Ireland started their three test series against New Zealand with enterprise and verve, but the All Blacks were able to stand up well to the twenty-five minute onslaught, bought a lead with a couple of long-range Dan Carter penalties and then utterly took over, wrapping up the game before half-time.
With Jonny Sexton directing proceedings, Keith Earls looking fleet-footed and elusive in the centre and the Irish defense repeatedly smashing Kiwi superstar Sonny-Bill Williams, the game opened well from the point of view of Irish fans. However, Ireland were unable to get points on the board, and their execution of half-chances was simply no where near as composed as it needed to be against the world champions.
After an excellent half-break from Brian O’Driscoll who, when tackled to deck, kept hold of the ball until the split second he would have been penalised before popping it up to Earls, Ireland had a quick ruck with a gaping 10m space on the openside … but every player flooded the blindside and Simon Zebo was tackled into touch [11:45 on the match clock]. Nobody gave Murray an openside option – or even a shout – and the chance was lost.
New Zealand Can Hurt You Any Which Way, From Anywhere, With Anyone
It’s an overused adage that the New Zealanders just do the basics perfectly. Why’s it over-used? Because, like most clichés, it’s true. From Israel Dagg’s enormous early touchfinder to Dan Carter’s classic placekicking to the unbelievably accurate restart tandem of Crusaders Carter and No8 Keiran Read, their seldom-mentioned kicking game proved itself an underused strength rather than a hidden weakness. Carter was bombing over penalty kicks from halfway in the first twenty minutes, which meant that even Irish infringements near the touchline in midfield were costing the team in green three points. His third penalty goal was absolutely outstanding, wide out on the left on the halfway line and well over the bar.
Conor Murray’s overlong box-kick could have been rescued if Simon Zebo had worked harder at his chase, because Zak Guildford fumbled the catch sideways. Unfortunately Zebo wasn’t killing himself to get there and the All Blacks struck with an alacrity to which Ireland had no answer. Look where Sonny Bill Williams’ line takes him while the ball is in the air – nowhere near where it’s coming down. He’s making tracks for the tramlines opposite from where the ball was kicked because that’s where the All Blacks backs are going to counter, as far away as possible from the Irish pack – and he’s not just wandering back, he’s working pretty hard to get in position so that he’s behind the man inside him and can run on to a pass. Superstar he may be, Big Time Charlie on the pitch he ain’t. In the words of Tenacious D, “That’s fuckin’ teamwork.”
However, it’s a defensive mix-up between McFadden and Earls that really seals the deal. Conrad Smith drifts across with the ball towards the touchline and Earls follows him. Smith’s experience and what he has seen in the first twenty minutes of the game is the key factor here: Earls should probably have handed off the responsibility to McFadden when Smith’s run was so horizontal, because I’m not aware of any defensive scheme that demands the outside player to scissor inside to cover a switch. On a counter-attack it can look like one of those things that is very much a grey area in a defensive system, but whether it be an error of communication or a lack of judgment, McFadden has stayed wide and Earls has gone wide. Smith has picked up on the fact that this is a first time pairing at No13 and No14 and exploits it to the full.
While the switching Sonny-Bill Williams was tackled by Brian O’Driscoll – with both Earls and McFadden committed to tackling Smith – he was able to offload out of the back of his hand to Dan Carter. If McFadden hadn’t committed late to Smith, he had a chance of catching Julian Savea, but Carter had options either side in any case; the error was unrecoverable. The Kiwi No10 then proceeded to draw Rob Kearney perfectly and send Savea over for a try on his debut. 16-3 before half an hour, and Ireland hadn’t played particularly badly.
Those Kiwi counter-attacks are so well-structured as to almost look like planned moves, but they’re in fact even more impressive: great decision-making and skill-execution off the cuff from exceptional athletes. It’s breathtaking, admirable rugby.
And The Irish Efforts?
Ireland haven’t been altogether toothless from their own half this year:
However, missing pacy gamebreakers like Tommy Bowe and Stephen Ferris, they were always going to struggle to score tries. The All Black defense is so cohesive, their players so committed to never missing tackles – you’d imagine that they get absolutely slaughtered in post-match analysis if they do – that you need something special to score when the game is a contest. They hardly ever concede soft tries.
Declan Kidney has occasionally let slip some hints this season about how he wants his team to play. He has pointed towards the evidence that the majority of tries in international rugby are scored from deep within enemy territory, rather than from long-range strikes. However, doing any one thing too often against the All Blacks will hurt you. They’re all well-practised, intuitive footballers who learn quickly on the pitch; it’s rare that you’ll out-think the All Blacks.
Sexton varied his game well at outhalf, using his outside backs running from depth, looping for width and putting Ireland in New Zealand territory with some well-judged touch-kicks down the left-hand side. His defensive efforts against the storming Sonny-Bill Williams were rock solid, and all-in-all he had a well-rounded performance … but one that was utterly overshadowed by his brilliant opposite number.
