Thursday 22 February 2018

Not All Black for Ireland as battling spirit sparks hope

Ireland 18 New Zealnad 38

New Zealand's Kieran Read scores his side's second try despite the efforts of Eoin Reddan. Photo: SPORTSFILE
New Zealand's Kieran Read scores his side's second try despite the efforts of Eoin Reddan. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Hugh Farrelly

FUNNY old game, alright, when you can consider how a 20-point beating can put a spring back in the step of Irish rugby a week after a 10-point win left us mildly depressed.

It's a strange thing to explain how losing by two points to the world champion South Africans and beating a Samoan side that subsequently gave cock-a-hoop England a proper fright in Twickenham cannot compete with a performance that, on paper, looks like a hammering.

But this was a display that confirmed that Declan Kidney has the players and the capacity to bring Ireland to their first World Cup semi-final next year. The foundation of such an assertion is the recognition of just how good New Zealand are -- this is an awesome rugby team, a level above the competition and one that could well go down in history as one of the greatest of all time.

The speed, physicality and skill levels of Graham Henry's outfit place them beyond the reach of any other international side, with the only caveat being that, if Dan Carter is not on the pitch (as happened when Australia pipped them a few weeks ago), they are less assured. However, when he is conducting the orchestra, as he did in Lansdowne last Saturday, no one can live with them.

This game turned in the space of a stunning three-minute spell just before half-time. Ireland were leading 13-12 and were full of belief and brio after Stephen Ferris' try (set up by a pass from Jamie Heaslip that would have been more at home on an American Football pitch).

With three minutes left to the break, a surge by Mick O'Driscoll set up a move that sent David Wallace charging over the All Blacks' 10-metre line only for the flanker to spill it after being slammed by Jerome Kaino.

Thirteen phases later, New Zealand second-row Anthony Boric crashed his way over for a try and when that was followed up touchdowns from Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock within eight minutes of the resumption, and with Carter kicking beautifully, suddenly it was 33-12 and if it had been a GAA crowd, they would have been streaming for the gates to beat the traffic.

Wondrous

New Zealand did not score again for 30 minutes, testament to an Irish defensive performance which saw them clock up 130 tackles to the visitors 75, a period when they threw everything at the All Blacks -- Heaslip doing his best Noel Mannion impression with a charge up the touchline, captain Brian O'Driscoll -- back to his best -- scoring a wondrous try with a one-handed pick up at full tilt and replacement Keith Earls being denied a try by the TMO.

When they conceded a final touchdown at the death, it had as much to do with exhaustion as anything else, but they had given the attendance of 46,302 something to get excited about in what was an exhilarating game of rugby, while Lansdowne Road also asserted itself for the first time this month as a proper international venue.

Ireland's attacking play was unrecognisable from what had been seen the previous two weekends and, while the dry conditions were undoubtedly a factor, the increase in intensity was equally pronounced and if the Irish had played with this level of focused aggression earlier in the month, they would have beaten the Springboks and put more on Samoa.

Every one of Kidney's players stood up to the mark, although Luke Fitzgerald was forced off before getting the opportunity to make the he impact he is always capable of. Rob Kearney was calmness personified at the back, closing down what looked like certain All Black scores on more than one occasion and the backline were organised in defence and vigorous in attack, spurred on by an assured display by half-backs Jonathan Sexton and Eoin Reddan.

The scrum was much improved, with Tom Court at tight-head providing security, which allowed the back-row, notably Heaslip, to flourish on the ball and O'Driscoll and Donncha O'Callaghan fought doggedly in the second-row and supplied good line-out possession.

Sean Cronin did extremely well off the bench and gave his customary live-wire display in the loose, while Devin Toner also made a positive impact -- although the ball should have been sent his way more in the line-out as his biggest asset is as a source of guaranteed possession.

Plenty of positives and yet, Ireland lost by 20 points. The All Blacks roll on kooking to complete their Grand Slam in Wales next weekend, while Ireland face into the customary grapple with the Argentinians.

Victory next Sunday is essential to build on the progress made here and, with a spate of injury concerns following this high-octane affair, that is easier said than done against the grizzled Puma forwards.

There is likely to be a spate of changes for that contest, with the likes of Geordan Murphy, Earls, Leo Cullen, Peter Stringer (whose passing upped the tempo further when introduced for Reddan) and Mike Ross coming into the equation. The key is to keep up the level of intensity because, against weaker teams than the All Blacks -- that is, everyone else -- it will pay rich dividends.

Furthermore, Ireland will not have to deal with a referee as Kiwi-friendly as Marius Jonker who, Ferris' try aside, seemed to give the All Blacks the benefit of the doubt on every occasion and, remarkably, never went for his yellow card, despite Richie McCaw and Co repeatedly and illegally slowing down Irish ruck ball.

New Zealand coach Henry was understandably upbeat afterwards, he had just masterminded his 100th Test victory and is always happier when his team have it put up to them as opposed to beating willing accomplices, as happened in Scotland the previous week.

"Ireland put us under a lot of pressure and played exceptionally well," said Henry.

"They always take us on, they played with a lot of physicality and opened us up on a number of occasions.

"They are a side I have a lot of respect for."

Defeat always stings, but Kidney's men deserve respect for this performance and the key now is to build on it and push towards the standards set by this incredible All Blacks outfit.

If they manage that, then Ireland will be genuine top-four contenders at the World Cup. Just 10 games to go.

IRELAND -- R Kearney (R O'Gara 75); T Bowe, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy, L Fitzgerald (K Earls 46); J Sexton, E Reddan (P Stringer 64); C Healy, R Best (S Cronin 22), T Court (J Hayes 64); D O'Callaghan, M O'Driscoll (D Toner 50); S Ferris, D Wallace (D Leamy 64), J Heaslip.

NEW ZEALAND -- M Muliaina; C Jane, C Smith, M Nonu (SB Williams 59), H Gear; D Carter, A Ellis (A Mathewson 59); T Woodcock, H Elliot (A Hore 58), O Franks (J Afoa 65); A Boric, T Donnelly (S Whitelock 41), J Kaino, R McCaw (capt), K Read.

REF -- M Jonker (S Africa).

Irish Independent

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