Thursday 22 February 2018

All Blacks' attacking power destroys gallant Irish effort

Ireland 18 New Zealand 38

Keith Earls is tackled by Richie McCaw (left) and Tom Donnelly during the Test at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran
Keith Earls is tackled by Richie McCaw (left) and Tom Donnelly during the Test at the Aviva Stadium yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran

Maybe it was the fact that Shelbourne Road was thronged with people beforehand which gave you the impression that something important was about to happen.

That the Ireland rugby team, Grand Slam champions of 2009, were going to turn up intact for the first time since -- well, since the three tries to nil win over Wales back in March. And that there would be enough people inside the ground by the time the All Blacks did their little ho-down as to make it an atmosphere worth savouring.

And we got deliverance. Not exactly the sort of experience the crowd of 46,302 had dreamed of, but certainly worthwhile. This was another stunning display of attacking rugby from the world's top team, the sort of rugby that goes on and on until those trying to stop it can barely catch their breath. And when they do, it's only enough oxygen to get them through to the next phase. And there were lots of them.

This New Zealand team leave you with the impression that they are in no hurry at all. They don't mind waiting until your face is turning blue before they put you to the sword. No need to stab you right off.

It helps that the way rugby is refereed nowadays suits them perfectly. Turning over the ball at the tackle is extremely hard, so they have lots to play with. Factor in consistently high quality passing, and extraordinary power in the tackle, and you have an irresistible mix.

It wasn't as if Ireland didn't try to do just that. Their defence was willing and good. And after kicking a bit too much ball in the first half their attack was a country mile ahead of the last two games, helped by the first time this season they had a dry ball in their hands. And that's the scary bit: Ireland played very well here.

They made more tackles than any side should have to endure. They played with real intent. And yet within a few minutes of the second half the game was over.

Once the All Blacks had edged ahead with the last play of the half you felt there was no way Ireland could overhaul them. Less than 10 minutes earlier, we were looking at a different picture after Jamie Heaslip had put Stephen Ferris over with a pass that was far enough forward to be seen by all three officials, but evidently escaped all of them.

In the context of keeping the game alive, it was a great moment though -- quality attacking play from a team who had done heaps of defending up to that point. The accuracy of Jonny Sexton had kept them in the game, equalling man of the match Dan Carter with two great penalties. It was from the restart to Carter's effort that put the ABs 9-6 up that Ireland regained the ball for Ferris' try.

With Sexton's conversion, Ireland had a 13-9 lead but by the break it was gone. First Carter picked off another three and just after that Ireland were desperately trying to keep their shape under intense pressure when, from a ruck close in, Anthony Boric exploited the space inside Cian Healy to reach and score.

Carter's conversion gave the All Blacks a 19-13 lead to take into the second half. They also brought with them the knowledge that their opponents had already made enough tackles for one game, and that if they could keep on stretching them more scores would come.

Central to this is their power in contact. Late in the third quarter, Hosea Gear bounced his way out of two tackles as if they were speed bumps. He wasn't the only one. Mils Muliaina, who along with Richie McCaw went into record cap territory, was incredible, both in his ability to ride the challenge and to accelerate out of trouble.

Ireland's back three, without doing a whole lot wrong, were a long way off that level. And Declan Kidney's changes here were driven by injury, but he should have got Denis Leamy on sooner for David Wallace who, aside from a positive contribution for Ferris' try, was having a poor game.

Ireland were also undermined by their line-out, though at least their scrum held up okay. This was never going to be decided by who had the best set-piece, however, rather it was who could bring enough power and accuracy to their loose play.

New Zealand showed us both in the build-up to their two tries early in the second half, the first for the excellent Kieran Read after Jerome Kaino had fended Ferris, and then replacement Sam Whitelock got over. So before we had arrived at the 50- minute mark New Zealand were 33-13 in front.

It was inconceivable that they could lose from that position. They did have to defend, however. And twice they had to wait for referrals upstairs to come back -- the first was a yes for Brian O'Driscoll who scored with a sublime one-handed pick up; the second was negative when Keith Earls was in touch when he grounded the ball in the other corner.

The final word, fittingly, went to the All Blacks, and Read, the best No 8 in the world, with his second try. It was only their fourth touchdown. It felt like they had scored more. They seemed satisfied they had scored enough.

Sunday Independent

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