Friday 23 February 2018

David Kelly: Ruthless All Blacks blunt Irish and blind officials

Jared Payne, supported by Paddy Jackson, runs into the All Black wall of Aaron Cruden, Ardie Savea and Wyatt Crockett. Photo: Sportsfile
Jared Payne, supported by Paddy Jackson, runs into the All Black wall of Aaron Cruden, Ardie Savea and Wyatt Crockett. Photo: Sportsfile
David Kelly

David Kelly

Angels with dirty faces politely skiffle into a room in the bowels of the Aviva Stadium

Both sides have had well over 90 minutes to re-attire but the pock-marked, blood red bruises reveal the lingering scars of the ceaseless attrition that an awestruck audience had just witnessed.

This is what happens when you dare to re-enter the "death zone".

A fortnight weeks ago, Ireland brought the All Blacks down to earth in Chicago; this time, the opposition ferried the Irish far above and beyond any capacity to survive without the oxygen required to realistically replicate their Windy City feats.

"It's hard getting that balance," says Beauden Barrett, an assassin's smile flashing from an impossibly cherubic countenance.

A dot of dried blood to the left of his mouth is the only evidence that he had attended anything more vigorous than, say, a concert recital; given how he effortlessly conducted the victors, he may as well have done.

"Our intent was we wanted to be physical. Technique may have let us down a couple of times with the yellow cards, but it's up to the referee to make those decisions.

"I'm pretty sore now and that's a sign of how intense and physical the game was."


After Chicago, a terrible beauty was born; Saturday's unfettered and unremitting assault on the minds and the bodies of the Irish players was its ultimate result.

Ireland would have won any Test match in which they were guaranteed such an ocean of ball, dominance of territory and surfeit of scoring chances - both sides crossed the line three times with ball in hand - not to mention playing against just 14 men for a full hour.

Any Test match, except this one. New Zealand were never going to lose this one. Even if it meant stretching the definition of legality beyond bending.

Moral guardians are already queueing, with a clamour akin to Christmas shoppers in the Jervis Street centre, to convey their opprobrium at the victors' modus operandi; they are looking in the wrong direction; the officiating was appalling and World Rugby's direction is lacking, too.

New Zealand, like anyone, will play the game they are allowed to play; in Saturday's case, a game that seemed to be heedless to often flagrant illegality. They played the conditions. They are the winners; those in charge of the game are the losers.

"Do you want me to tell you we're a dirty team?" Steve Hansen bristles at RTE's Claire McNamara in the aftermath and we are at once reminded of Brian Cody defending his team's status with a personal harrumph on RTE after a moment of triumph. The best teams do everything better.

And they also played better at the times when they needed to be better. They created few chances but took the three they needed to take; they missed a clutch of tackles but made the ones that needed to be made.

And, though they clocked up a string of disciplinary offences, the concession of nine points was worth the deal. That's the "balance" of which Barrett spoke.

Ireland's response was poor, admitting they lost their shape and lost control of too many elements that prospered in Chicago. The All Blacks just made their tackles; they found their character just as Ireland were losing their game.

The "Death Zone" happens in mountaineering, when you lose oxygen, but also in sailing, from the bear away from going upwind to downwind, when your boat loses all sense of control. Ireland lost their control in attack, displaying none of the poise shown in Chicago.

"Our defence showed real character, that's the one thing that I am really proud of," says captain Kieran Read; his opening restart success after Ireland's dismal attempt to regather effectively setting the opening tone.

And the subsequent opening try established the terms of engagement - Ireland on the back foot.

"This is a moving game," says Hansen, pleading for his side's defence against occasionally punished aggression.

"The first yellow was a head clash, on the other side was across the shoulder. There was no malice.

"It's a shifting game, when ball-carriers move with the quality that Ireland do, they are going to change direction, sometimes people make mistakes and sometimes people fall into tackles too.

"I'm pretty happy. The loss created adversity and today was how we responded to that. Three tries to none, we defended for long periods, showed character. It wasn't pretty and we've a lot to learn but after losing 818 caps it's a good year so far."

Barrett was one of the chief differences between the sides but even he benefited from officiating laxity; dotting down unconvincingly despite Jon Mason's peremptory decision to award the try after viewing just one, inconclusive angle.

"It could have been embarrassing," he says. "I was obviously trying to get under the sticks to make the kick easier, but I should have just dotted down to make life easier."

He clearly doesn't trust his own kicking? "Obviously not! It's just a natural thing to do, I do it every time, but the ball was in the wrong hand I'm obviously a bit better on the other side.

"The second angle didn't look good. But I knew part of the ball had hit the ground on the first angle. It's just a relief, I guess.

"He asked me on the second try when I stripped the ball. I said if it had been league it'd be a try.

"I can understand why the crowd got in behind it because the second angle didn't look good, but I was reasonably comfortable I grounded it."

The embarrassment shifted to the official, who simply ignored the second angle. New Zealand just played on, aided by the lassitude of others. Ireland stumbled thereafter.

The victors' praise will stick in their throat but the respect, now, is obvious.

"Ireland are going places," says Hansen. "They will get better and better."

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