Tuesday 16 January 2018

Brent Pope: Joe Schmidt talked about poking the All Black bear and a grizzly turned up

Read Brent Pope's exclusive column every week in The Herald

New Zealand's Malakai Fekitoa, right, celebrates scoring a try with Israel Dagg and Anton Liernert-Brown during the Autumn International match between Ireland and New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
New Zealand's Malakai Fekitoa, right, celebrates scoring a try with Israel Dagg and Anton Liernert-Brown during the Autumn International match between Ireland and New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Brent Pope

When you talk the talk, you have to be able to walk the walk. All week, All Black coach Steve Hansen and his team had been determined to show that the loss in Chicago was a blip on the radar and not the national disaster, as many people were seeing it back in New Zealand.

In the end, while the world’s best team restored some pride, this game was closer than Hansen would have liked. When Joe Schmidt talked about poking the All Black bear, he didn’t think a Grizzly would turn up in a match which will be remembered for some dubious refereeing decisions and some ferocious (if at times borderline) tackling by the Kiwis.

As it was in Chicago, the All Blacks’ ill-discipline reared its ugly head with over three times the number of Irish infringements, a lot of them coming in the tackle or the ruck area.

The problem was that Ireland just could not take full advantage when they needed to, and three tries to three penalties just about told the story of Ireland’s brave approach.

For most of the game Ireland were missing their main strike force after key men Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw had to leave the field early, the first with what looked like another hamstring strain, the second for a nasty head clash with All Black flanker Sam Cane.  The Irish looked like they would be hammered when the All Blacks started the match in anticipated ‘blacklash’ fashion, owning the ball and coming in waves at the Irish defenders.

Out-half Beauden Barret gave the All Blacks the perfect platform when a beautifully weighted cross-kick allowed their muscular centre Malakai Fekitoa  to give the All Blacks the best possible start.

When Barrett followed that up a while later with his own try, one feared for the Irish. But to their credit, the men in green consolidated. After being 14-3 down at one stage they dominated the rest of the match in terms of territory and possession but not where it mattered most, on the scoreboard.

It is not very often that you have the lion’s share of the ball, a massive penalty count and an opposing team down a man for 20 minutes but can’t win the game, and that was Ireland’s problem.  Ireland could not create any discernable half breaks to get over the New Zealand line, and try as they could, the All Blacks just fanned out across the field and tackled Ireland to a standstill.

If the Irish team was to score a try, it would come from their forwards, as the likes of Jamie Heaslip, Seán O’Brien and my man of the match Josh van der Flier completely overshadowed their opposite numbers.

Some dropped passes or balls just not going to hand robbed them of any real damage to an All Black side unused to being under such extreme pressure.

The All Blacks while impressive individually, best represented by their third try after some sublime off-loading, still struggled to gel, like in Chicago, missing leadership on the field at times.

This was a genuine test for the world champions. All though their recent destruction of Australia, South Africa and Argentina in their Championship, they were never pressurized as much.  It also showed the Irish that the All Blacks are more than fallible if taken out of their comfort zone, and Hansen may just view these end of the season tours as valuable in giving his side the wake-up call they sometimes need. 

There are many positives from this game for Ireland, despite the loss. The performance of the Irish front row was immense, Tadhg Furlong and Jack Mc Garth again announced themselves as two of the best young props in the world, while the back row as a unit was outstanding. No 8 Jamie Heaslip had one of his best games in green, Seán O’Brien showed from the start that his inclusion was well warranted, but it was the replacement flanker Josh van der Flier that, in my opinion, was the game’s best player. Van der Flier’s ability to break tackles with lines of running, combined with his fetching and tackling skills, showed him to be what we already know, he is a player that is destined for a long tenure in a green shirt.

In the backs, Garry Ringrose, although thrown in at the deep end, responded well in a position where experience is key. Again Schmidt will have chalked down his considerable talents. Yes, Ireland missed that one back who may have set the game alight, but losing players like Sexton and Henshaw was always going to make that difficult.

Referee Jaco Peyper has come under some harsh criticism for some decisions but cannot be blamed for calling one of the All Blacks tries via the TMO.

The All Blacks second try was dubious when it appeared from many angles that Johnny Sexton had prevented Barrett from grounding the ball, but really it should never have come to that as Barrett should have grounded the ball five metres earlier unopposed.

At the the final whistle both teams seemed out on their feet, exhausted, and that was testament to the battle. No real elation from the All Blacks, more like relief that they had set out to do what they said they would.

Schmidt will now have to cobble together a team to face Australia, who are going for a European clean sweep. It will be hard to refocus, as this game has taken its toll, but this is when the hit-out against Canada will prove useful for the Irish coach, as he seeks to freshen up his side against a team that can run hot and cold.

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