Ireland’s defeat to New Zealand was an undeniable drubbing but despite losing by 23 points and conceding six tries, some positives emerged against the most unforgiving rugby nation on the planet.
Without wishing to sound wise in hindsight, the announcement of the match-day squad for the opening Test carried a sense of foreboding.
Of course, injury and Covid caused problems for Andy Farrell but it smacked of a 23 selected with containment in mind when getting the series underway. From a coaching perspective, I get the rationale but that doesn’t make it right.
The line pedalled from within the camp was of a World Cup campaign set for Paris in a little over 12 months’ time. We do have problems in terms of back-up specifically in the tight-five and clearly at out-half too.
For 20-plus minutes on Saturday we kicked on from the Aviva back in the autumn and challenged the All Blacks on their own patch.
The defensive strategy was somewhat different to that employed against the Maoris. The line speed, so clearly in evidence in midweek, was forsaken for a more-experienced reading of the breakdown. And, despite having our line crossed six times over the course of the 80 minutes, it largely worked.
The best strategy for the next Test in Dunedin under a closed roof will demand a combination of both.
Easier said than done, but if we are to take the bottom-line objective of one Test from the three these are the calls that must be made. By contrast, what transpired in the ‘Garden of Eden’ was strange in so many ways.
The score of 43-19 suggests the All Blacks won at a canter against a side that never even left the blocks.
But that was not the case.
New Zealand were nowhere near as good as the score line suggests – worryingly they know that – while we were nowhere near as bad as the individual errors contributing to so many uncharacteristically cheap tries suggest.
The set-piece is a serious issue as of now with Dan Sheehan the only tight-five forward of consequence in form.
Sheehan and Josh van der Flier were by a considerable distance our best players in Auckland with Peter O’Mahony next in overall impact.
The second-row sadly wasn’t mapped against Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick or indeed Scott Barrett when he moved up a row (for Retallick) late on.
Tadhg Beirne is fighting for match fitness while James Ryan is struggling for his place based on current form.
Had Iain Henderson not shipped that tour-ending injury Ryan would be struggling for a place in the match-day squad. Unless Andrew Porter, Tadhg Furlong and both first-choice locks, as of now, can up the ante significantly then it is difficult to envisage anything but a 3-0 whitewash.
Although, I would love to see us create history and take one of the next two Tests the priority has to be France 2023. To that end I would dearly like to see Gavin Coombes, Ryan Baird and Jordan Larmour brought into the mix.
At out-half we are still limited to one realistic choice and that choice alone. Yet again, for 30 or so minutes Johnny Sexton was running the visiting show.
Joey Carbery brings some lovely touches but he lacks a Sexton-like presence in the pivotal position at this point in time.
There’s only one way to find out whether Harry Byrne can make the step up. Even if Sexton were to be given the all clear for Dunedin and Wellington, I would argue the case for Carbery or Byrne, and possibly even Mike Lowry (although much like Ciarán Frawley he hasn’t been playing at 10 for his province – and that is a major consideration).
Caelan Doris was another ‘as láthair’ in the opening Test but he would still be in my starting back-row for Dunedin in five days’ time. Of the backs, Sexton aside in his limited time on, only Robbie Henshaw looked close to his best while Jamison Gibson-Park continues for a myriad of reasons as our No 1 option at the base of the scrum.
Quite how they equate almost 60 per cent position and possession with a 23-point thumping will engage the minds of the Ireland backroom staff.
We also crossed the Kiwi whitewash five times with just three allowed. The scrum is a problem which could become even bigger as the tour progresses while the lineout – given the options – is eminently fixable.
Let’s say John Fogarty has a more challenging few weeks ahead than Paul O’Connell. Clearly all is not lost yet, but it’s a psychological advantage to New Zealand despite operating below their brutish and clinical best.