Richie McCaw: His men can deal with the big occasions.
I find it hard to believe it’s over 40 years since I first saw New Zealand play in the flesh. Even then they enjoyed an aura shared by no other team, even if they had lost a series to the Lions for the first time only two years earlier.
That was back in January 1973 when we got a half day from school to go to Musgrave Park and see the famous All Blacks up close. In a repeat of last Sunday, Munster were within two minutes of creating history, but a Trevor Morris penalty at the death secured a 3-3 draw for the tourists and saved their blushes. Next time I watched them live? Thomond Park, October 31st 1978.
Suffice to say my early experiences led me to believe these guys in the black jerseys, who performed this funny-looking dance before kick off, weren’t all they were cracked up to be. Years later I found myself marching towards the Haka which, at that stage, was being transformed by their captain Buck Shelford into an altogether more choreographed and forceful expression of his proud Maori tradition. I had also come to appreciate that, as the winners of the inaugural World Cup two years earlier, Shelford’s side were a different proposition to the one I first witnessed in Cork.
Things came full circle at Lansdowne Road on Sunday, given the current New Zealand squad are also two years down the road from winning the World Cup for the first time since that class of 1987. So how did they measure up? As an expression of what separates New Zealand from the rest, Sunday’s game offers the perfect case study. Nineteen points down after 17 minutes against an Irish side playing as if there was noHaving analysed the All Blacks in great detail over the summer in preparation for Sunday’s game, one of the recurring themes that appeared in my notes was they play to the last second of every match.
It’s a lesson Ireland need to take on board. In situations like Sunday, there is a tendency to play the clock rather than the opposition in an attempt to close out the game. Ireland were only guilty of that in the last five minutes on this occasion but it proved sufficient to open a window of opportunity for the tourists. That is all they needed.
They may not have had the chance if Jonny Sexton had converted that penalty in the 73rd minute. That finish from New Zealand didn’t happen by accident, however. They sensed Ireland were out on their feet, given the majority of the final quarter was played in the Irish half and suspected their heroic defensive effort left them vulnerable.
New Zealand instinctively knew what was required and continuously shifted the point of attack after being offered a penalty on half way with just 28 seconds left. Twelve phases later, with 13 different players either carrying or passing the ball in a 97-second time frame from the moment scrum-half Aaron Smith (he handled 11 times alone in the movement) took the tapped penalty, Ryan Crotty touched down in the corner. McCaw and Brodie Retallick were the only two not to handle the ball, but they cleaned out seven rucks between them. Extraordinary When the roles were reversed at the Stade de France two weeks earlier and France were pummelling the New Zealand line in the last five minutes, it was McCaw who stood firm and twice held up French bodies over the New Zealand try line. Seven points at that stage would have earned France a draw and New Zealand’s quest for the perfect season would have disappeared. They were not willing to allow that happen.
The luxury they enjoy is they are so advanced on the technical, tactical and skill element of the game, it affords them the time to develop their mental toughness. They prepare for scenarios like Sunday. Clarity of mind and deed enable them to execute under the most extreme pressure. They focused on that aspect after their failure to display those characteristics in the World Cup quarter final defeat to France in 2007.
After what they have gone through on this tour, they will be even stronger for the experience. With Jerome Kaino returning from his Japanese exile next season, rugby league sensation Benji Marshall joining the Auckland Blues and the possibility Sonny Bill Williams will return to the code prior to the next World Cup, they have the capacity to get even better.
As for Ireland, the bar has been raised by this performance and the new management team will also be far wiser after a month spent working together in camp. On the basis of what we saw from the other countries over the last few weeks, France, England and Wales will all pose challenges in the Six Nations with our visit to Twickenham possibly the biggest obstacle.
Their forwards were outstanding against New Zealand, despite starting without Alex Corbisiero, Tom Youngs, Geoff Parling and Tom Croft, all of whom started at least one test for the Lions only a few months earlier. They still have issues to address in midfield but are slightly ahead of Ireland at present in terms of building a squad for the next World Cup.
Achieving a consistency of performance remains the biggest challenge facing Joe Schmidt between now and the end of the season. At least Sundays heroic display will have everyone in the squad raring to go when they reassemble after Christmas.
tomorrow, set the ultimate test for this incredibly talented All Blacks side.
The thing about playing for New Zealand is you quickly come to realise every opponent raises their performance levels against you in the certainty if they fail to deliver anything close to their best, a defeat of the magnitude suffered by Ireland in that 60-0 horror show in Hamilton in 2012 is a distinct possibility.
You only have to go back a month to that classic encounter against South Africa in Johannesburg to remind yourself Richie McCaw’s men have huge experience in dealing with occasions such as last Sunday. Ellis Park for that 27-38 epic made the Aviva Stadium look like a children’s playground. The Springboks brought a physical intensity that day that was even greater than what Ireland managed at the weekend.
However, this tour has shown they are human after all. How many times do we write off the chances of Irish touring sides embarking on their end of season slugfest to the southern hemisphere, knackered after the demands of another bruising season. Sunday was New Zealand’s seventh test in nine weeks, their 14th in the calendar year. They too were hurting. The difference is they refuse to use it as a crutch or an excuse.
Given their excellence in the Rugby Championship, it was feared they would scatter all before them on this visit north. Yet the combined margin of their three wins over France, England and Ireland over the last fortnight was 17 points. The bookies, who rarely get things wrong, were offering a spread of 20 points for the Irish game alone.
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