Outside him, Brian O’Driscoll had a distinctly non-vintage game. His passing wasn’t up to his usual standard, and while he produced some good moments in both attack and defense, it was an uneven performance that featured more mistakes than he’d usually make in three games. He put the ball on the ground a couple of times, and seemed to be trying passes which were 20/80s, rather than 50/50s.
In the backrow, Sean O’Brien busted his lungs with effort, but his handling showed some of his 2009-10 form – unfortunately, that’s not the season when he was the best player in European rugby, it’s the season when he couldn’t hold on to the ball for the life of him. Unforced handling errors weren’t part of the gameplan, and it’s just something that he’ll have to concentrate on harder in the next test, even if that hampers his game a little. Ireland simply can’t afford to give the ball away that cheaply to as cut-throat a team as New Zealand.
He worked extremely hard all over the pitch [ESPN Scrum.com credited him with 23 tackles, easily the highest total on the pitch], but with so much effort going into the tackle and the breakdown, he wasn’t available too often to carry the ball in midfield, and he made two fumbles in the rare chances that he had.
Heaslip had his best game for Ireland since his good showing against Wales in the first game of the Six Nations, but was still widely outplayed by his opposite number, Keiran Read. The Kildare man got on the ball a lot and was the chief runner in the Irish backrow, and his tackle-count was into the mid-teens, second only to O’Brien. While Heaslip stepped up in Ferris’ absence, Ireland still missed the power and athleticism of the Ulster No6. Peter O’Mahony has earned a starting job with his strong performances for Munster this season, but has nothing to rival the explosive power of the Maghaberry Monster.
His international career is in its early days, and he very clearly has a high ceiling. On the day though, his performance was patchy. Compared to either of his backrow colleagues, he made fewer tackles, got on the ball less often, carried for fewer metres and made it to fewer rucks. Declan Kidney was sure to get his proviso about test rugby being a step up from the provincial game in his pre-match interview, and sure enough both O’Mahony and second row Dan Tuohy struggled to impose themselves on the All Blacks.
Savea Seals The Deal
Declan Fitzpatrick had some good footballing moments, outside of his better-than-billed performance in the scrum: there was a nice take-and-give with Jonny Sexton at 32:16 in the All Blacks 22, but unfortunately the play on the outside was two lateral, Fergus McFadden’s inside line too late and Rory Best’s attempted switch too poorly executed. Ireland won the penalty for New Zealand sealing off the breakdown, but off the lineout, Brian O’Driscoll threw an appalling offload to nobody that saw the Kiwis go 90m+ in under twenty seconds. It was an extremely poor piece of judgment from a player as experienced as O’Driscoll. The pass was never on. New Zealand had five minutes to score a try before halftime and kill off the game, and they did.
It briefly looked like Ireland might hold out due to good defensive work from Cian Healy and Conor Murray, but the All Blacks regained possession, and with Israel Dagg threatening left, McFadden once again stepped in to allow Julian Savea build up steam to run right through a weak Rob Kearney/Conor Murray double tackle for his second. Kearney’s defensive weakness was again shown up – he’s consistently too high as the last man at the back. It really was a poor tackle for an international fullback.
Dan Carter salted the would with a touchline conversion and the replays showed just how excellent Dagg’s drifting run and flat pass had been. A more aggressive Irish defensive line speed might have made a difference, but when you’ve got a fullback running at a covering blindside and a more or less static loosehead [albeit one who later caught Conrad Smith from behind], the alarms go off. 23-3 before halftime and it could have been more: Dagg skinned Zebo on a beautiful arcing run but then made a rare mistake, his early pass allowing Kearney to tackle Guildford into touch.
Come Out Firing Live Rounds
However, after a couple of hiccups to start the second half, New Zealand got back into their stride within five minutes. Their 44th minute try was another beauty. Jonny Sexton and Sean O’Brien tackled Sonny Bill well but were unable to stop him before the gainline, and off quick ruck ball, Aaron Smith fed Conrad Smith, who was moving back in towards the ruck. Debutant lock Brodie Retallick looked like he was going to take an inside pop from Smith, but the centre continued his line while the lock altered his to go wider and the pass accommodated the change. Retallick made an excellent pass out of the tackle to Dan Carter who threw a mini-dummy, then passed a split second before McFadden came in to tackle him, and Israel Dagg turned Kearney inside out before riding his tackle and slipping out a a wonderfully-weighted underhand pass for Savea to cut inside Simon Zebo’s wild covering run for his hat-trick. Carter again converted from wide on the left.
Consolation Effort For A Guy Who Needed It
Ireland’s attacking efforts in the second period were of the snatched-at variety. Rob Kearney’s world-class attacking falcon at 46:21 might have set up a freakish try for the hard-working Jamie Heaslip, but the ball took its big wrong-way hop a little early and Victor Vito was able to dot down.
Following a Rory Best block-down and regather, O’Mahony’s slick flick from the base of a ruck just outside the Irish 22 gave Sexton an untended blindside, and he hit a perfectly-weighted kick to allow McFadden burn Richie McCaw for an opportunist’s try against the run of play. McFadden had allowed three tries down his wing – and he was at fault for two of them – so it must have been some consolation that he could get something out of the game, despite his downbeat expression.
