When one of the best poachers in the world comes out and admits he is struggling to get his head around the constant changes of the breakdown officiating, you know the sport is in a tricky place.
Tadhg Beirne was as bemused as anyone at Eden Park on Saturday night, as referee Karl Dickson allowed the ruck to be a free-for-all. That played right into the All Blacks’ hands.
Wary of how important quick ruck ball is to Ireland’s attacking game-plan, the hosts put enormous pressure on the breakdown.
As always New Zealand pushed it to the very limit and, as is often the case when they play in these parts, many alleged offences went unpunished.
Ireland felt there were side entries, while one particular cleanout looked dangerous, but it somehow didn’t get looked at by the referee or his TMO.
Scott Barrett was lucky to avoid punishment for a second-half incident involving Peter O’Mahony. It will be interesting to see if the citing commissioner picks up on it.
Andy Farrell refused to blame Dickson for his side’s heavy 42-19 defeat, and he was right not to as it wasn’t the reason Ireland fell short.
However, you could sense the simmering anger from the Ireland boss, who is set to seek clarification through the official channels about a couple of areas.
If the coaches are struggling to get to grips with varying interpretations of the breakdown, then the players, especially jackal threats like Beirne whose job it is to hunt rucks, are in an even trickier position.
As attention now turns to Saturday’s second Test in Dunedin, Jaco Peyper will be the man in the middle. If history has taught us anything, the breakdown can become a messy affair when the South African is in charge.
However, it’s up to Ireland to adapt accordingly, and that’s something they just haven’t done well enough – be that around the breakdown or the referee’s view of the scrum.
Apart from one trademark turnover, Beirne wasn’t able to have anything like his normal impact at the ruck, and while some of that may have been down to the fact he was playing his first game in 15 weeks, the Munster lock found it difficult to get to grips with Dickson’s officiating.
“I don’t really understand what’s going on with the breakdown personally, because this time last year they were giving penalties for fun in terms of poaching and now it’s like you have to be in there for 20 seconds and come out with the ball, otherwise you’re not getting the ball,” Beirne said.
“Probably in at the side is something they were looking at for a while and it’s just one of those areas, it’s a tough one.
“These are tough areas for referees to ref and it’s a bit frustrating when you’re a poacher and you probably feel like you’re on the ball longer than you probably are and we think we should be coming away with more.
“That’s just the way the game is and you probably have to deal with that and play to how the refs are reffing again. That’s probably something we’ll have to look at too.”
It wasn’t quite the comeback Beirne had envisaged while he was bursting a gut over the last few months to make it back in time for the New Zealand Series.
At one point it looked as though the 30-year-old might not make the plane at all, as what had initially seemed to be a low-grade thigh injury turned into something much more complicated.
“After the Scotland game I thought I’d be back in two weeks and it turned into four weeks, into six weeks, into 12 weeks,” Beirne said.
“I was kind of touch and go whether I’d be here at all and I had chats with the medical staff whether it was the right decision or not. But I was training towards the end of the season and I was ready to go for Munster, but unfortunately we lost to Ulster.
“I was very keen to be here and thankfully Faz [Andy Farrell] decided to take me out.”
Beirne will be all the better for getting 64 minutes under his belt at the weekend.
The hope is that the rest of his team-mates will be too, but with the All Blacks also having ridded themselves of the dirty diesel, they will pose another ferocious challenge in Dunedin.
“Of course they will but we’re always looking to get better,” Beirne said.
“I do feel like if you look at our attack, we had them at times and I think we just, again, ball on the deck and the next thing we’re under our posts.
“If we clean those things up, yeah, they’ll get better but we certainly know we’ll get better.
“It’s still possible to come out with a [Series] win and that’s the main thing we’ll be focusing on this week,” he added.
New Zealand – J Barrett; S Reece, R Ioane (B Ennor 66), W Tupaea (R Mo’unga 60), L Fainga’anuku; B Barrett, A Smith (F Christie 60); G Bower (K Tu’inukuafe 60), C Taylor (S Taukei’aho 54), O Tu’ungafasi (A Ta’avao 54); B Retallick (P G Sowakula 63), S Whitelock; S Barrett, S Cane (capt) (D Papalii 66), A Savea.
Ireland – H Keenan; K Earls (B Aki 57), G Ringrose, R Henshaw, J Lowe; J Sexton (capt) (J Carbery, 31), J Gibson-Park (C Murray 73); A Porter, D Sheehan (D Heffernan 63-66), T Furlong (T Toole 66); T Beirne (K Treadwell 64), J Ryan; P O’Mahony, J van der Flier, C Doris (J Conan 57).
REF: K Dickson (England)