Sport Rugby

Thursday 24 May 2018

George Hook: Sexton will berate himself for missing the penalty but there were problems elsewhere

Jonathan Sexton after the game
Jonathan Sexton after the game
Jonathan Sexton
George Hook

George Hook

At half-time yesterday as Ireland went in to the dressing-room 15 points ahead against New Zealand, a quotation from history popped in to my head.

After Pearl Harbour, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto declared: "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve."

At the final whistle the visitors had carved out a victory based entirely on an extraordinary resolve not to lose. It was helped by a number of crucial unforced errors by Ireland.

This performance by a team written off by the critics and starting as 20-point underdogs was based almost entirely on a physical commitment which Ireland and Munster have shown so often against superior touring sides.

Certainly there was much to be admired in the tactical and technical improvement in the short space of a week, but it could not have happened without every single player delivering above his recent performances.

New Zealand were outplayed at the ruck, losing seven turnovers. More importantly they were never allowed to present good ball for scrum-half Aaron Smith. To be beaten at a phase of the game they invented hurt the psyche of the men in black jerseys.

In the titanic victory by Munster in 1978, Seamus Dennison made a tackle that showed disregard for his own safety. The New Zealanders were shocked by such insanity and wondered if a mere provincial match was worth the risk. Yesterday that tackle was replicated by 15 men and sadly it failed to have the desired result.


Devin Toner was immense, not just because his statuesque frame provided a target in the line-out but because he carried the ball with intensity; Mike Ross for the first time this year provided a solid platform in the scrum; and crucially Sean Cronin had a near-perfect day at the line-out while his energy around the field made the loss of Rory Best irrelevant.

In the backs, Rob Kearney excelled while his try was a testament to previously unrecognised speed.

If the man of the match was awarded for bravery then Gordon D'Arcy would have done the post-match interview as he left all known form behind him in an incredible performance of defending and, most importantly, carrying when outnumbered by tacklers.

Joe Schmidt obviously gets credit for this display but the unheralded players mentioned above would have been moved to be selected and filled with confidence. That may be the genius of the man.

The coach made a crucial change in plan from last week. Sean O'Brien was used less as the first receiver and allowed to compete against Richie McCaw. Rarely has the Kiwi captain had such a bad day at the office and one suspects that French club owners will be ready to break the bank when O'Brien's contract expires at the end of the season.

However, the question has to be asked: how did Ireland lose this match? It must be remembered that Ireland have been here before, most famously when Barry McGann had a conversion to win in the only draw against New Zealand.

Too many times Ireland have looked good only to fail in the end. Johnny Sexton will berate himself for missing the penalty but the problems were elsewhere. The errors were a product of tiredness after a heroic first half but failing to score a point in the second period threw the opponents a lifeline.

Toner with a silly obstruction reversed an Irish penalty and handed over an unlikely three points.

The inability to close out the game was a fatal flaw. In those dramatic final minutes Ireland played the match in the wrong part of the pitch and did not have the ability to pin the All Blacks back with tactical kicking. The game required kicks with length not with height.

Finally and incredibly Ireland lost an honourable draw by stupidly charging the final conversion too early. It was all the more unforgivable when it had happened at a previous try. When did Ireland last do that?

As the match headed towards what seemed an inevitable Irish victory, I was certain that the visitors had lost the plot when Aaron Cruden chipped from inside his '22' to give the ball to Ireland. I venture to suggest that no All Black No 10 in the history of the game had made such a basic error.

But Nigel Owens, who had given Ireland every advantage, was not finished. New Zealand got their first benefit of the doubt in the 80th minute when he gave them a doubtful penalty, which they ran over 60 metres in almost two minutes of possession. The Welshman seemed to see a forward pass where nobody else saw a fault.

So the Autumn Series finished with another example of Ireland's ability to defy the odds by a combination of bravery and talent. For Ireland to succeed they must do better than perform only when faced by the firing squad.

The captaincy of Paul O'Connell was outstanding. In the first minute he handled the ball twice and ran at opponents and sent a message to his colleagues to follow.

His line-out calling was impeccable and he constantly ensured a sympathetic target for Cronin. Once again Brian O'Driscoll defied Anno Domini as the quality of his experience inspired all around him.

He took a heavy hit in a tackle and did not return to the field of play, though he clearly wanted to.

The New Zealanders will return to unfavourable reviews, but Steve Hansen did make his own cross to carry by not picking his best side. The arrival of the bench was a clear testament to the fact that better players were spectators. Dane Coles, Beauden Barrett and Liam Messam turned the tide.

Sadly we have seen this level of performance before. With one minute left on the clock, Conor Murray, incredibly, kicked the ball away when three passes and three rucks would have closed the game out.

We may never again get a better chance at beating New Zealand.

Irish Independent

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