Sunday 17 November 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'We've gone from collectively relentless to hoping for a puncher's knockout'


Ireland's Johnny Sexton walks off dejected after the New Zealand match. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire
Ireland's Johnny Sexton walks off dejected after the New Zealand match. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire

Tommy Conlon

An hour gone and Ireland have the penalty advantage in midfield; they play on for two phases and Nigel Owens then blows his whistle.

"Okay, we're going nowhere here lads," declares the referee. You can sing that one, Nigel. Ireland were once again getting hopelessly bogged down, even after just two phases, and Owens called it back, almost as an act of mercy.

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Jonathan Sexton went to find touch with his kick from the hand and missed by almost five metres. It wasn't even close. A gasp went up from the crowd, a long, disbelieving 'Oh'. The wheels had already long come off the chariot; now the spare had fallen off too.

A minute later New Zealand were going over for their fifth try and the battering was now officially a humiliation. The All Blacks were leading 34-0, the undertaker was measuring Ireland's World Cup coffin.

It is neither funny nor original to say at this point that Ireland were lucky to have nil. But on this occasion they might have been as well off with the duck egg because when they finally did get on the scoreboard after 67 minutes, New Zealand subsequently dished out another few slaps to punish their temerity. CJ Stander was robbed with the proverbial ease of candy being taken from a child and next thing George Bridge was cantering over. Ireland were awarded a penalty try a few minutes later and once again the All Blacks administered the cane for such insolence, Jordie Barrett swanning over in the corner.

In other words, they did with Ireland as they pleased, more or less from first minute to last. The boys in green had been going nowhere almost from the kick-off. Within 11 minutes New Zealand had won three turnovers. We were already seeing glimpses of their terrifyingly slick passing game. By the 14th they had the first of their seven tries.

It is commonplace to describe them as a machine but within this hallowed team ethic there has always been an abundance of individual talent; players who on their own have the power and pace to make decisive moves, sometimes game-changing interventions, frequently try-making breaks. That try on 14 minutes was a classic example of individual players repeatedly perforating the defensive line with short carrying bursts that gained three or four yards each time, forcing their opponents to retreat, tackle, retreat and tackle until Aaron Smith finally punctured the fraying fabric decisively.

This is a long-familiar pattern of superior individual power and speed coalescing into that famously formidable organism dressed in black. If the team culture is sacrosanct, the pistons within that machine are usually tooled to an incomparable standard also. And when all those pistons are hammering away at maximum force and with maximum synchronicity, as they were in Tokyo yesterday, then there is not a team in the world that can live with them.

Joe Schmidt had built a superb Irish team during his reign and one of its shining achievements was to camouflage in the collective some individual talent that was relatively moderate by world- class comparisons. The success was in the communal because it had to be; the system was everything because he didn't have game-changing athletes or geniuses at his disposal, not in the last few years at any rate.

New Zealand at their best have it both ways: tremendous individual athleticism and skill amalgamated into one overwhelmingly powerful engine.

It is clear by now, if it wasn't already, that Schmidt's Ireland team peaked in 2018. And in that annus mirabilis they were at their most punishingly systematic and collectively relentless. Yesterday they were back to hoping for a puncher's knock-out, the traditional Irish underdogs' prayer for a one-off ambush, where everything would come together in a glorious hour of improbable heroics. In 2018 this kind of random aspiration had been taken out of the equation. Ireland had reached an all-time level of performance and sustained it, churning out victory after victory against just about everyone.

This season has been a reminder of how fragile and transient is the lifespan of a top team. Especially if the essential replacement parts are not coming through to keep it revitalised. If they were, Rory Best would not have been there yesterday to receive one final, sentimental ovation from the Irish supporters. He'd have been ditched by now, and a few more venerable servants along with him.

Schmidt's opposite number Steve Hansen had dumped an equally admired and long-serving All Black in Owen Franks before the tournament. Hansen left him out of the squad whole and entire. Ireland head coaches will never have the factory loads of talent available to their New Zealand counterparts. But the sentimentality that attended Best's final season stands in embarrassing contrast to the fate that befell Franks.

But even if Ireland were on the slide, it was reasonable to expect that they would be carried out on their shields yesterday having at least frightened the bejaysus out of their opponents. Instead it was a timid, confused exit that in the end bordered on shambolic. It was inexplicably lame and inept, unless it can all be explained away by the brilliance of the All Blacks. And it cannot, because the least that Ireland could have done was fire a few shots in anger.

It was an historically poor performance from an historically successful Irish squad. They went from being an all-conquering, if ageing side to a full-blown collapse in the space of one hour. The sheer speed of the implosion, this freefall into utter incoherence, was a shock to behold. A generation of players who were idolised in their own country had their professional pride taken away from them in the finish.

Rarely has the end of an era in Irish sport seemed so inappropriate to the legacy of that era, and so bereft of the standards that created it in the first place.

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