independent

Monday 21 April 2014

Ruthless Kiwis leave Ireland shell-shocked

Schmidt rues missed kicks and tired bodies as late try robs hosts of a first victory over record-setting All Blacks.

FOR nearly 80 minutes at Lansdowne Road, the only difference between these sides was the colour of their jerseys.

But when opportunity knocked and history beckoned, the world champions showed what sets them apart.

Ireland had been doing everything right until Jack McGrath went off his feet after Kevin McLaughlin's carry and Nigel Owens harshly reached for his whistle. Twenty seconds stood on the clock when Aaron Smith tapped the penalty on his own 10m line, but everybody in the stadium sensed what was coming.

It is only when the emotion is removed that Ireland fans will be able to appreciate the brilliance of what they witnessed in the 99 seconds that followed.

The world's best team had been bullied and bruised for much of the clash, but in the dying stages of a brutal Test match they kept their heads and marched 60m, winning 10 breakdowns and throwing 24 passes, which concluded with Dane Coles drawing Ian Madigan's tackle and putting Ryan Crotty away in the corner.

The stadium – for most of the game as raucous as it has been since being redeveloped – was reduced to a disappointment-filled silence not heard since Michael Lynagh scored in a different corner of the same ground 22 years ago.

As the 14 other All Blacks crouched down, arm-in-arm in silent hope, Aaron Cruden slipped his kick wide, but was given a second chance because Luke Fitzgerald had charged the kick early. Cruden wasn't going to make the same mistake twice to nail the history they had come for, their first perfect season.

It was a cruel reminder to Paul O'Connell and his Ireland team that elite sport holds no sentiment.

For 40 minutes they bossed New Zealand and led 22-7 at the break, they handed the initiative back to the best team in the world and Steve Hansen's men don't need a second invitation to pounce.

Johnny Sexton missed a penalty with seven minutes remaining that both the All Blacks coach and his captain Richie McCaw conceded would have been curtains for their side, but it wasn't all on the fly-half who was carrying his hamstring by that stage and was otherwise excellent.

As the heat came, the decision-making deteriorated and the tired bodies in defence in the closing passage just couldn't deal with the rampant visitors.

"I think a bit of it was fatigue," a crushingly disappointed Joe Schmidt said afterwards. "But I don't put missing a kick down to fatigue; we just didn't get the rub of the green towards the end.

"Around the ruck there were a few guys who looked like they might have been offside, but we got penalised for coming off our feet; those things happen and we have to be good enough to respond to them, but I think the cumulative defensive effort of that second half had started to take its toll.

"Guys didn't quite get in the line quick enough and the line became a little bit fragile. If you're fragile and Ma'a Nonu, Ben Smith and Cory Jane and the like get on the front foot, then you're going to put yourself under pressure and they're going to keep the pressure on until they get a result."

That result did not look likely when Ireland opened a 19-point lead in as many minutes and dominated their much-vaunted opponents in the tackle, forcing them into mistakes that made them look ordinary.

When Owens reversed an early penalty, Ireland applied pressure from the line-out and Israel Dagg knocked Sexton's chip ahead on under pressure from Dave Kearney.

From the scrum, Dave Kearney, Jamie Heaslip and Peter O'Mahony carried hard to the line and, from the base of a ruck, Conor Murray went against the flow and held off Brodie Retallick's tackle to score.

Sexton converted and it wouldn't be long before he was lining another one up as O'Driscoll's tackle on Ma'a Nonu and a Gordon D'Arcy-forced steal stopped New Zealand's attempts to hit back instantly. Murray's clearing kick was returned with little interest by Cruden, giving Ireland field position.

O'Connell won the line-out and Heaslip trucked it up in midfield. Sean O'Brien spotted a gap around the fringe and burst through, off-loading to Murray who was held up short. O'Brien took it up again and was also stopped short, before Murray fed Rory Best, who stepped inside Kieran Read to score.

The All Blacks were rattled and, despite quickly losing hooker Best to a suspected broken arm, Ireland kept the pressure on with a huge maul from an under pressure line-out, before Rob Kearney's opportunistic try hammered home their advantage.

Ireland were in defensive mode when Cruden's pass to Dagg went astray and the full-back pounced to outpace Read from 80m and touch down.

Sexton's conversion came back off the upright, but nobody in the delirious crowd seemed to mind as the impossible dream came into focus. They should have taken note.

It wasn't quite instant, but the All Blacks did hit back within six minutes as Ben Smith exposed Sean Cronin's inside shoulder and raced through.

Ireland dealt with the initial offerings with ball-in-hand, but could do nothing as Cruden sent through a perfectly-weighted chip for Julian Savea to score.

Ireland responded with possibly their best period of pressure, but despite an old-school O'Driscoll break they had to settle for a Sexton penalty and, after a helter-skelter finish to an enthralling half, they went in 15 points to the good.

You knew New Zealand would respond after the break, but Ireland kept them at bay for 12 minutes before a Cruden penalty closed the gap.

But, there were signs that the hosts were beginning to think about holding what they had, their manic intensity had understandably dropped and they seemed to be looking to slow things down.

Against most teams, you can defend a big lead, but even though they were far from at their best, the All Blacks remained patient and the otherwise strangely subdued Read finally got his hands going by brilliantly slipping Savea in down the left.

Schmidt's men were in trouble as Owen Franks crashed over and Cruden made it a one-score game with 15 to go.

From then on it was a waiting game with the crowd watching the clock as much as the action.

With seven minutes remaining, Sexton was handed his shot at history as the New Zealanders hauled down another dominant maul. Already struggling with his hamstring, he pushed it right.

"When they took their shot at goal that would have put it out to eight points, the reality is that if that had gone over then it was game over," McCaw admitted.

"But when that missed, you could see a sense of lift in the boys. There was still a chance.

"Perhaps in the Irish boys, you could see that they were trying to eat up as much time and sometimes when that happens an opportunity will come. We've talked about it. 'There'll be a chance, let's see if we can take it'. That's how it turned out."

They didn't need asking twice. Taking chances is second nature, it's why they're the best. Ireland gave them a sniff and a first win over the All Blacks went with it. The wait goes on.

IRELAND – R Kearney; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (L Fitzgerald 54), G D'Arcy, D Kearney; J Sexton (I Madigan 76), C Murray; C Healy (J McGrath 69), R Best (S Cronin 15), M Ross (D Fitzpatrick 66); D Toner (M McCarthy 66), P O'Connell (capt); P O'Mahony (K McLaughlin 57), S O'Brien, J Heaslip.

NEW ZEALAND – I Dagg (R Crotty 53); C Jane (B Barrett 67), B Smith, M Nonu, J Savea; A Cruden, A Smith; W Crockett (B Franks 61), A Hore (D Coles 43), C Faumuina (O Franks 57); B Retallick, S Whitelock; S Luatua (L Messam 57), R McCaw, K Read.

Ref – N Owens (WRU)

by Ruaidhri O'Connor

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