Trevor Hogan: A day that shouldn't be defined by the scoreline
Being proud of the performance does not mean you are wallowing in heroic defeat
After 71 minutes Kieran Read's expression said it all. The panic etched across the Kiwi No 8's face told of the power of Ireland's display. They could sense it was slipping away from them.
It meant that, despite the resulting scoreline, this wasn't a case of, "weren't Ireland so brave?" It wasn't like 1995, when Gary Halpin scored an early try and stuck his fingers up at the All Blacks, before we got blitzed by over 30 points. Richie McCaw's reluctance after the game to say New Zealand deserved their win confirmed this.
The game cannot be reduced to mere numbers on a scoreboard. It will be remembered as one of the greatest Irish performances. To acknowledge that does not mean you are wallowing in heroic defeat – you are just reflecting on the evidence before your eyes. It was clear in the little moments, the little details that will define this game and how we should remember it.
The standard was set very early. The first signs came in defence, the one area where Ireland knew they needed to be water-tight. After just 40 seconds, Devin Toner, whose work rate was ceaseless, pushed off Aaron Cruden to haul down Israel Dagg as he came in off the right touchline. Instantly, Rory Best was over the ball on the prostrate Dagg and Sean O'Brien came in to finish off the steal. The Kiwi full-back would struggle to make any impact in the game. We knew straight away Ireland had brought the emotion and intensity they spoke about.
This intensity had been flagged before the game had even kicked off. While understandably the haka is the centrepiece of any pre-match build up with New Zealand, it was overshadowed by Amhran na bhFiann. Peter O'Mahony bellowed it out, and the steely focus on all the faces, notably Cian Healy's, Mike Ross' and Rob Kearney's, showed the passion that would play out on the pitch.
The aggression and hunger in defence would quickly be matched by precision in attack. Joe Schmidt drills into his sides the importance of being ruthless in the opposition '22,' and in the opening 10 minutes, Ireland were lethal. Schmidt's game plan in this area of the field does not require elaborate patterns or switches of direction. It is about a ferocious tempo, being direct, with everyone running hard and straight lines off the scrum-half.
Healy demonstrated this perfectly, smashing over Steve Luatua and finished with perfect ball placement for Conor Murray. Toner and O'Mahony followed with huge carries. O'Mahony's aggression left Ben Smith with his head in the grass and his legs pointing up in the air. By dominating the contact, not only did Ireland create the quick ball for the first crucial try, they set the tone for the entire match.
The urgency at the breakdown was vital in bringing that momentum in a ferocious first half. Here, the leader was Gordon D'Arcy, who had one of the greatest defensive displays ever seen in an Irish jersey. He didn't once let Ben Smith or Ma'a Nonu get on his outside and he produced two massive counter- rucks that would send a surge of energy and belief throughout the team.
His barge through the ruck after eight minutes – with the score at 7-0 and New Zealand on our line – before he managed to flick the ball with his boot, was as good as a try.
O'Driscoll followed him through with another swipe to dislodge the ball, before Paul O'Connell came on the scene with a soccer-style sliding tackle, and a steal that Paul McGrath would have been proud of. It was starting to feel a bit like the Giants stadium in 1994. For the first time since it has been rebuilt, Lansdowne Road came alive. Rory Best had a massive counter-ruck soon after, as he barged through Julian Savea about a yard off the ground without losing his feet, getting a huge turnover. Best managed to squeeze more into his 15 minutes on the pitch than most players do in 80.
His delicate wrap play with Healy reflected everything that Schmidt can bring to this side. Schmidt's trademark is changing the direction of play after a midfield 'hit-up' off the set-piece. The effect of this is multiplied when you have a ball-playing hooker like Best to stand at first receiver down the short side. The execution of Best's decoy and feed to Healy, who ran a perfect line, was a move worthy of Johnny Sexton. After brilliant continuity from O'Brien and Murray, Best finished off probably the most complete try that Ireland have scored at Lansdowne road.
Paul O'Connell last week spoke about the little things that help spread the belief throughout the side. These moments were adding up. O'Connell himself put in some huge carries at key times.
Healy running over McCaw was a turning point in itself, but D'Arcy's barge and choke tackle on Aaron Smith was the point when the Irish players sensed they could win this match. Players rushed in to slap the back of the midfielder, who had an incredible game. Dave and Rob Kearney were immense. Mike Ross' work rate was epitomised by his covering tackle on Nonu in the first quarter.
Credit must go to Les Kiss for the entire defensive effort. The work rate and hunger to 'plug holes' on the inside meant that New Zealand rarely made line breaks in an area they constantly targeted. It was reflected further in the quietness of Read until that sickening last two minutes of the game. The aggression in line speed was huge in this regard, as Tommy Bowe, Heaslip and O'Driscoll made crucial defensive reads to shut down the All Blacks at various points.
The impact of the bench too was phenomenal: Sean Cronin's threat in the wide channels, Luke Fitzgerald's energy and vital steal off Nonu, Mike McCarthy chasing down wingers into touch and Kevin McLoughlin consistently breaking through the gain line at vital times. Declan Fitzpatrick displayed some amazing side-stepping and hand-off abilities.
There has been talk that the Irish team's 'golden generation' is in transition. Yesterday showed that this is a myth. This is as good a generation of Irish players we have ever had and it is time to recognise that.
These are the areas that we should remember. Ireland's performance should not be defined by the scoreline, but by outstanding elements throughout a game that showed what the team are capable of doing.