Sunday 17 November 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'A wretched way to finish a journey that had started so well'

Merciless All Blacks put ragged Ireland to the sword

Rory Best leaves the pitch to be with his family on a day when Kiwi young guns beat the old guard. Photo: Brendan Moran
Rory Best leaves the pitch to be with his family on a day when Kiwi young guns beat the old guard. Photo: Brendan Moran
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

If you accept that pretty much everything needs to go right in order to beat New Zealand then you can paint the picture yourself when lots of things go wrong.

The thousands of Irish fans in Tokyo Stadium yesterday could have started rough sketching at the end of the first quarter by which point, eerily, Ireland had conceded the same game-altering number of points as they had in the quarter-final of the World Cup in the Millennium Stadium four years ago.

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Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Jonathan Sexton. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Clearly Argentina and New Zealand pose very different challenges, but as with every other Irish exposure to the knock-outs of these tournaments, it ended in knock-out.

And with that Joe Schmidt gathers his belongings and hands back his IRFU stuff; and, after a short rest, the players come home to face the remainder of a season that has perhaps seven months to run.

It was humiliating for all concerned to be targeting in the first place a full-on performance that put the All Blacks under pressure, and then to find themselves in need of resuscitation.

It's worth pointing out - though not many will want to acknowledge it - that games can quickly get ugly on the back of a couple of swings. So Johnny Sexton's failed penalty to touch when the game was very much a live issue was a morale- buster. Yes, you can hammer Sexton for not putting it into row Z, but neither did he leave it six inches over the line, ripe for the picking. Instead what Richie Mo'unga managed in retrieval was world class. And Ireland lost an attacking opportunity they desperately needed.

You'd be less understanding however, of the score that nailed Ireland's coffin shut. One second they had succeeded in getting to the edge of the New Zealand defence only for Rob Kearney to come short when he needed to hold his width. Chance lost. Cheers lads, says Beauden Barrett, who hacks the ball ahead to turn 17-0 into 22-0 and a somewhat hopeful team into a gaggle of lads who stumbled from one error to the next. That's how games get out of hand. Piling mistake on top of mistake ensures it stays that way.

Let's go back to the morning of November 18 last year, the day after Ireland beat New Zealand for the second time in three meetings. Joe Schmidt would be a fairly strait-laced individual so it's reasonable to think that he didn't wake up that Sunday with a head so bad it was screaming 'Duvet Day!' at him. Which is not to say he didn't have a pain between his ears. The following Saturday his largely second-string side would put USA away to close a stellar year. And it was 11 months before Ireland wanted to be shining that brightly. What was his next trick going to look like?

"Right after the November series when we played the All Blacks last year we decided to make sure that this (World Cup) was our target," he said after yesterday's 46-14 defeat. "Maybe it consumed us a little bit and we got distracted from our game-to-game focus."

No, maybe everything was too organised too far out. Taking those back-to-back games against New Zealand and USA last November, only four players across those match-day squads had no involvement in the warm-up games for this tournament or in the tournament itself. We took this as a good thing, a measure of Ireland's stability. And it might have been if the coach had been prepared to rely less on his old campaigners, not least his captain Rory Best, and to embrace a less attritional way of playing the game.

In any case he didn't have the luxury of opening the door to bolters, as New Zealand always do. Sevu Reece had yet to be capped when Ireland were beating the All Blacks for the first time in Lansdowne Road. George Bridge had made his debut just two weeks earlier.

In an ever-evolving side you can go to a World Cup with lads like that as your first choice ahead of household names like Rieko Ioane and Ben Smith. Instead pretty much all Ireland's baggage was already on board. And it was lost in transit. It was painful to watch very good rugby players shuffling around looking for the door marked 'Entrance to Game'.

"I do think that mentally it takes a toll on players when they don't quite get to have that belief that we're going to get an opportunity with the ball and even an opportunity in the All Black 22," Schmidt said

"The only time we got into the All Black 22 in the first-half was right at the end of the half. I wasn't quite sure what the decision was for with Peter O'Mahony making contact with someone's backside, but that was disappointing because the penalty then gets turned around and again you lose that oxygen and belief to try and get a little bit of a footing back into the game."

As for the coach himself it was a tortuous experience, a wretched way to finish a journey that had started so well.

"You tend to carry your scars a lot more than your successes and those scars are deep," he said. "That's why I'm a little bit broken. I think when I get some distance to reflect on maybe 75 Test matches, and we've won 74 per cent of them, there's been some incredibly good days. Don't think they get washed away by two defeats in days where we are incredibly disappointed.

"I felt we had good reason four years ago when we lost our leadership before the quarter-final. Today, we just met a team who I think are number one in the world for a reason. If you're not on the money you're going to be incredibly disappointed and I am. I don't really have an excuse for it (the performance) or a reason for it. On the night we can't afford to give the All Blacks access points like we did. They're good enough to win games without us inviting them in, and that was incredibly disappointing."

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