Tuesday 28 February 2017

Rope-a-dope tactics floor fighting Irish

New Zealand prove too clinical and too cynical on a day of frustrations for brave home guard

Eamonn Sweeney

Rob Kearney and New Zealand’s TJ Perenara clash into each other in what was a bruising encounter
Rob Kearney and New Zealand’s TJ Perenara clash into each other in what was a bruising encounter

Normal service has resumed. Though maybe not the kind of normal service we expected. The All Blacks may have ended their catastrophic run of defeats, sorry defeat, against Ireland but the home team are entitled to think of this as one that got away.

When Jared Payne seemed set to go clear two minutes from time only for the ball to slither from his grasp, it was the culmination of a day of near misses from Ireland. There was Seán O'Brien getting over the line in the sixth minute only to be held up, and CJ Stander doing the same thing two minutes later. There was the fumble by O'Brien in the second half after a lineout near the All Blacks' line when surer handling would surely have put him in for a try.

There was basically the entire third quarter as Ireland put together huge amounts of phases, camped in the All Blacks' half, yet came away with just a Paddy Jackson penalty to show for it. If a fortnight ago we'd witnessed one of the greatest days in Irish rugby history, yesterday we saw one of the most frustrating. Ever.

The what-might-have-beens were multiplied by the loss of three of the key men from Chicago - Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and CJ Stander - in the first half-hour and also by the fact that the All Blacks' fortune seemed to be diametrically opposed to Ireland's. There were question marks over Beauden Barrett's grounding for the second try while there seemed to be a forward pass in the exhilarating move which led to their third.

They were also fortunate in having in Jaco Peyper - a referee who seemed to, ahem, respect the All Blacks' unique culture and heritage in a way Mathieu Reynal did not two weeks ago. From the moment he allowed Sam Cane to put Robbie Henshaw out of the game without incurring a yellow, let alone a red card, Peyper gave an impression of weakness which the All Blacks exploited to the full.

The dark side of the All Blacks has seldom been more in evidence. There were high tackles and illegal shoulders aplenty, coupled with a willingness to commit what can only be termed professional fouls when Ireland looked to be in scoring positions. Twice they found themselves reduced to 14 men but there could have been twice as many yellows and even a red or two. At times the cynicism was breathtaking.

And at times their rugby was too. The two tries in the first 13 minutes seemed to indicate that Ireland would be subjected to the expected backlash from a hurting All Blacks and that, like their southern hemisphere rivals, we would be on the end of a heavy defeat. Instead for the remaining 67 minutes Ireland owned the ball for long stretches and were outscored by a mere 7-6.

In a strange way a dominant All Blacks performance would have been easier to stomach. The bookies who offered a 17-point spread this time around were in effect saying that the Chicago result was a fluke. Ireland did enough to suggest it was far from that but this game was agonisingly reminiscent of the final two Tests in South Africa with Joe Schmidt's side staying competitive enough to give themselves a shot at victory, but failing to take the extra step.

Were the two teams to meet again in a series-deciding third Test, I'm not sure there'd be much between them. An aggregate tally of 50-49 for the All Blacks is a true reflection for what was as mighty a two-match series as Ireland have ever been involved in. Once more this was a contest of equals.

Or at least near equals. For if the All Blacks are the most cynical of teams they are also the most clinical. All three tries were executed with a precision and a ruthlessness which Ireland could not match. For all their aggression there is a chip of ice in the New Zealand rugby brain which enables them to prosper under pressure in a way we have not yet emulated.

Because although we may blame bad luck, dodgy decisions and All Blacks skulduggery for this defeat, Ireland contributed plenty to it themselves. The tactical kicking, which had been so exact in Chicago, was slipshod and led directly to the third try of the contest. The line-out was in trouble throughout. Tackles were missed in the run-up to the first two tries. To beat the All Blacks it's necessary to do almost everything right - and that didn't happen.

Yet there were great pleasures to be taken from this performance, not least the spirit which enabled Ireland to pin the All Blacks back for such long periods. Jamie Heaslip carried the battle to the All Blacks, most notably with the powerful runs which set up those two close shaves in the first 10 minutes. Tadhg Furlong was a revelation, a powerful scrummaging performance being accompanied by some unexpected buccaneering with ball in hand. Josh van der Flier's excellent display summed up Ireland's current strength in depth, given that he would normally lie behind the likes of Peter O'Mahony, Jordi Murphy and CJ Stander, who he replaced, in the back-row pecking order. Devin Toner made numerous crucial tackles as well as fingertip catches under heavy pressure from Brodie Retallick. Ireland once more gave the All Blacks nightmares at the breakdown.

Yet it wasn't enough. It rarely is for anyone against the All Blacks. No Ireland team in history has ever dominated possession against the men of the silver fern the way we did yesterday in the second half. But like Ali against Foreman in Kinshasa, the New Zealanders lay back and absorbed the punishment, buckling but not breaking, knowing that they had the stuff for a deadly counter-attack when it was needed to finish the contest.

They rope-a-doped us. The cute hoors.

Sunday Indo Sport

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