However, it was the briefest of respites. After Sexton had converted from wide on the right, the New Zealanders roared back to life. Keiran Read’s efforts at restarts throughout the game had been absolutely outstanding, and he almost crowned them with a phenomemal leap, take and dash which ended with a penalty against Ireland right on their own try-line. Keith Earls, Conor Murray and Brian O’Driscoll managed to halt Read on the line and prevent him touching down, but Zebo had held supporting substitute Ben Smith off the ball. Ireland were able to hold out for a couple of minutes, but from a scrum off the left, Read was able to pass out of O’Mahony’s tackle and give subsitute blindside Adam Thompson the easiest of tries. Carter surprisingly missed the conversion, but at 35-10, it was irrelevant to the outcome, if not the scoreline.
Release The Hounds!
Declan Kidney replaced the slightly hamstrung Fitzpatrick with Connacht dual-sided prop Ronan Loughney, which somewhat hurt Ireland’s scrum on 55 minutes, and Thompson’s try soon after signalled a wave of substitutions.
Ronan O’Gara made a 57th minute appearance, joined on the hour by Eoin Reddan, Donncha O’Callaghan and Kev McLaughlin. The O’Callaghan and McLaughlin substitutes would have come at the right time in a regular test match, but unfortunately this game was well out of Irish hands at that stage. This would have been the toughest match that either O’Mahony or Tuohy had yet played in their short international careers, and while neither set the world alight, they were hardly likely to in what is to all extents a new team. Both would have been blowing hard by the hour, and bringing on O’Callaghan and McLaughlin were good substitutions.
Unfortunately, Cian Healy’s substitution wasn’t. As Brendan ‘Fangio’ Fanning notes, Healy was down for treatment at least three times before he finally departed the pitch, and should have been taken off earlier. Fangio moots that Declan Kidney was unwilling to go to uncontested scrums, and you have to question why. Propriety? There was an argument that he should have told Tom Court to feign an injury during the English game when he was getting pulverised on the tighthead side, and thus force uncontested scrums. The Mole can understand why he didn’t: he wanted to respect the integrity of the game. That’s fair enough.
Keeping an injured player on the pitch does nothing for the integrity of the game, however. The Leinster loosehead is one of the very few players in the Irish team that would legitimately challenge for a place in the All Blacks on yesterday’s showing. It’s a big step down from Healy to his replacement, uncapped Connacht man Brett Wilkinson, and with O’Connell and Ferris, two of Ireland’s most powerful and aggressive forwards already out of action, Kidney needs Healy more than ever.
First Test In The Books, Second Test In Players’ Nightmares
Are New Zealand really thirty-two points better than Ireland? Yes, undoubtedly. They’re in a different class. In The Mole’s opinion, they’re two classes ahead. In the 2006 and 2008 tours, Ireland kept the distance to within around ten points, albeit with teams much closer to full strength.
As Michael Lynagh said of Robbie Deans in the Sky Sports build up to the Australia vs Wales game: “He can’t kick the goals, he can’t score the tries, but what he does do is create the environment … and it seems to be a reasonably happy one there. Outside that, it’s not, so there’s a lot of pressure on him.”
He may as well have been talking about Declan Kidney. The coach can’t make tackles or catch passes for the players out on the pitch. That’s their job. On the other hand, he and his coaching staff have their own responsibilities: selecting the team, organising their defensive systems and set-pieces, instilling confidence in the players, reacting to opposition tactics on the field, using the substitutes appropriately.
He told the Irish rugby public three weeks ago that New Zealand wasn’t the place to experiment … and then put out a team that featured four players who had a combined one test start between them in O’Mahony, Tuohy, Fitzpatrick and Zebo. There were untried combinations in the front row, the second row, the backrow, the centres and the back three. Though both wingers were embarrassed in defense, the lack of any cover on the bench for the back three – the extremely obvious call was Andrew Trimble – meant that he had hamstrung his own selection.
Kidney is obviously doing what he sees best, and working hard to prepare the team to play well … but nothing seems to be working out for him, and it’s difficult to see where he’s trying to lead this team. Ireland have not progressed this season. With Les Kiss and Mark Tainton double-jobbing as respective defense coach/attack coach and kicking coach/attack coach, there’s still have no dedicated attack coach for the first team. I think it’s fair to say that there has been a drop off in our defense since Les Kiss took on these new responsibilities.
Ireland can do better in their next test than they did in this one. They need to be a little more composed in attack, and take any sort of points from the opportunities they get, not necessarily tries. They’ll also need to concentrate on their defensive systems, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we see both Gordon D’Arcy and Andrew Trimble given starts, especially with Keith Earls out of action. Neither Rob Kearney nor Conor Murray played particularly well, so there’s definite room for improved personal performances in key positions. There are two more tests in the series come what may, so they need to gear up for them and try to turn what was a good 25 minutes into a good half, and then a good hour.