Wednesday 20 September 2017

Brendan Fanning: Perfect mix of youth and experience cuts Ireland to shreds

New Zealand 42 Ireland 10

Israel Dagg loses the ball
under pressure from Conor
Murray and Peter O’Mahony
in Eden Park, Auckland.
Photo: Hannah Johnston
Israel Dagg loses the ball under pressure from Conor Murray and Peter O’Mahony in Eden Park, Auckland. Photo: Hannah Johnston
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

Either Ireland aren't the biggest draw in world rugby or the Auckland rugby public are so turned off by the battering their team has been taking in the Super 15 that they couldn't be bothered to fill Eden Park yesterday for New Zealand's first Test of the season.

It's worth remembering that this was the first appearance of the world champions since they lifted that title at the same venue last October. Certainly they were unbackable, and as the bookies suggested, unbeatable.

It was appropriate then that the victims in all of this should finish the game unable to contest the scrums, and barely able to plug the holes that were springing up all over the ship. Unfortunately, it will be another two Saturdays before the vessel slips completely below the waterline. In the context of this fixture, the final scoreline was unremarkable, as was the trend of the game. Instead of being blitzed from the off, Ireland were genuinely competitive for the first quarter, less so for the second, and scarcely mapped in the second half.

Beforehand you feared for their scrum, where two of the three props in the squad were uncapped, and neither had ever suggested they were Test standard. That phase was the least of their problems however, and Declan Fitzpatrick -- although looking uncomfortable with ball in hand -- had a decent debut in the tight, and defensively, before retiring injured.

And speaking of defence, Ireland had to make 123 tackles on a night that must have felt like it would never end. The longer it went on the more they looked to referee Nigel Owens for some sort of break, but he wasn't in the mood for mercy. No surprise then that Fergus McFadden sprinted 80 metres for what would have been his second try on the night, in the second half, only to be called back for a penalty to the All Blacks.

Interestingly, given the scoreline, the penalty stat was the only area of equality, which told you how well the All Blacks used all the ball they had. They had the run of awards in that department early on though, which allowed Dan Carter find his range and nudge them steadily ahead in the first half to the point where their first try would have a huge impact.

And a 9-3 game -- three penalties to Carter to one from Jonny Sexton -- suddenly became a 16-3 affair with new boy Julian Savea crossing for the first of his hat-trick. The prospects of Ireland recovering from that, with only 26 minutes gone, were zero.

The build-up to that try was instructive, for it had been preceded by a lengthy period of Irish defence at the end of which Sean O'Brien's poaching forced a relieving penalty. Sexton's kick to touch was not quite the relief he had in mind however.

Sensing that Ireland were still gasping from the defensive effort the All Blacks contested hard at the lineout to put Conor Murray under pressure with his clearing kick. That effort went as far as Zac Guildford who spilled it sideways -- he wouldn't have complained had he been blown up for a knock-on -- and with four men already back behind the ball to help with the counter-attack, they set off with purpose.

Enter Sonny Bill Williams with an offload that was a carbon copy of one he had produced in the last round of Super rugby, and the next thing Carter was putting the debutant over for his, and the game's, first try.

It was an enjoyable night for the New Zealand outhalf, playing his first Test since the trauma of hobbling out of the World Cup at the end of the pool stage. The old guard, with Richie McCaw, Owen Franks and Sam Whitelock in fine fettle, were joined by an impressive new crop. Well, they looked impressive against a tired opposition whose pack started minus three first-choice players, and who were unsettled then when Murray was penalised twice for delaying the put-in. For a team trying to settle into a game against a home side desperate to run, free-kicks are always costly.

Those decisions didn't do much for the Ireland scrumhalf who struggled to clear the ball quickly all evening, or rather as quick as it needed to be if Ireland were to have any chance. Outside him Brian O'Driscoll, playing his first Test of the year, was loose in his passing, and Sexton shorter than he needed to be with his kicking. Keith Earls, who was in trouble with his shoulder when he went off, had a fine game, and Simon Zebo looked like he might have enjoyed himself if only he got more ball.

Too often what ball Ireland did have was used predictably: going out the back early if it was moved wide, and then, when possession slowed and fatigue was setting in, the All Blacks were able to pick off carriers and sink them easily. Ireland's only try was a long-range chase and touchdown by McFadden, in the second half, after Rory Best had blocked Carter.

The most willing and effective up front were O'Brien and Donnacha Ryan, while Cian Healy kept going long past his sell-by date because Fitzpatrick had gone off with a hamstring injury. It made for pitiful viewing, watching him slump from one contact to the next and he should have been hauled off sooner. That's probably how his team-mates feel as they wake up this morning.

Beaten 5-1 on tries and already staring at a 3-0 series loss. Oh to be hauled off and flown home.

New Zealand: I Dagg; Z Guildford (B Smith 52), C Smith, S Williams, J Savea (A Cruden 65); D Carter, A Smith (P Weepu 59); T Woodcock, A Hore (H Elliot 62), O Franks (B Franks 62), B Retallick (A Williams 53), S Whitelock, V Vito (A Thompson 45), K Read, R McCaw (capt)

Ireland: R Kearney; F McFadden, B O'Driscoll (capt), K Earls (D Cave 73), S Zebo; J Sexton (R O'Gara 56), C Murray (E Reddan 62); C Healy (S Cronin 73), R Best, D Fitzpatrick (R Loughney 55), D Tuohy (D O'Callaghan 62), D Ryan, P O'Mahony (K McLaughlin 62), J Heaslip, S O'Brien

Referee: N Owens (Wales)

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