Wednesday 20 September 2017

Brendan Fanning: Clinical Carter lands late knockout punch

New Zealand 22
Ireland 19
Huge improvement fails to heal pain of another near miss against Kiwis, says Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If you are working off 20 per cent less possession than your opponents, and roughly the same in territory, and neither your scrum nor lineout is returning 100 per cent -- as your opponents are doing with theirs -- then it's unlikely your nose will be out of joint if you are in second place when the medals are being handed out.



And yet, in freezing Christchurch yesterday, the deviated septum was the most common injury in the Ireland camp.

Its causes are not altogether clear. Post-match we got our hands on Declan Kidney, Rory Best and Jonny Sexton in that order. The coach said enough on the record about Nigel Owens' scrum call to make it clear he was unhappy with it but not about to complain about it either. And he added enough about the areas where Ireland were sloppy to acknowledge that it was about more than Owens.

Best, meanwhile, was positively political in his praise of the referee, whom he stopped short of commending for his work in the Third World. The hooker's body language told a wildly different story. "Sorry," he said, as he was making his way off.

As for the outhalf, he too was quick to point out the mistakes Ireland had made on a night when they made far fewer of them than a week earlier in Auckland. After that first Test you didn't know where to look when the comments from the Ireland camp were about being caught off guard (eh, by the world champions?) and that they couldn't afford to be making mistakes against this calibre of opposition, as if they had made a wondrous discovery.

Then, a week later, they are on red alert from the get-go, reduce those errors significantly, and come within a couple of minutes of matching Ireland's best ever result against New Zealand. Hard to fathom. The only odds longer than an All Black defeat was a game where there would be only two tries, evenly shared.

If you consider that Ireland were missing five Lions from their squad last night -- Paul O'Connell, Tommy Bowe, Stephen Ferris, Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald -- and that they are nudging the 12-month mark now since they started preparations for last year's World Cup, avoiding a battering was an achievement. Perversely, once that spectre had been taken out of the equation, the painful issue was that they didn't win.

We were reminded then of Keith Wood's colourful speech to his team after their near miss (15-6 defeat) in Dunedin in 2002, that the only way to gain the respect of their hosts was to beat them. That was the only language they could understand. The idea was that they would do that in Auckland the next weekend, where of course they were beaten out the gate. Which is exactly what Steve Hansen will demand of his players now.

"We played an Irish side that played as good as it could have," he said, without seeming to realise the insult. "And we didn't play great."

There were a few common factors with the World Cup game against Australia last year, in that it was a wet track, and Ireland were physical, focused and not too creative. The last bit wasn't that important because they were doing the other bits well enough. In the absence of O'Connell we had Donnacha Ryan showing real leadership, with more support this week from Dan Tuohy, who matched Ryan and Seán O'Brien on 14 tackles apiece.

The defence too was mostly very good, even if at times it gave up too much ground before contact. And Sexton's shooting stats of five from six were the same as Dan Carter's, excluding the drop goal. Yet Carter's ability to land restarts on minute pockets of air is something still beyond the Ireland No 10. Kidney acknowledged that it's a phase all of its own to this All Black side.

"We got a lesson in how to kick off," he said. "We talk about set-piece, about scrum and lineout but if you look at the amount of possession they got from kick-offs in the first half I'd think it was in the region of half a dozen."

At least they were being forced to restart. In Auckland, Carter only had to do it three times in total, each one unbelievably accurate. He got more goes here and his accuracy was in the same category. So we know that won't diminish over this week. And that Hansen will make a couple of changes hoping to hurry Ireland a bit quicker out of the country. And the tourists?

"It has to be (seen as) another opportunity," says Sexton. "We showed at times what we can do. A lot of it is in our own control -- we can't just look at the ref. Definitely we can go again. We made some basic errors still. Obviously we cut down a lot from last week but we still dropped the ball, not under pressure at times. That's probably unacceptable. That's maybe the difference; they do the basics really well and we did them for a large part of the game but we needed to do everything spot on tonight to get the result.

"I had a long-range effort to go ahead. In cold conditions I needed to hit it absolutely perfect. I didn't. Disappointing because I'd kicked pretty well all night. It wasn't the worst kick but I needed to hit it absolutely spot on for it to get there in that condition. We're missing a few big players and it's great that the lads are stepping up now. We didn't step up last week -- it's great that the lads came in now and it will only bode well for the future."

Unfortunately, given the rescheduled tours arrangement, the only chance for this group of beating the All Blacks on their home patch -- at least with Ireland -- disappeared yesterday because we won't be back in these parts for 10 years at least. Unless they can claim the last of the three Tests in Hamilton.

We'll see what shape Gordon D'Arcy is in for that, and if any unmentioned injuries crop up over the next few days. Kidney will be trying to keep them focused in the toughest week of any losing tour: the days immediately before departure. Had Ireland been hammered, as we expected, it would have been a tortuous week. Now it will be something different again, which is in keeping with Kidney's career.

By next weekend he will be highlighting the valuable experience gained by the new players on this trip, which of course we were told was not the point of the exercise before we came away. Now that the series is gone, he is faced with the issue of spreading that experience about a bit more. If he doesn't, then it makes no sense to have brought those players in the first place. If the coach wants to portray this as a useful exercise then he needs to lighten the load a bit. It's been the longest season ever.

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