Coach needs to shuffle the pack after meek loss to the All Blacks
If you drew a line between the post-match comments of old Munster and Ireland teammates Ronan O’Gara and Peter O’Mahony, it would have been virtually straight. One was in the studio, trying to strike a balance between giving insight and not pissing off players who one day he will be coaching. The other was ticking the box that obliges an early player reaction from pitch-side.
After the examination both doctors removed their stethoscopes and declared the patient to be alive. Neither well nor kicking, but alive.
The bookies will disagree. Winless in New Zealand since Noah forecast heavy rain, these turf accountants experience nagging doubt only around the first Test: it’s the opener for the home side, and often they are a bit rusty; for the tourists, at the end of their season, it’s the point in the series where they will be least fatigued — naturally enough. And they are fairly wrecked anyway by the time they arrive.
Interestingly, O’Gara presented an option to Andy Farrell, the man he will succeed as Ireland coach, that will appeal to the current boss: the players are in a privileged position, and recognition of that fact should be a positive focal point.
O’Mahony, meantime, was resoundingly positive about the good things in Ireland’s game, a contest in which they scored three tries, spent 60 per cent of the game in New Zealand’s half and had more of the ball. When you drill down a bit, those stats lose some positivity, but for the moment consider the upside.
At one point in the first quarter, with Ireland trailing 7-5 but on the front foot and doing damage, the prospect of taking the lead for the second time presented itself. That in itself would have been a statement amplified by the unease many locals felt about the shape of their own side and the form of Ireland.
It was Auckland, so it was wet, which meant building and maintaining momentum was tricky. In one of those micro-moments that change games, Garry Ringrose needed two goes to control the ball, but from there it went loose and Sevu Reece pounced. He had 77 metres to the Irish line and not for one of those was there a doubt he would win the race. In those few heartbeats the appealing vista of 12-7 to Ireland became 14-5 to New Zealand.
Andy Farrell framed this tour in a World Cup context, so that’s how it should be judged. If you want to be successful in that pursuit then you have to be able to deal with stuff like that.
You also won’t have much of a chance if you’ve gone 14-5 down away from home against the joint most successful nation in the world, and your set-piece is not working. Ireland were not buckled at the scrum but neither were they ever comfortable. A solid platform there would have given them an entry point that could have upset their hosts. A reliable lineout would have done the same. Again, the stats lead you down a dodgy path, for 14 wins from 17 throws doesn’t illustrate some of the pressure that came with ‘successful’ outcomes.
For example Quinn Tupaea’s try, to follow Reece, came off Irish lineout ball in the tourists’ 22, chalked down as a success. But Brodie Retallick competed so hard at the front it was low grade, and when Jamison Gibson-Park opted to go for a gap that disappeared just after he set off. Disaster. Ireland’s scrumhalf has been one of the success stories of the Farrell era but it was as if he wanted progress in leaps and bounds yesterday while some of his teammates were thinking: ‘It’s New Zealand away — increments will be fine.’
As for James Ryan, it’s hard to know what he was thinking when he went for a ball clearly still in the back of a New Zealand ruck and was penalised. What probably would have finished with an Irish lineout around half-way instead was an All Black one. So, a chance for them to control the game. Sure enough, a few phases later and Ardie Savea was scoring. Three tries in eight minutes for a scoreline of 28-5 at half-time.
It was suggested last week that the sharp corners on Farrell’s squad selection of 40 instead of 42 was all part of a cunning plan to see how the squad fared under pressure. This resonated with us because a few weeks ago, when the squad was announced, one of Farrell’s entourage was good enough to mansplain to us the thought process. “You don’t understand, Andy doesn’t want to take lads he doesn’t think can feature in the World Cup.”
That policy immediately put the group under unnecessary strain and less able to react to the twists and turns on any tour, let alone one followed by Covid. Well, the pressure point now is acute. The challenge of adding to the good things in this heavy defeat is mountainous as injuries increase, fatigue mounts and the opposition move more easily into their stride.
So yes, there are positives to take from Eden Park but laying them out convincingly under the roof in Dunedin will require, among other things, giving some room to those like Joey Carbery and Harry Byrne and a handful of others to make a case, including Stuart McCloskey who is en route.
It would help too if Jaco Peyper gets after the Kiwis’ shady dealing more diligently than Karl Dixon, who looked naïve. A bit like Ireland you could say.