Tuesday 21 November 2017

Vincent Hogan: 'I think it's time lads grew up and got to know what's expected of them when they pull on an Irish jersey' - O'Brien

O'Brien can't hide disgust as Ireland scrap to brink of immortality – only to blink when it mattered most

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Sean O'Brien's head bore the telltale, crimson grazes of violent skirmish but, for a man who had spent the day charging at a machine-gun nest, his condition was implausibly good.

He stood with hands in the pockets of a grey suit, his mouth pursed against the sharp taste now building in his mouth. Someone asked him if he was angry. He raised his eyebrows as if startled that we might even consider the question necessary.

"Yeah, I'd say I am angry, yeah," he said, shuffling his feet. "We should have trusted each other there in the last couple of minutes. We were kind of not getting set early enough and not coming off the line on them again and you just need to want it that little bit more I think in the last few minutes of a game. That's when you should be trying even harder.

"So yeah I'd say a lot of the lads are a bit angry at the way it finished."

Fate is a rotten, brutal scoundrel in these matters and the thought of the small multiple of trifles that Ireland might have done differently crowded every mind here. The trouble with the All Blacks ordinarily is you can never really tell if you've got them troubled or just a little bored. They do what they do almost without conscious effort.

But this was a day that, for long stretches, reduced them to the equivalent of clumsy waiters. They dropped ball under pressure; missed tackles; mangled humdrum passing moves. They looked something that they rarely look. Human.

Yet Ireland forgot to close out history and could find no consolation now in the kindly back-slaps.

For O'Brien, the sense of Ireland finishing the game with their nerves in a ball had been simply galling. "You know, I think it's time lads grew up and got to know what's expected of them when they pull on an Irish jersey," he reflected.

"I think lads will have to have a good look at their game and assess where we are and what we did well and what we didn't do so well. You know we can improve on that performance today. We were obviously annoyed after last week (against Australia) and that fuelled the fire for today.

"That performance, we can be proud of it. But you know it still wasn't good enough."

Sport should never really cut this badly but, sometimes, grief just sinks too deep into the bone. Right now, no conciliatory words can lighten the context of a game Ireland led into injury-time only to, somehow, have their pockets picked. The small specifics prefacing trouble, Jonathan Sexton's missed 73rd-minute penalty; Kevin McLaughlin's late failure to stay on his feet; seemed to get washed away in a broader message.

You take the All Blacks to the edge of collapse, then turn around and all that is left of them is their bootprints.

Was O'Brien's anger directed at anything specific?

"I don't know if that's..." he sighs, hesitating. "I think we were in a good position, you know we were inside their half. We probably could have hit a bit of grass cover maybe and just got our line together and make them kick it back to us. You know there's so many things that you think about now. We won't really know until we go back and look at it.

"I think they got a penalty for... we sealed off or something, you know that was it. We kind of didn't react quick enough either off that... small little things you know. There's loads of stuff going through my head at the minute. I can't say for sure."

His struggle for analytical coherence was pretty much shared by everyone in the dressing-room now. Ireland had gone to the very edge of ability (and emotion), building up a 19-point lead in as many minutes and playing rugby that was as uncomplicated as a bear-attack. Once in that first half, Cian Healy sent Richie McCaw barreling backwards onto his rear-end in a gesture that seemed to capture the day in almost perfect microcosm. But on the doorstep of history, Ireland made the fatal mistake of looking back over their shoulders.

"Obviously, there was a lot of leadership out there today, we went after it you know pretty well," sighed O'Brien. "But we need to assess where we are. It's hard to put my finger on it now exactly to what it's down to. I think we can go back and take a step forward from this and try and build."

His emotions as Ryan Crotty dived over for that injury-time touchdown?

"I think we had the ball at 79.30 or something," said O'Brien. "You know to lose that way, it's very disappointing. To be honest with you, I thought it (Aaron Cruden's pass to Dane Coles in the build-up to Crotty's try) was forward. That was my initial reaction but looking back on it I'm not so sure.

"We had numbers there and we just bit in a little bit and he got his hands free. You know we spoke all week about moments in games, especially with New Zealand, they play to the 80th minute. You know either side of half-time as well is where they're very dangerous. But we didn't do that, we didn't keep playing did we? We let them in for that soft try!"

Ireland had been undone, essentially, by blinking.

The anger mined from that error-strewn loss to Australia one week earlier had been coming off them in sparks. They startled New Zealand with their aggression. This was a team that had spent a week despising its reflection in the mirror.

"Yeah, well we couldn't get much worse, could we?" shrugged O'Brien at mention of the Wallaby rout.

"I don't think it was beyond our expectations at all," he said of Ireland's three-try salvo in those opening 19 minutes. "We knew that if we went at them and kept the ball and brought them through phases, we were going to score. You know it's a thing we spoke about all week, they're only a team at the end of the day. Obviously a very good team but I think we knew that once we had the ball, we were always a threat to them.

"I certainly wasn't surprised about the pace we started at and the way we went about our business that we were scoring tries. But, look, we'll have to move on and learn from this.

"Obviously we were out on our feet at the end. Eighty minutes and the pace of that game out there... it's one of the quickest games I've ever played in anyway. So I'm sure there was lads tired alright. But that's not an excuse. They weren't tired, were they?"

Ireland's intensity yesterday would, he agreed, have to become the everyday mark, not the exception. They would have to build on it, rinse away the temptation to brood.

"It's hard to say now whether we weren't smart enough at times, in just keeping the ball as we did in the first-half," reflected O'Brien. "When we had the ball, we were very very good in the first half. Maybe in the second half we probably sat off them a little bit and gave them too much respect maybe.

"But it's massively important we learn from this."

Irish Independent

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