Saturday 17 February 2018

Tony Ward: Cruellest part is passing up our best ever shot at history

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

I'm not too sure losing comes any crueller than this. We can trot out all the usual cliches about New Zealand snatching victory from the jaws of defeat and all that guff, but from an Irish perspective this is as tough as it gets.

Tough, because we ultimately lost a Test we could and should have won, but much more than that because on this extraordinary occasion the game was in our own hands.

The history-creating New Zealanders were brave to a fault in completing the perfect year, but in failing to seal the deal by way of Johnny Sexton's late penalty miss, followed by the concession of that penalty when counting the clock down in 'ball-up-the-jumper' time, we coughed up our best opportunity ever of beating the All Blacks.

We deserved it too. Ireland were unrecognisable from the ragged and disjointed crew of a week before. Everything we failed to deliver against the Wallabies we produced in spades against the All Blacks.


The lineout was productive, the scrum immovable and the work at the breakdown exceptional.

It would be wrong to say the all-conquering Kiwis were rattled, but they were certainly knocked out of their stride as Ireland played rugby from the heart.

To pick out an Irish player who played up to scratch against Australia was nigh-on impossible. Yesterday, it was equally impossible to pick out one who didn't.

We won't go down the road of moral victories but certainly pride has been restored to Irish rugby. The kicking, so wayward and unproductive in the previous two Tests, was right on the money while the line speed and cohesion in defence were several gears up from what was delivered against the Samoans and Wallabies.

So too the kick-chase, whereby the pressure on any counter-attacking was every bit as relentless as it simply had to be.

Joe Schmidt will be disappointed, but this performance, when measured against the inexplicable flatness of the week before, puts his newly-inherited squad in a much better place going forward to the Six Nations. We are still very much a squad in transition, but there are definite signs that we are on the right path. Schmidt prides himself on his attention to detail and it was that key aspect that enabled us to hit the ground running.

Whether it was Tommy Bowe gobbling up the restart, Conor Murray measuring his clearance kick or the chasers (one and all) exerting pressure, the early message was one of organisation and hunger for the fight.

This was rugby from another planet compared to the Samoan and Wallaby Tests. We matched New Zealand physically and with that comes respect, but even more we took our first-half tries ruthlessly.

At 19-0, we were almost in dreamland and therein lies the real tragedy of not winning. I doubt if we will have such an opportunity again.

The discipline too was exceptional as we conceded just one penalty in what must surely rank as the most complete opening half ever by an Irish side against the All Blacks.

Cian Healy was back to his wrecking-ball best, while Devin Toner came of age alongside a rejuvenated Paul O'Connell.

In the back row, both Sean O'Brien (the official man of the match) and Jamie Heaslip in particular were exceptional.

Murray too more than justified his re-selection ahead of Eoin Reddan, while both Gordon D'Arcy and Rob Kearney produced their best displays of the November series. On the downside was an injury to Rory Best, who was at the top of his game at the time he was forced out.

Despite the 15-point lead at the break, you knew the second half would bring a Kiwi fightback. However, it came much slower than expected and Ireland managed to weather it and create a winning platform.

That will be a source of real disappointment and one that will grow even larger in time.

Against all that, what we witnessed was a great team, perhaps the greatest ever, at the end of a long and arduous season, getting across a finishing line that at times in the contest seemed way beyond them.

But that is why they are the reigning world champions and why they have just completed a perfect 14-from-14 season.

From an Irish perspective, the final Aaron Cruden conversion scarcely mattered even though it meant the losing of a game they might otherwise have drawn. Of course for the All Blacks it did and, at the second attempt, he nailed it.

Courage and conviction had taken them out of a losing hole. It's a bitterly disappointing defeat for Ireland, but in the cold light of day pride was restored.

On Saturday at Wembley, the New Zealand rugby league team performed a never-say-die performance when pipping England at the death. Yesterday their union counterparts repeated the dose. In neither case did it happen by chance.

Perhaps in that lies the real message at the end of a memorable weekend. Still, this one cuts deep. God only knows how the players must feel.

Irish Independent

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