With five minutes to play in Dublin, I was blaming last week’s loss to Australia for what seemed certain to be an historic Irish victory.
But call it self-belief or call it luck, an amazing finish resulted in a last-gasp win for the All Blacks.
Watching the first-half reminded me of the England game in 1993, Ireland was totally dominating and it was a question of whether or not they could sustain the pressure. That day there was no miracle comeback by England, Ireland won 17-3, but the All Blacks of 2013 are a different proposition to anything in modern rugby.
With the pace and skill of the modern-day player, domination of the gain line is critical, and once you get on the front foot pressure is put on the rushing defence.
New Zealand use the loose trio, and Kieran Read in particular, to provide that thrust. But for 40 minutes it was the Irish back row that dominated and Read was kept out of the match, while Jamie Heaslip, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien ran riot.
While such a physical performance was always going to take its toll, it was their dominance that gave space for the second line of runners to break tackles and score tries. It also gave Conor Murray a platform from which to produce a dominant display. I admit I wasn’t a fan of him early on in his international career, but he has developed into a strong, incisive player, who, in this match, was the key tactical leader. On the other hand, Jonny Sexton looked less controlled than usual and his performance highlights a problem that arises when players in key positions ply their trade off shore. The game might look the same but each country has a slightly different mind-set and if the Sexton who played so well for Leinster had been on the park he might have been the winning difference.
I’m not sure Ireland was guilty of looking too far ahead in the second-half, but maintaining the level of physicality they showed during the first 40 minutes was always going to be a stretch, well beyond any team. But had Sexton converted the penalty chance late in the game it would have got the Irish home.
The All Blacks won the match in the same department they won all year, and that was off the bench. It hasn’t mattered who has started and who has been in the reserves, the changes have always resulted in crucial improvements. When playing the No 1 team in the world, every opposition rises to the occasion and hit the starting XV with everything they have. Once that sting has been absorbed, the depth of the bench can take advantage. In yesterday’s match, Beauden Barrett lifted the backline enthusiasm, while the Franks brothers and Dane Coles in the front row and Liam Messam on the flank provided enough forward momentum to allow Read and Richie McCaw back into the match and that all-important battle for the gain line swung in the All Blacks’ favour.
The All Blacks were fortunate their changes were made tactically while, on a number of occasions, Ireland had theirs forced upon them due to injuries, notably to Rory Best and Brian O’Driscoll. It is, however, a part of Ireland’s game that needs to be addressed. I’m sure the player depth exists within Irish rugby, and it is the mind-set of those off the bench that needs to improve; they must grasp how important their role is, that they are impact players rather than second choice.
There is no such thing as a glorious defeat, as England satisfied themselves with last week against the All Blacks, and I hope that Ireland don’t go down that same path. Looking at Paul O’Connell’s face as he stood behind the goal posts waiting for Aaron Cruden to take the final conversion, said it all. Truly great players will never be satisfied with anything less than a win. On the plus side, Ireland showed again they have the talent to win the Six Nations and Joe Schmidt’s challenge is the same faced by many an Irish coach – consistency – and you can’t afford the bad performance that will motivate you for the next week.
Ireland have the players, we saw that yesterday. But an All Black type mind-set is generations in the making and that will be harder to develop.
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