Sexton the form choice for clash with Aussies
The overriding objective was to bring the tour back on track by way of restoring self-belief within the squad prior to taking on Australia. To that extent, despite defeat, the unstated aim was achieved in Rotorua yesterday. And on balance, the outcome was just about right.
The Maori deserved to shade it although had Jonathan Sexton taken his final penalty chance for a 100pc goal-kicking return, it would have resulted in a share of the spoils and few on either side would have been disappointed with that outcome.
Their three tries to our one, inspired by a lightning start by the Maori, is difficult to argue against but at least on this occasion the level of Irish performance was encouraging.
Key individuals have staked their claims to the head coach and that for Declan Kidney, coming up to the last hit-out of the season, is precisely the type of selection headache he would want ahead of Tuesday's team announcement in Brisbane.
Specifically Geordan Murphy, Paddy Wallace, Sexton, Niall Ronan and Chris Henry have put their cases forward and names in the frame for Monday's burning of the midnight oil. Dan Tuohy also had his moments and should Mick O'Driscoll not make it, then the Ulster lock can look ahead to the final week with increasing optimism.
The first half was, in itself, one of two distinct halves. The opening 20 minutes was all Maori, then the second 20 minutes saw an amazing turnaround sparked chiefly by Ronan, Henry and Sexton. They tightened up on defence too, going from loose and liberal and conceding two early tries to disciplined and, most importantly, capable of retaining the ball on contact.
Sexton's assurance was a growing factor -- and not just in terms of goal-kicking, although it too was clearly a contest-shaping influence. Murphy, while like the rest was caught on defence early on, was inspiring on the counter and became an increasingly imposing figure as captain. As with the All Blacks clash, it is an either/or selection with Rob Kearney at full-back to face the Wallabies. Kidney believes in form and in rewarding it instantly.
Given the uncertainty in the back row with Stephen Ferris, John Muldoon and Jamie Heaslip all ruled out, its make-up and balance is up in the air. Shane Jennings is also doubtful thereby enabling Kidney and Gert Smal to mix and match between Ronan, David Wallace and Henry as to who should pack down at six, seven and eight in the event of the Leinster man also being forced to sit it out.
Were the call mine, I would select Henry in his own right and in his preferred position of No 8, thereby leaving it a straight choice between Jennings (pending fitness) and Ronan to accompany Wallace on either side of the Ulsterman.
At out-half, Sexton did enough to warrant selection ahead of Ronan O'Gara in the final Test before the summer break. The pivotal playmaking role has become something of horses for courses in terms of needs of the day (based on opposition strength) and on the most recent form of both out-halves involved and, on both criteria, Sexton shades it. And equally there can be little argument either should Murphy succeed in regaining his Six Nations slot to face the Wallabies.
Paddy Wallace has also held up his hand for selection. His creative awareness is up there alongside Brian O'Driscoll in terms of his natural ability to create space and time for others but as a defensive combination, the Leinster duo of O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy should still hold sway.
There will also be a couple of big calls in the front row, where clearly the temptation to recall John Hayes must be there. Here too Kidney must be brave and in the long term needs to stick with Tony Buckley. So too at loose-head, where Marcus Horan did not do near enough to warrant reselection ahead of Cian Healy.
Luke McAlister's failure with the boot (certainly when compared to the near fool-proof Sexton) almost cost the Maori the match. And had Peter Stringer not turned over possession when taking his eye off the ball at an Irish ruck close to the Maori line in the dying minutes, it could have been an Irish-winning celebration.
But to the side's credit, we took our lead from the Maori at running from pace at depth in the backs and from shifting the point of attack through some deft off-loading in the forwards. Here Henry was instrumental in initiating the turnaround in momentum when it was most needed.
Defeat still hurts but the substance of the performance softens the blow appreciably, particularly given the quality of the opposition. And on tour that really matters, which sets it up nicely for the clash against Australia in Brisbane in seven days' time.