Saturday 20 January 2018

Nation regains belief but this is one that got away

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Unquestionably the better side, harsh late calls cost Ireland dearly, says Neil Francis

A doughty and dour Scotsman is walking down the pier on a stormy day with his grandson. Halfway down the pier, a huge wave comes over the harbour wall and sweeps the young boy away. Helpless, the grandfather watches as the boy is washed out to sea.

In a thrice, the coastguard are on to it and they try to pluck him from the water as he gets pulled further out towards dangerous rocks driven by treacherous riptides. After about 20 minutes of uncertainty, with the rescuers putting their lives at risk, the young boy is plucked from danger and returned traumatised, very wet and severely shaken to his grandfather. The man blinks, turns to the coastguard and says, 'he had a hat . . .'

Unreasonable expectation? What did you all expect from yesterday's game? Conventional wisdom said it would be another turkey shoot. Ireland, with the sort of heroic virtue and psychological resilience that we know this group can produce, came agonisingly close to their greatest victory. As regrets take the place of dreams they will have been acutely aware that opportunities like these come up once every 20 years.

New Zealand were without doubt primed to be picked off. Their game was infused with creeping self-doubt and unusually poor execution of the fundamentals. It was not the case that they didn't bother to turn up. Ireland inflicted themselves on proceedings, particularly at the breakdown, where there was a huge jump in quality.

Resolve is one thing but intelligent effort is another, which was heartening and Ireland really did do their homework in the video editing suite. They held on to the ball, controlled the game far better and Jonathan Sexton for once was given his head. It is not a coincidence that with 10 Leinster players in the starting XV Ireland were able to hang on to the ball with an awful lot more cohesion and confidence, and a lot of the uncertainty of last week was not manifest in Christchurch.

If you talk about unrealistic expectation that's exactly the mindset of the team that took the field yesterday. They had their own expectations and were damn close to fulfilling them. They were unquestionably the better side.

As in the Clermont versus Leinster semi-final, there were a key number of game-changing events which happened in the last seven minutes.

At this stage, quite a number of the All Blacks had lost their composure and their straight-line focus. Under pressure, they resorted to acts of petulance, none more so than the gifted Israel Dagg, who cynically took Rob Kearney out as Ireland's fullback launched a Garryowen while running out of his 22. Dagg hit Kearney late but it was the way he manoeuvred his hip in mid air which connected with Kearney's face that earned him his yellow card. There was absolutely no need for it.

Sexton, who at that stage was 100 per cent with his kicks at goal, placed the ball down at the 47-metre line. His rehearsal went as normal and the ball with the top point falling at a slight diagonal also was per his routine. The mistake that kickers looking for extra length fall foul of is keeping the head down and following through. Sexton's follow through was short and it was precipitated by jerking his head up just as he connected with the ball. The action was a little more snappy than usual and he scooped the ball up into the air with a much higher trajectory than usual. There was enough power in the kick -- if the ball had travelled at a lower level it would have comfortably gone over. It's what golfers say, head down; a costly miss.

As usual, referee Nigel Owens played a large part in proceedings and his assessors will have to look at two decisions he made. Ireland were awarded a scrum in the 75th minute. They got a good hit at engagement and were able to get the squeeze on as Piri Weepu put the ball into the second row. Ireland got a metre of forward momentum and went forward on the loosehead side, which is normally quite rare and a difficult thing to do given which way the shoulders are aligned. Tony Woodcock on the other side stayed where he was and Ben Franks was driven back. The scrum wheeled and New Zealand went to ground.

Owens asserted, "that is not a straight wheel, you are running around, your back 5 are running around." What the hell did he mean by that? When is a wheel ever straight? If Ireland had just whipped the scrum around without going forward that first metre I would have said fair enough, good call, but New Zealand had been pushed backwards and it was only after three seconds that the scrum had wheeled. You could blame neither side for it but on a lot of occasions this season the penalty would undoubtedly have gone in Ireland's favour.

Sam Cane had also broken his bind and reattached himself on to the Irish side of the scrum. It was his side of the scrum that had gone backwards. It was a poor call. Owens compounded the error a few minutes later as the match crackled into a nervy end game.

New Zealand pulled themselves together and went through nine or 10 phases. Ten metres from the posts Dan Carter called for the drop goal as it had been centred up nicely for an attempt on his natural left foot. With Aaron Smith, the best passing scrumhalf in the world, inexplicably sitting on the bench at this stage, Weepu sent out a pass that was twice Carter's standing height. It was an overhead full-arm extension catch, jump with two steps backwards before Carter could even think about a drop goal. He went off his left and tried a right-footed drop goal, which went wide. The ball had been called "touched in flight" as it had indeed been touched by Seán O'Brien. This is where Owens erred. As soon as Ali Williams and Adam Thompson saw that O'Brien had touched the ball -- even though they were in front of Carter -- they rushed into the in-goal area where Eoin Reddan was scampering back to try and take possession of the ball. He gained possession two metres from his deadball line and was immediately tackled by the two All Black forwards over that line. If you look at the IRB rulebook in relation to offside under the 10-metre law -- rule 11.4 (f) -- the 10-metre law does not apply when a player kicks the ball and an opponent charges down the kick and a team-mate of the kicker who is in front of the imaginary 10-metre line across the field then plays the ball. The opponent was not 'waiting to play the ball' and the team-mate is onside. The 10-metre law applies if the ball touches or is played by an opponent but is not charged down. I think that Owens assumed the ball had gone dead. Maybe not.

Either way, Reddan was tackled out of play by two players who were offside. Reddan never got a chance to play the ball and kick it down field and he would have had a good opportunity to do so because all of the other All Blacks were so far away from him he would have had a good opportunity to get good distance. He was prevented from doing so by two offside players and Owens awarded a five-metre scrum to the right of the posts. This time Weepu's pass was direct and Carter scuffed it over. There are no extra points for artistic impression. It was ugly but the scoreline changed to 22-19. It was agony and it was unmerited.

Quite a number of All Blacks were uncharacteristically poor on the day. We might not see Sonny Bill Williams, Andrew Hoare, Zac Guildford or last week's three-try hero Julian Savea, who was anonymous and ruthlessly exploited by a good kicking game by Ireland. The loss of Kieran Read at half-time was significant and Richie McCaw made more mistakes than he has in his whole career and he should be cited for a disgraceful knee in the back on D'Arcy.

Reputation is character minus what you've been caught doing. This is not the first time that McCaw has led with the knee -- you might ask Quade Cooper about his little episode. Once again the All Black captain manages to disguise it so that it looks perfectly natural but he did lead with the knee and it is not open to question in my mind.

This performance will have energised the sporting nation, who were badly in need of some reassurance. It won't ease the bitter sting of defeat but it does crystallise the sentiment that this group are indeed a decent team and once they apply themselves intelligently are a match for just about everybody.

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