Can were produce that bitter edge?
By Donal Lenihan
It’s now or never for the Irish rugby squad if they wish to create history and beat New Zealand on their own hollowed turf.
The IRB’s tour schedule dictates that Ireland will not tour down there for over a decade and even Brian O’Driscoll accepts that he won’t be around for that one.
The final tour game can be a challenging one for any management team as there is always the danger that the squad, especially those who are not involved in that closing encounter and at the end of a long season, begin to lose focus and think of home.
However, the Irish management has planned well for tomorrow’s third and final All Black Test in Hamilton, factoring in the need for a few days R&R with a timely four-day break in the picturesque surroundings of Queenstown after the exertions of Christchurch.
After what happened last weekend, belief certainly shouldn’t be an issue. Of greater concern is the physical state of the squad and the loss of Gordon D’Arcy and Jamie Heaslip, who both had storming games last weekend, will be a big psychological blow.
The inclusion of Paddy Wallace, who was lying on a beach in the Algarve when he got the call to head for New Zealand, is a bit of a surprise as he only arrived on Tuesday and has had little time to get over jet lag. It also represents a kick in the teeth for the other midfield back on tour in Darren Cave. On top of all that Wallace will have to deal with the physical threat of Sonny Bill Williams, who will be smarting having been closed out of the game for long periods last weekend.
New Zealand will also be feeling the heat as the pressure mounts after what for them was viewed as a very poor performance in that second Test. They too have suffered injury blows with an entire back row now wiped out with the highly influential Kieran Read the latest casualty along with Victor Vito and Jerome Kaino. Having scraped through the latter stages of the World Cup without Dan Carter, New Zealand will once again turn to the diminutive Aaron Cruden, who forms an all-new half-back partnership with Aaron Smith. That leaves them vulnerable but the question is will Ireland be good enough to exploit that potential weakness.
Looking back to last weekend, it is difficult not to dwell on that terrible decision from Nigel Owens to penalise Ireland for a deliberate wheel, deep in New Zealand territory with the game delicately balanced. Refereeing issues surrounding the scrum have become all too common place and with French official Romain Poite in situ for tomorrow’s match, the Leinster contingent will have reason to fret given his disastrous showing in adjudicating scrum matters when they met the Ospreys in the RaboDirect Pro12 final at the RDS last month.
Outside of Ireland’s game last weekend, Wales were also unfairly penalised on a few occasions when their outstanding tight head Adam Jones clearly had the upper hand on Benn Robinson. In Johannesburg, England were victim of a shocking call from the assistant referee, the ever pompous Steve Walsh, who signalled that all was fine for Willem Alberts’ opening try, despite the fact the ball went straight through the tunnel without being touched by any of the front row. It should have been a re-set.
Too many games are being ruined by indecision and uncertainty surrounding scrum calls but at least the IRB have finally bitten the bullet by making the decision to change the cadence call on engagement on a trial basis from “crouch, touch, pause, engage” to “crouch, touch, set” from next season.
With the rains set to arrive for tomorrow’s final Test in Hamilton, there will be more scrums than normal and that could work to Ireland’s advantage, especially if New Zealand continue the pattern of replacing Owen Franks with his brother Ben early in the second half of the game. Owen is a natural tight head and, like Cian Healy, a bit of a freak for a prop with 33 caps at just 24. His brother, however, is more at home at loose head and Healy exposed his limitations on the other side last weekend. Ireland’s biggest challenge tomorrow is a mental one and reproducing that bitter edge that drove them to new heights in Christchurch.
The key lesson from that Test was New Zealand’s refusal to panic and their management of the last seven minutes when down to 14 men after Israel Dagg’s yellow card. They were on the ropes with the score tied but Ireland failed to finish them off. Munster and Leinster have developed that mentality over the last few years but as a collective, Ireland are still getting there. Tomorrow, they have one more opportunity to do so but again the odds are stacked against them. Home