Yes, there is honour in defeat

Now that was a test match. Saturday’s game in Lansdowne Road had everything — mesmerising skills, unrelenting physicality, and unwavering commitment.
Yes, there is honour in defeat

New Zealand deserved their win, primarily because they outscored Ireland by three tries to none, even if controversy attached to two of those tries.

Ireland had opportunities to score but lacked the necessary composure within touching distance of the try line. The passes that stuck in Chicago went to deck on this occasion, due in no small measure to a phenomenal defensive effort from the men in black.

That Ireland were well in the game, having cut the deficit to just five points heading into the final quarter, says everything about the character of this side. To lose three of the team’s most potent and influential performers in Robbie Henshaw, Johnny Sexton, and CJ Stander after only 22 minutes would have derailed most Irish side in recent times.

This group are made of sterner stuff. They refuse to take a backward step. To hear the New Zealand players admit they were out on their feet at the final whistle tells you everything you need to know. By comparison they strolled their way through the six ‘contests’ in the Rugby Championship and weren’t put under anything like this pressure by South Africa, Australia, or Argentina.

What the last few weeks has shown is that, while New Zealand are a magnificent side, they are not quite the unbeatable force they were painted as when they left home over three weeks ago. In addition some of their tackling was high and reckless, especially in the context of the recent edict issued by World Rugby. I would be very surprised, given their recent stance on such issues, if some of those incidents fail to come before a judicial review on the recommendation of the citing officer. Malakai Fekitoa should have seen red for a high, swinging arm on Simon Zebo and he will surely be called to answer for his actions. He was not alone.

Two of New Zealand’s tries also had elements of doubt attached to them, even if it did appear that Beauden Barrett’s opener may just have brushed the deck. To satisfy protocol however, it must be clear and obvious for the television match official to award the try.

Even referee Jaco Peyper who, it has to be said had a shocker, wasn’t overly convinced that was the case yet stood by his TMO Jon Mason from Wales.The match-clinching score from Fekitoa with 15 minutes to go resulted from a suspicious looking pass from TJ Perenara which was a least worthy of a review by Mason. For some strange reason, Peyper refused to request one.

This isn’t the first time Peyper hasn’t endeared himself to the Irish management. He was also the official who choose to ignore high and dangerous hits on Johnny Sexton and Dave Kearney from French forwards Joann Maestri and Guilhem Guirado in the Six Nations game in Paris last February. It will be interesting to see how the governing body respond to his performance.

In the context of the Lions tour next summer, Ireland may well have done New Zealand a favour in highlighting potential areas of vulnerability and they have clearly demonstrated over the course of two captivating test games that when put under constant pressure, they too can be got at.

Former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick made the comment after that epic in Chicago that New Zealand players remember their defeats far more than their victories. Outstanding hooker Dane Coles confirmed as much when he said their had been an emotional response in training all week and that hard edge was clearly in evidence, right from the kick-off.

Coach Steve Hansen attacked the pillars that set up the historic Irish win two weeks ago with the defence of Ireland’s lineout maul a clear priority. Despite the return of towering second row pairing Brodie Retallick — what a game he had — and Sam Whitelock, New Zealand choose to defend a number of crucial five=metre attacking Irish lineouts on the ground rather than in the air.

The collective force attacked the ball winner once he returned to ground and, despite Ireland’s best efforts, they just couldn’t get a body over the line. One clever shift and pop to Sean O’Brien within metres of the line nearly had the desired effect but he couldn’t hold the pass. Had Ireland managed to score there, after pummelling the New Zealand line for a protracted period after half-time, who knows what might have happened?

It was O Brien’s only blemish in an outstanding performance, made even more heroic by the fact that he had to put in a full 80 minute shift due to the early departure of Stander. Given his lack of game time over the last eight months, he put in a herculean effort and is already back close to his best.

Alongside him Jamie Heaslip and Stander’s replacement Josh Van Der Flier played their much vaunted New Zealand counterparts off the park without getting the rewards they deserved.

Henshaw’s replacement Garry Ringrose, in only his second cap, also confirmed that he has what it takes to be a really influential player for Ireland at this level for a decade to come. Some of his footwork is sensational and, despite the quality of opposition, he looked totally at ease in this company.

New Zealand won this absorbing clash of titans because they not only defended with an unbreakable will but were also that bit smarter and composed in attack. As anticipated, world player of the year Beauden Barrett exploited the space in behind the onrushing Irish midfield with an classy range of kicking and but for one timely intervention by Andrew Trimble — how many of those has he had over the last few weeks — for which he was lucky to escape sanction, Barrett could well have set up another New Zealand try.

So where do Ireland sit after this defeat? I think they are in a very good place. They demonstrated on successive occasions that they can compete, toe-to-toe, with the best side in the world and are already in the top three in the game along with New Zealand and England, with plenty scope for improvement.

What they need to do now is finish off this very productive November test window on a high by beating Australia next Saturday. Joe Schmidt may be required to make a number of changes given the attritional nature of this game and if that is the case, then so be it. That is the scenario he is working towards and the likes of Keith Earls, Peter O’Mahony and Ultan Dillane may now be offered the opportunity to stake their claim against the Wallabies.

After waiting 111 years to record a first ever win, it was possibly asking too much at present to deliver a win over New Zealand for a second time in a fortnight.

That is the next step that needs to be negotiated but this Irish squad is clearly on the right track.

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