Saturday 3 December 2016

Neil Francis: All Blacks Aviva victory was a resounding win for cynicism

New Zealand may have been more clinical but they crossed the line on a number of occasions

Published 20/11/2016 | 17:00

Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw is tackled by New Zealand’s Sam Cane: ‘. . . the point of contact was shoulder to face and that is a red card.’ Photo: PA
Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw is tackled by New Zealand’s Sam Cane: ‘. . . the point of contact was shoulder to face and that is a red card.’ Photo: PA

On a bitterly cold night this was a bitter pill to swallow. The better team and the team that created more danger won out in the end. Unquestionably, New Zealand were far more dangerous and inventive with the ball but there are many questions after this game.

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It was a full-on international Test match, a real test of masculinity, and Ireland rose to the occasion and never shrank from the challenge but they were undone on a number of fronts. They had lost too much quality at such an early stage and they lacked the tools to take advantage of the pressure that they had built in the third quarter, where if they had been a little bit more clinical and a small bit more inventive they would have cast doubt on a New Zealand side that were still vulnerable when pressure was applied.

The loss of Johnny Sexton, in particular, and CJ Stander, who was shaping up to have one of his big games, was unavoidable. The loss of the very important cog that Robbie Henshaw has become, was another matter entirely.

Last season in Paris Jaco Peyper abdicated responsibility for some appalling moments of French aggression off the ball and yesterday, in a shameful performance, abdicated responsibility again. It has now become obvious that TMOs are watching a different match than the one everybody else is watching.

Sam Cane shoulder-charged Henshaw, an act which left the Irish centre in distress and twitching on the ground. The tackle that I saw was a shoulder-charge which ended in contact with Henshaw's face. Irrespective of whether Cane attempted to complete a wrap is irrelevant - the point of contact was shoulder to face and that is a red card.

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Later in the second half Malakai Fekitoa's challenge on Simon Zebo was also worthy of a red. World Rugby issues these diktats on the sanctity of the head and the safety issues which predominate the modern game are allegedly their number one concern. Why their referees don't pay attention to what the governing body is saying is beyond me.

New Zealand, under the sort of pressure that they had to deal with here and at home, resorted to rugby of the lowest common denominator and they put in a cynical performance yesterday which pushed the boundaries too far. They were determined to win at all costs and it is one of the things that distinguished the two teams yesterday - they were willing to do whatever it took to win the game and the team in green fell short. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Should we follow the Kiwis? Should we apply the same killer instinct to win at all costs?

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Not only did the match officials get it wrong on the foul play, they got it wrong on all the other rule-breaking too. New Zealand conceded 14 penalties to Ireland's four yesterday. Can you call that indiscipline or do we call it cynicism? Every time Ireland got close to New Zealand's line they would kill the ball, not roll away or stray offside from the next recycle.

Ireland's second penalty came in the 23rd minute from a scrum close to the posts. They were patient and even though the scrum wheeled a small bit Ireland got the push on and were making forward progress. Rather than concede a certain seven points Liam Squire ran into the base of Ireland's scrum and fell into it. Yes, it was a penalty but if Ireland were going over the line, which they never had a chance to; surely it was a penalty try and a yellow card for Squire. It is a purely pathological thing - the Kiwis don't even think twice about giving away a penalty to protect their line.

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Prior to that Beauden Barrett showed just how quick he was off a scrum near Ireland's 22 as he had enough gas to leave Conor Murray for dead. It was a brilliant use his speed and he scooted over the line but was chased hard by Sexton who managed to wrap him and, as far as my eyes could see, get his hand under the ball and prevent Barrett from placing the ball on the grass.

Sexton was certain that he had prevented a score as the ball was dislodged prior to hitting the dead ball line. There was incredulity as TMO John Mason decided for some reason that he could see Barrett clearly placing the ball on grass. They get the breaks and there is a Man Utd factor about all the calls the All Blacks get.

At 14-3 down Ireland would have to rouse themselves and pull something from that deep reservoir of conviction and resolve. Ireland's self-belief would be tested to the full. Joe Schmidt's game plan is not geared towards playing catch-up rugby but they got an alpha response and the lead came from Ireland's splendid back row.

Sean O'Brien had a sensational afternoon and he pushed the boundaries of his body once again to limits that we did not think would be there at this stage on his return to this level of performance. Josh van der Flier also had a big afternoon - he made one or two mistakes close in but his pace and acceleration beat the Kiwi cover on a number of occasions. Heaslip too was very productive and his intelligence and game management kept Ireland plugging away.

The New Zealand sporting wisdom often consists mainly of knowing what to do next and when they needed to make those decisions, with very little possession and field position, they played with the competence, cohesion and confidence, and yes, cynicism too, to seal the deal. It is that measured calm that sets them apart, and on a day when Ireland threatened and were working their way back from 14-9 they just did not have enough quality on the field to reach a point where they would trouble New Zealand.

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