26 November 2013

The perfect storm almost worked

Ireland did create the perfect storm against New Zealand on Sunday and delivered arguably the greatest performance from an Irish rugby team in our history. The fact we came agonisingly close should not in any way take from the performance of the team. Ireland did everything that was asked of them over those eighty-three pulsating minutes. To nit pick individual errors during the game would be churlish. The speed and intensity of the game from start to finish ensured there were errors from both teams.

It is a testament to New Zealand that they had the belief and skill to steal the game at the death. This is a great, if not the greatest, All Blacks team in history. That fact makes the Irish performance all the more special and it is impossible to see any other team, apart from New Zealand, beating Ireland on the day.

For most of the game Ireland’s performance was complete in every department. The scrum and line-out were rock solid and from those platforms Ireland launched attacks that New Zealand scrambled to contain. The key to the success of the attack was we won the collisions hands down and those big gain-lines created quick “go-forward” ruck ball, which had the All Black defence in emergency mode.

The first two tries by Conor Murray and Rory Best were almost like a training run when you consider the ease with which Ireland advanced the ball. A score line of 14-0 to Ireland after just eleven minutes was certainly not in the All Blacks match script.

At 14-0 New Zealand tried to respond, as everybody expected, but the Irish defence was every bit as effective as our attack. The line speed was light years ahead of last weeks against Australia. The “Up & In” system stopped New Zealand attacking the outside channels where Australia had such free reign just eight days ago.

When the New Zealand ball carriers ducked back inside the “Up & In” they were gobbled up by the “Tag On “ defenders and New Zealand at times looked bereft of ideas. Ireland’s third try came from that aggressive defence. Israel Dagg got smashed on the short side and the ball was jarred loose to Rob Kearney who ran sixty meters to touch down.

At this stage of the game Ireland were in control from a tactical, physical and mental perspective. Even after Aaron Cruden put in a beautiful grubber kick for Julian Savea’s try Ireland still looked in control. If the All Blacks felt the momentum had swung back their way at that point, Sexton’s penalty on thirty-three minutes broke that momentum.

New Zealand did everything in their power to register another score before the break, but Ireland’s defence was still holding its shape and the tackling was as ferocious as minute one.

When Jonathan Sexton kicked the ball out to end the half, if somebody had just beamed in from Mars, they could be forgiven for thinking the All Blacks were playing in green, such was the totality of the Irish performance.

The second half saw the Kiwis adjust their tactics. The kicked the ball a lot less and when they did they were much more judicious about it. They responded to Ireland’s “Up & In” defence that denied them the outside channels by carrying the ball much more directly, trying to go through rather than around the defence. But Ireland held firm and made New Zealand work hard for every meter of grass they won.

It wasn’t until the sixty-fourth minute of the second half that Ben Franks crashed over from one meter out after New Zealand had bludgeoned their way through the Irish defence. At that point Ireland’s defence looked to be getting a little weary, but it was still holding its shape well.

On the other hand Ireland didn’t stop attacking in the second half, they merely got less opportunities due to the fact that New Zealand held onto the ball and ran at almost every opportunity. When Ireland did get opportunities they looked every bit as dangerous as they did in the first half. But those opportunities were few and far between.

It was always going to be a huge challenge to restrict this New Zealand team to less than fifteen points for forty minutes. In other words we really needed to score at some point in the second half, if only to break the momentum that New Zealand were building as the clock ran down.

It took until the seventy-fourth minute for Ireland to create that chance when New Zealand collapsed a maul rumbling towards their try line. The opportunity fell to Jonathan Sexton to make it a two score game. Had the kick gone through it is doubtful even the All Blacks would have believed they could turn around an eight point deficit with six minutes on the clock.

The kick piled about as much pressure on Jonathan Sexton as you could on any place kicker in rugby. Everybody understood the magnitude of the kick and nobody would have envied his task. But Sexton seemed to take a little longer than normal in his preparation. It is possible his hamstring had tightened up as he was replaced immediately after the kick.

To his credit and under the circumstance, Sexton struck the kick well and with authority. It started just outside the right hand upright. As with all kicks from a right-footed kicker, kicking from the right hand side, one expected the kick to turn inside the post. But it held its line and stayed just to the right.

Undoubtedly it gave New Zealand the lifeline they were hoping for and you could see their body language changing as the lined up to chase the 22m drop-out. In the time remaining New Zealand did look like they had butchered a few chances and Ireland might just hold on.

But the long periods defending throughout the second half had taken its toll on the Irish players. Defending requires less skill than attacking but burns a lot more energy. Having pommelled us up the guts for most of the second half, New Zealand began to revert to moving the ball wide when Irish bodies were beginning to run on empty. Despite that it still took New Zealand until the eighty-second minute to score the all-important try.

As a footnote, