The whole house of cards is built on one set of shoulders.
Ireland are looking to get Johnny Sexton through the concussion protocols in time for next Saturday’s second Test against New Zealand and that speaks volumes for their reliance on their captain who turns 37 this month and their lack of faith in his understudies.
It sends an awful message about their commitment to player welfare considering there’s a mandatory 12-day stand-down period in force during this window for players who have suffered a head injury.
This has not been a good tour for the Head Injury Assessment process and one wonders if the governing body will get involved at some stage after Dave Heffernan was allowed to continue for a number of minutes despite being clearly unsteady on his feet after a collision.
The Connacht hooker was seen by a medic on the pitch, but he wasn’t removed from play immediately. Rather, he played on before being removed two minutes later after getting turned over.
Already, New Zealand Rugby have admitted they dropped the ball with Jeremy Loughman in Wednesday’s loss to the Maori and, while Heffernan did not stay on for anywhere near as long as the Munster prop, it still raises alarm-bells.
Throw in the clear head-shot by Scott Barrett on Josh van der Flier late in the game that was given as a penalty and not reviewed by the Television Match Official and it’s been a bad week.
Before this tour, World Rugby lengthened the mandatory stand-down period for a player who suffers concussion as part of their bid to become world-leaders in the sphere, yet Ireland seem to think Sexton will not fall within the parameters of that change.
Sexton was replaced after 20 minutes of today’s game with a head injury and did not return to the field of play.
Yet, coach Andy Farrell says he could still play next week.
“Johnny is good,” said Farrell. “He is in fine spirits. He has just passed his HIA 2 so he’s got a HIA 3 to do in the next couple of days and he’s in good form out there.”
Asked if he was ruled out next week, Farrell said: “No, no.”
No team should be as reliant on one player as Ireland are on Sexton.
You can pinpoint the moment everything started to go wrong this morning as the second he slipped going into a Sam Cane tackle, collided with the All Black captain’s knee and put his hand to his head instantly.
He gets up gingerly, the medics try and get to him but play continues and it is two untypically inaccurate moments from the captain that lead to Sevu Reece galloping the length of the field to score the try that changed the game.
Sexton came off and with him went Ireland’s ability to stay calm and in the moment.
It’s not that Joey Carbery, Sexton’s replacement, played badly but that the team relies outsources so much of its mental burden to the captain.
Reece’s try and Jordie Barrett’s conversion made it 14-5 and by half-time they’d doubled their total and the game was over.
Faced with fire, Ireland reached for the petrol can.
When the approach that had worked so well in the opening quarter began to run aground, there was nobody on the field to shout stop. Jamison Gibson-Park tapped a penalty that should have gone to the corner, before trying to run the ball out of his own ’22.
He wasn’t alone, but his franticness summed up a team that had become a headless chicken.
What made matters worse was Ireland’s set-piece struggles.
A lack of depth at Nos 1, 3 and 10 are undermining all of the good things this team do.
Their scrum wilted once again with Andrew Porter coming under huge pressure from Ofa Tu’ungafasi and getting on the wrong side of referee Karl Dickson.
Oppositions have clearly identified the set-piece as an area to get at Ireland and it’s undermining all of the good parts of their play. When things go wrong, the coach doesn't have faith in his reserves.
Throw in a lineout that wobbled and it made it tough for the visitors to get any momentum into the game.
The frustration is that Ireland’s attacking game-plan and execution gives them a real chance against any opposition.
That is the hardest part of the game, yet all of the basics are letting them down.
These are difficult moments for the head coach who must surely consider flying out a number of players this week to ease the strain on his squad.
Taking just 40 players to New Zealand was a mistake and there’s nothing wrong with admitting that.
The loss of Finlay Bealham to Covid-19 meant Ireland were one warm-up injury away from parachuting 36-year-old Michael Bent, currently playing provincial rugby in New Zealand after finishing up with Leinster, into the arena. That they didn’t use Cian Healy at all speaks volumes for his lack of fitness after that injury on Wednesday.
Tadhg Furlong played more than 70 minutes in a game Ireland had already lost, Porter went 80. They’ll have to do it again next week.
The solutions are not obvious, the gap between first and second choice is huge.
We’re not sure why IRFU performance director David Nucifora was positioned in the coaching box this morning, but Farrell could be justified in turning to the Australian and asking how the situation has gotten so bad in a system that is supposed to be aligned from top to bottom.
And yet if we circle back to the 20 minutes where things went awry it was a strong Ireland XV, packed with experience, who let things slip.
What will haunt them is that New Zealand didn’t even have to be particularly good as they made the most of a succession of Irish gifts.
This is not a vintage All Black crop and after the opening quarter they looked like the Irish pressure, coupled with the two defeats that finished their season last year, had undermined their belief.
They just needed a helping hand and they got it from an Irish side who lost their way.
Both sides have room to improve within seven days and Ireland will point to the problems they caused New Zealand, the fact that they got over the line several times without scoring, their domination of the possession and territory and the fact that fixing their scrum and lineout is within their gift as reasons they can turn things around.
However, many of the issues New Zealand exposed are not new and the coach and his team have been unable to address them thus far.
The fear is that they see Sexton as the solution to all of their problems and that’s a strategy that’s doomed to fail.
And that they're willing to push the boundaries to get him back next week sends out all sorts of wrong messages.