Neil Francis: 'Irish victory over All Blacks can't mask the need for Conor Murray return'
This was Ireland’s worst display in four games against New Zealand – but our issues are minor compared to theirs
Reaction to the All Black loss back in New Zealand hasn't been as magnanimous as their vanquished rugby union side. Humble pie has been eaten so rarely that they had forgotten what it tastes like.
There were calls for Steve Hansen to go, leave before the World Cup and there were calls for Kieran Read to go as well from a number of correspondents. A 91pc success rate and they want to sack him?
Generally, credit was given where it was due and pretty much everyone agreed that Ireland were a better, more cohesive side that played the smarter rugby and competed far more aggressively than the All Blacks.
What would have happened if it had been a tonking? I have watched the game four times now and my overriding and inescapable view does not differ from when I was leaving the Aviva: that Ireland should have won by a lot more than seven points.
Whatever about CJ Stander and Rob Kearney getting over the line and not scoring - there is always the dozen or so points that New Zealand deny you (in an open and competitive game) in the red zone through a brazenly cynical strand of illegality. They indulged themselves again last Saturday.
In the lead-up to the match a number of mutts ventured that this was the best All Black team of all time. Ahem! In their defence, they did look drawn and frayed at the edges. You can mitigate against the reason why. They were chasing the dollar round Japan and they over-stretched themselves. That said they were so lacking in some areas that you had to pinch yourself.
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International Rugby Newsletter
When New Zealand won the World Cup in 2011 and again in 2015, they had an interstellar back-row of Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read - boundless, redoubtable, inexhaustible and immense. A triumvirate that played in tandem, soaked up huge pressure and dictated the pace of the game. Smart, canny and above the law, pretty much the best there has ever been. When Kaino and McCaw retired, Read should have jumped on the funeral pyre - better than losing his soul playing alongside the likes of Liam Squire and Ardie Savea.
It's a sign of the dearth of quality in their back-row that Scott Barrett looked the best player in the New Zealand back-row last Saturday. A decent second-row but Barrett is no Victor Matfield. Another worrying sign for the All Blacks is that they had to take Matt Todd on tour - a 30-year-old journeyman back-rower who had been in engaged in rigours of playing for the Panasonic Wild Knights in Japan.
When Ardie Savea broke free from a turnover in the second half and chipped the ball ahead which was touched down over the goal line by Rob Kearney, I thought is this what All Black back-row play is reduced to?
Strong memories of Zinzan Brooke, Mike Brewer and Josh Kronfeld in 1995 and Wayne Shelford, Alan Whetton and Michael Jones in 1987. The All Blacks are going to struggle for a back-row that can dominate at ruck time and that means any one of five teams, not just us, can knock them off.
They had a nightclub bouncer at loosehead who had to shed 40 kilos just to be able to play club rugby - he was ruthlessly exposed last Saturday. Karl Tu'inukuafe never touched the ball in his 50 minutes on the park - a Rouxesque type performance. Tadhg Furlong, his opposite number, carried 12 times and passed six times.
New Zealand's centre pairing were industrious and full of enthusiasm but have no cutting edge and they are light years away from the skill and quality of Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith. New Zealand's bench had all the oomph of an Oompa Loompa. Even Beauden Barrett is human off the back foot.
What are we saying here? We are saying that New Zealand are as average an All Black side that has come to these shores. They looked a little bit tired but Ireland should have beaten them off the park. Why didn't we?
The Irish management were absolutely right when they came out earlier in the week to state the obvious - "there is a lot of stuff we could be better at." Despite the scale of the occasion and the atmosphere and more importantly the win, this was the least impressive performance against the All Blacks in their last four games.
The win in Chicago was just a sensational performance - a vastly superior effort to last Saturday. The 22-24 heartbreak in 2014 was also a far better performance and it's just galling that the win didn't come. Although Ireland were held tryless in the return match in 2016 at the Aviva, and they were side-swiped by the violence of the All Blacks, they still managed to create more try-scoring chances. Ireland's defence was not in the same league then as it is now. That 2016 New Zealand side was a far better unit and much harder to play against. I felt that if Conor Murray had played last Saturday, Ireland could have won by more than 20 points. It may not be popular when you beat the All Blacks and yet level criticism. Kieran Marmion may have been hampered by his ankle injury but his fundamentals were a long way off.
Aptitude for tackling, bravery and tenacity are minimum-entry prerequisites at this level - nobody doubts Marmion's effort. His box-kicking was, at best, average. The Irish scrum-half put up eight box-kicks - three of them were of sufficient quality that Irish players got to compete in the air. Two of them got Irish players into the tackle after an unpressurised catch and the rest were in effect turnovers. Marmion's two touch-finders didn't give much relief.
He has been criticised in the past for taking too much out of the ball as he passes - even the step he takes is a step too many. At one phase of play he took five steps before offloading to Sexton. Marmion's link passing can be very poor. That can't happen at this level.
Ireland's try in the 47th minute worked paradoxically because Marmion just can't pass off his left hand. When the ball came off the top from O'Mahony, Marmion had clean ball and was unpressured by New Zealand. His pass to Sexton was about 12/13 metres in length. The pass looped to such an extent that at its apex it was two metres above Sexton's head.
Sexton took the pass arms fully outstretched above his head. A second at this level is a huge amount of time. Even club scrum-halves can manage a low-trajectory pass of this distance off their 'weaker' hand. If Marmion had taken another couple of steps, Dane Coles, who was only three metres from Sexton, would have snotted him.
The move worked because the pass was so poor. If it had been a zippy low-trajectory level pass, it probably would not have committed the All Black cover. They were nearly all over Sexton by the time the pass landed and were thus fully committed and the switch pass to Aki just about got away.
Aki's pass was very good and it gave Stockdale half a second to work his magic. Contrary to popular belief, Ben Smith had not moved infield to cover the midfield chip but he mistakenly opted to cover Best and was caught flat when the chip came.
I may suffer decapitation for saying it, but we do not have cover for Conor Murray and Ireland need a radical improvement in the basics of scrum-half play or a change in personnel here.