Donal Lenihan: All Blacks don't have this test series under lock and key yet

Despite playing some excellent rugby, Ireland found themselves 23 points in arrears as they trudged off the pitch at half-time. No team in the world could recover from that position, in Eden Park of all places.
Donal Lenihan: All Blacks don't have this test series under lock and key yet

FIRST TRY DELIGHT: Pita Gus Sowakula enjoys scoring his first All Black try as New Zealand complete the 42-19 win at Eden Park in Auckland. Pic: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

TWO games into Ireland’s demanding five-match schedule, each and every member of the Irish squad now has a full appreciation of just how difficult and demanding touring this country can be. 

Welcome to New Zealand.

Couple that with the intensity and bottled frustration the All Blacks were always going to bring to this opening test in their spiritual home at Eden Park after what happened in Dublin last November and it was always going to be a challenging first test in Auckland.

Despite the platitudes and recognition of Ireland’s current standing on the international stage that had them ranked fourth in World Rugby’s pecking order, you sensed all week that this game was personal for a number of the New Zealand players who failed to turn up in Dublin last time out.

Recent history has taught us that in the contests following Ireland’s historic wins in Chicago in 2016 and Dublin two years later, New Zealand responded immediately with punishing reversals, a brutal 21-9 win in Dublin two weeks after the glory of Soldier Field, a 46-14 thrashing in the World Cup quarter final the response to the 2018 win at the Aviva Stadium.

The core group of senior players set the ground rules for this contest. New Zealand don’t respond well to their manhood being questioned by anyone, least of all by their own people. As a result, every player was tasked with being confrontational and direct from the outset. Ardie Savea made it clear in an interview leading into the game that he was embarrassed by his performance in Dublin and was haunted by that defeat.

The response from the New Zealand No 8 said it all - a man of the match performance featuring two tries, his second a sensational effort combining incredible power, pace and evasion skills that left Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose and Keith Earls all floundering in his wake.

That said, the 23-point margin of defeat offered scant evidence of Ireland’s performance on a night when New Zealand were back to their cynical best at the scrum and breakdown and did everything necessary to win this key opening encounter.

If the hosts had their issues to deal with during the week, they weren’t alone. The calamitous nature of Ireland’s build-up was incapsulated by the fact Andy Farrell was forced to make a last-minute frantic phone call to former Leinster and Ireland prop Michael Bent from his home in Taranaki to cover his rapidly diminishing front row resources as the 24th man in the warm-up.

Thankfully he wasn’t called into action but with Cian Healy less than 100% fit on the bench after what looked like a tour-ending injury in Hamilton, Ireland loose head Andrew Porter was required to put in a punishing 80 minute shift despite being put under massive pressure by the giant Ofa Tuungafasi and his replacement Karl Tu’inukuafe.

New Zealand clearly targeted the scrum as a means of making a physical statement from the outset. While Ireland dealt with that initially, the concession of a penalty in a key attacking position on 14 minutes, when Ireland were attempting to build on their excellent start, proved a huge psychological boost for the All Blacks. After that they chased Ireland every time Jamison Gibson-Park fed the scrum.

Ireland had issues with the legality of the All Black hit and follow through on engagement but, despite protestations from Peter O Mahony (who took over the captaincy after Johnny Sexton was forced off after 30 minutes), England referee Karl Dickson was not for listening.

With replacement hooker Dave Heffernan lasting just two minutes after his bench introduction - there appears to be a curse on the position with Ronan Kelleher ruled out before the tour, Rob Herring sidelined with injury over here and Heffernan now ruled out with concussion - Dan Sheehan, outstanding throughout, was pressed back into action.

Eden Park has proved a graveyard for many a top quality international side since Jean Luc Sadourny scored that wonder try from 80 metres in the last minute to propel France into a famous 20-23 victory here in 1994.

To win on this famous patch of grass, everything has to go your way. Having put together one of the best opening 20 minutes that Ireland have delivered on the road against such world-class opposition that I can recall, the only blemish was they should have been more than five points ahead, courtesy of a great finish from Keith Earls after 18 phases of impeccable rugby after six minutes.

Sexton led the charge, pressurising New Zealand with a potent mix of kicking and passing up until the point he received that accidental head knock in a clash with his opposite skipper Sam Cane. The fact that Ireland conceded a cruel intercept try, against the run of play, to Sevu Reece in the same move proved a double whammy.

Sitting on the side line, Joe Schmidt would have cringed at the attempted pass from Ringrose to James Lowe, with both players falling at the same time, that led to the interception. It was the type of play he outlawed in his time at the helm. The game has moved on since then and Ireland have embraced that with Farrell on board. Ringrose made a poor decision, after receiving a poor pass from Sexton, and was punished. It happens.

What Ireland need to absorb is that you just cannot allow the blow of losing your captain and handing the opposition an easy seven pointer to impact what happens next. With ten minutes to go to the break, the mood in the dressing room at half time would be dictated by what followed. This is where New Zealand excel.

Sensing the vulnerability within the Irish, having gone from five points ahead to nine in arrears, the hosts unveiled the ruthless streak and went for the jugular. Two further tries from Quinn Tupaea and Savea’s first, courtesy of the horrible bounce that evaded both Lowe and O'Mahony in the in-goal area, was the cruelest way of all to end the half. Four tries in 17 minutes proved too much to absorb.

Despite playing some excellent rugby, Ireland found themselves 23 points in arrears as they trudged off the pitch at half-time. No team in the world could recover from that position, in Eden Park of all places.

The fact that Ireland continued to create multiple chances - they were held up over the line on four occasions, with the excellent Josh van der Flier also losing control as he attempted to ground the ball on another occasion - has to be taken as proof positive that they can score tries against New Zealand.

While the All Black scramble defence was heroic in preventing those Irish assaults, Ireland need to take positives from the fact that they breached the New Zealand defense on several occasions, beating 16 defenders in total, and created big opportunities from their clever launch plays.

It would be timely for the Irish members of the 2017 Lions squad to remind their teammates of the manner in which Warren Gatland’s side bounced back from being well beaten on the same patch of grass in their opening test to win the second in Wellington the following week.

To do that Ireland’s set-piece will have to improve. While the scrum encountered problems, the lineout failed to deliver on a number of crucial occasions with New Zealand applying pressure in the air through the towering presence of Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett. Those issues will need to be addressed.

In setting the tone for that second test, I was really impressed by the steely determination that Farrell brought to the post match press conference. Disappointed with the soft manner in which Ireland conceded some tries and with the set-piece issues, he was even more frustrated, with good reason, with referee Dickson for the way he officiated at the breakdown - New Zealand continually got away with taking out Irish players beyond the ruck - you could see what makes him such a massive competitor.

With the injuries mounting and the pressure rising, it’s just as well Ireland don’t have a midweek game to contend with on Wednesday. Right now all the focus has to be on making the improvements necessary to go toe to toe with New Zealand again in Dunedin next Saturday.

Despite the shortcomings in Auckland, there was enough in Ireland’s performance to keep the flame burning for another crack at their famed host, even if they appear to be holding the aces at present.

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