Monday 23 October 2017

Neil Francis: Ultimate space invaders pulverise Irish resistance

Untypical Kiwi profligacy meant it could have been worse for Ireland, writes Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Neil Francis

An utterly predictable result yet unsatisfactory performances from both teams' perspectives. It also fell well short as a spectacle because it was such a mis-match.

Ireland were inherently brave and at moments -- particularly in the first half -- were resolute and clear-headed and never had their resolve broken even when the match was beyond them, but they had reached their mental fallback position quite early in the game.

This came about when the All Blacks managed to get time in possession in mid-half and from then on they dominated the ball. How many times do you see the terms 'All Blacks' and 'relentless' in the same sentence?

For the next two weeks Ireland will be consumed with mountainous dread when they examine how profligate New Zealand were. All Black head coach Steve Hansen might say he was happy with their first hit out, but on the review they will see that they were turned over 16 times at the breakdown, they had 12 handling errors throughout the game, conceded the same number of penalties (11) as Ireland and they butchered four real try-scoring opportunities -- Read in the corner, Dagg twice with improperly timed passes, and Carter, again in the corner.

New Zealand also turned the ball over or were penalised five or six times as they were hammering down the door right on Ireland's goal-line. When you consider that, 42-10 wasn't such a bad scoreline after all.

Ireland scrapped them right down to the marrow of their bones but there is one indisputable particle of certainty: New Zealand will have cut out most of those errors for the second Test in Christchurch, which will be an emotional return for the seven Canterbury Crusaders' players in the side.

The All Blacks' performance was as oppressive as the closing of the door of one's own tomb. They made 97 per cent of their tackles and closed off any notion Ireland had of trying to retain the ball and fashion something from continuous play. As ever, they were truly outstanding at the breakdown. Ireland complained after the match that they never really got an opportunity to slow New Zealand ball down and hence give themselves a chance from the next phase of play.

New Yorkers will tell you that the smallest interval of time known to man is that which occurs in Manhattan between the traffic signal turning green and the taxi driver behind you blowing his horn. The length of time it took for a supporting player to react to a ball carrier going to ground was a millisecond. The speed of thought to get to the breakdown and clear out was bewildering.

Ireland were blown away by the All Blacks' urgency at the breakdown and the speed to come in and clear out. The rucks were generally hermetically sealed off and the ball popped out ready to be recycled quickly. It is the oxygen and the lifeblood of the New Zealand game. It was the greatest single factor in the match and even though New Zealand turned the ball over in this phase and Seán O'Brien was monumental in patches of resistance they just could not turn back the tide.

It must be boring to be a New Zealand tight-five forward because they sacrifice themselves to doing the mundane so that the fancy dans get an extra second of space.

Speaking of Fancy Dans -- Carter controlled the game superbly and yet you could say he was wasteful in some of the passages of play that he tried to orchestrate. He realised that Ireland were up quickly close to their own line but the execution of some of his grubbers was a little awry and he gifted Ireland the chance to score their try. His cadence with the placed ball and his ability to think on his feet have not been diminished by his absence.

Another plus for him was the performance of the man inside him. Aaron Smith dazzled at scrumhalf, full of invention and wit. His passing was a masterclass in the art of getting the ball away from every phase. He zipped the ball out with a precision that I have not seen from a scrumhalf in an age.

Ireland were surprisingly durable at scrum time for the first 50 and competent in winning all their lineouts but it is in loose situations where the instinctive creativity of the All Blacks manifests itself. If I could use this analogy to illustrate my point, the All Blacks can touch-type without needing to look at their keyboard while Ireland need to keep their eyes focused on the keyboard at all times.

New Zealand are relatively ordinary in the red zone -- they are like everyone else close to the opposition line -- they have to pick and go, chug and bash, but from deeper out and in particular from their own 22 they show the sort of connivance and scheming you wouldn't see at a town hall planning committee meeting. They see space and smell opportunity and exploit it ruthlessly. The quality of their passing and the knowing of all their support runners where the space is, is just an intuitive thing and they can do it in their sleep.

Dagg is instrumental in this. His running lines are sensational and, even though he butchered one or two chances, his ability to hold a line and draw players on to him is phenomenal. It is the reason why Savea got his second try just before half-time. Ireland weren't sure what Dagg was going to do and Murray and Kearney had to delay drifting out to Savea for a millisecond. The quality of Dagg's pass at pace close to the line illustrated the difference between the two sides in attack. We didn't see the best of Savea, he merely finished three times for the All Blacks, and he was on the end of a passing chain and simply made sure that the ball was dotted down over the line.

We got a glimpse of his ability from a blinding line break he made after 30 minutes. He normally finishes those off. I would suspect that Savea, after scoring a hat-trick, will now start wandering into midfield looking for the ball where Lomu-like he is at his most dangerous.

It was a matter of regret that Ireland didn't structure something creative. Fergus McFadden was the beneficiary of an agricultural hoof down-field by Sexton when the All Blacks were caught square on the blind side.

There were moments in the first half when Ireland managed to go four or five phases but these were closed down the closer Ireland got to the line and there wasn't enough quality in their backline to take it a stage further. Once again nobody seems to have the wit to play off O'Driscoll, who every time he got on to the ball looked left and looked right for wing men with an invitation to accept the intended offload. It never came. Nor did they ever demonstrate their opponents' ability to think and move swiftly when turnover ball came about.

Every time the All Blacks pick up turnover ball you sense that a try is on. Rob Kearney had to make six tackles which demonstrates the sort of afternoon he had -- he had to make more tackles yesterday than he did in the whole Six Nations.

Ireland's back-row did their best and Seán O'Brien led the team with 18 tackles. Jamie Heaslip too had a productive afternoon in adversity, putting in 13 tackles. Peter O'Mahony though at this stage is out of his depth and may be playing in a position that doesn't suit him at blindside. I have no idea why Sexton was taken off with 20 to go, he needs to play the full 80. It just defies reason why O'Gara is brought on.

The rain arrived 75 minutes too late to help Ireland. Next week's game might be played on a boggy pitch with some typical Christchurch precipitation. Ireland's resilience and honesty will be tested to the full once more.

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'

Was there a man dismay'd?

Not tho' the soldier knew

Someone had blunder'd:

Theirs not to make reply

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die;

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

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