hand up and take one of those.
"As it is now we weren't that far away this evening and I think there's huge merit in the effort that the players put in.
"Some of the time, as much as you wanna be really clear and crisp about what you're doing, some of it was just pure effort.
"We didn't really have a lot of clarity or direction but gee they were just determined to try and keep going and they did it incredibly well."
It wasn't enough, but the performance indicated they're still making progress.
Ireland - R Kearney; A Trimble, J Payne, R Henshaw (G Ringrose 11), S Zebo (K Marmion 73); J Sexton (P Jackson 18), C Murray; J McGrath, R Best (capt) (S Cronin 67), T Furlong (F Bealham 67), D Ryan (I Henderson 58), D Toner, CJ Stander (J van der Flier 22), J Heaslip, S O'Brien.
New Zealand - B Smith (W Naholo 73); I Dagg, M Fekitoa, A Lienert-Brown, J Savea (A Cruden 59); B Barrett, A Smith (yc 17-27; TJ Perenara 59); J Moody (W Crockett 49), D Coles (C Taylor 68), O Franks (C Faumuina 52), B Retallick, S Whitelock, L Squire (S Barrett 68), K Read (capt), S Cane (A Savea 18).
Ref - J Peyper (South Africa)