The radio ads for Friday night’s production of Alone it Stands in Dublin, the play depicting the events surrounding Munster’s historic win over New Zealand in 1978, was marketed as the last ever staging of the show.
Even they recognised it was time for new Irish rugby heroes to emerge.
When its comes to writing rugby history, however, nobody does it better than New Zealand. To have the confidence, composure and belief to produce a winning try of the quality delivered by Ryan Crotty at the death of yesterday’s Aviva Stadium cliff-hanger explains just why they have been the leading side in the game for so long. The All Blacks just refuse to be beaten and always play to the very last second. In the visitors dressing room there were no high fives, no champagne corks popping; just life as it is meant to be.
In the end, the retaken conversion from Aaron Cruden a few yards in from touch was almost irrelevant for, in the context of this game, a draw would have felt like a defeat for the home side. At least it gave New Zealand that unbeaten calendar year record they set out to capture at the outset of this tour.
As I referred to here on Saturday, so much of sport is played out in the head. Ireland were so off the pace against Australia in so many aspects of their play, there just had to be a reaction. What we didn’t anticipate was that Ireland could effect such a quantum leap in so many aspects of their play in such a short time frame. Bear in mind also that Rob Kearney, Jonny Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll had a very disjointed week in terms of preparation due to injury yet all three were outstanding.
That said, Sexton will have nightmares over his missed penalty kick with seven minutes left which would have stretched Ireland’s lead to eight. The silence as he went through his routine was almost haunting and the lone shouter who diced with death and let a roar at the most inopportune time seemed to register with the kicker. He missed. Even the All Blacks would have struggled to score twice in that time frame. Sexton shouldn’t beat himself up, however. How he was even out on the field was a minor miracle and he played a major role in Ireland’s first half dominance.
From the outset the scrum was rock solid with both Cian Healy and Mike Ross enjoying a measured advantage over Wyatt Crockett and Charlie Faumuina, respectively. That offered the first smidgeon of renewed belief. The lineout also proved far more productive offering a good mix of quick ball off the top and the opportunity for launching a punishing maul.
However, it was in the breakdown Ireland set out their stall in terms of frustrating New Zealand and deny them the momentum they crave. For seventy minutes the game’s most influential figure this season, and favourite for the IRB player of the year, Kieran Read, couldn’t get his hands on the ball and influence the game in any meaningful way.
It was significant, however, he handled several times in the build up to Crotty’s heartbreaker at the death.
Jamie Heaslip has struggled somewhat to make a sustained impact in games in recent times but in this instance, working in tandem with the indefatigable Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony, played New Zealand off the park for long periods. You have to go back to the World Cup final against France at Eden Park two years ago to witness such a worried and pressured look on the face of Richie McCaw.
Ireland have attacked teams with that intensity before but rarely with such sustained menace. New Zealand place so much emphasis on delivering quick ball and switching the point of attack quickly that they are almost impossible to contain. Once they go past four phases, the tempo of their recycle make it almost inevitable that they will score. They stretch pressurised defences at that stage with the length and accuracy of their passes which creates the holes for them to convert pressure into points.
They key for Ireland yesterday was they never allowed New Zealand build those phases and pressurised them into making more handling errors in one game than they would normally make over a campaign. The metamorphosis in Ireland’s defensive strategy offered the final piece of their strategic plan to beat New Zealand. Where last week they were hesitant and indecisive, this time out they committed themselves to making key decisions at vital times. Twice Tommy Bowe shot out of the line to effect game-changing tackles while Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy offered a defensive master class.
In all of this, they were aided by Conor Murray’s finest hour in a green shirt when his decision-making was immaculate. His kicking was inch perfect and his scramble defence brilliant throughout. It was up front, however, where Ireland really succeeded in taking the game to New Zealand and where each and every Irish forward left a calling card on his opposite number.
Paul O’Connell led the way with some great carries, while Devin Toner showed that he has the bite to make an impact at this level. O’Connell promised the delivery of the emotional intensity that deserted the side last week and he didn’t disappoint. The challenge now for Joe Schmidt is to carry this performance forward into the Six Nations opener against Scotland on February 2. On too many occasions in the past Ireland produce a performance of this nature either on the back of fear or after a series of unacceptable displays. That just shouldn’t be the case as Ireland have proved conclusively that once they have their heads in the right place, anything is possible.
Unfortunately for O’Driscoll, he finishes his shift against New Zealand as empty-handed as all of those who have gone before him in an Irish shirt. For someone who has made the number his own, yesterday marked his 13th and final appearance against New Zealand, but there was no happy ending. He along with so many other heroes in green yesterday couldn’t have come any closer.
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