Sunday 18 February 2018

pride restored, now let's go step further

If the beauty of sport is indeed in its unpredictability, then the cruelty, surely, is in not always getting what your efforts deserve.

On Saturday, the world champion All Blacks -- in an emotionally charged Canterbury stadium -- should have finished second. To put it in Ranfurly Shield terms, the equivalent Log o'Wood should have been travelling on the Irish team bus on its way to Queenstown yesterday.

It's hard to believe that a squad battered and beaten around Eden Park just seven days earlier could come so close to turning sporting logic on its head.

There will be no talk of moral victories for -- given the position Ireland had worked so hard to create (locked at 19 apiece with the visibly shaken New Zealanders reduced to 14 players and less than 10 minutes on the clock) -- we should have removed the most amazing losing statistic in world rugby from the record books.

Not even in his wildest imagination could Declan Kidney have dreamed this one up.

We may never have a better opportunity to make that winning breakthrough, certainly on New Zealand soil. And therein lies the rub. For, on this edge-of-the-seat occasion, we could, and should, have achieved 'mission impossible'.

We can moan all we want about the legitimacy of the penalty awarded to the home side following a vital scrum in which the Irish wheel was deemed to be illegitimate. But I go with Rory Best on this one -- it didn't come down to one refereeing decision.

Hindsight is, of course, the most exact of sciences, but, with New Zealand down a man and a full eight minutes still to run, would it not have served Ireland better to go up the line rather than attempt a difficult kick for goal close to halfway, where the impeded Rob Kearney's kick had landed?

At that stage, a remarkable second-half transformation saw the tide turning, unquestionably, Ireland's way. The team in green was sensing that historic and long overdue victory with the men in black firmly on the back foot.

It is, of course, what makes the All Blacks what they are, that ability to dig deeper than ever before and grind out the win when all apparent logic points against it.

Dan Carter's drop goal was ropey, but it was a winner. The All Black cat appeared, as Giovanni Trapattoni might say, to be well and truly in the sack as the Kiwis looked there for the taking.

While we were outclassed by the world champions in soccer, we were anything but so by the oval-ball kings on their home patch less than 48 hours later.

The manner of this defeat could have an emotional fall-out and we will deal with that anon, but for now let us acknowledge what was an Irish rugby performance from the heart.

Yes, they lost but it was a performance of substance, courage and intensity littered with heroes.

I'm not going to even attempt to single out any one player, such was the individual and collective honesty of this latest Irish Test effort.

Where Aaron Smith and Dan Carter ran the show last week, this time Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton matched them play-for-play and kick-for-kick in game-running influence.

More than anything, it reflects the relentless power show from Cian Healy to Jamie Heaslip and on to Donncha O'Callaghan and Peter O'Mahony in the latter stages.

FORWARD

Despite defeat being again the bottom line, it wasn't as if the All Blacks played badly. That is the biggest plus going forward to Hamilton.

They played as much as they were allowed to. They committed numbers to the breakdown where, apart from the push-over support for Smith's early second-half try, Ireland's use of defensive resources was better deployed and better organised close in and wide out than they were in Auckland.

It reminds us again that, no matter who you are or how high you climb, you can be rattled and, whatever else, our rugby reputation and pride as meaningful opposition for any team has been restored in Christchurch.

For better or worse, we can expect a different Kiwi mindset on Saturday.

Who knows, even the legendary Andy Haden may have cause to reassess his derisory take on us come Hamilton, while for the peerless Brian O'Driscoll this will be one final shot at the win he craves -- and certainly deserves to be part of.

Irish Independent

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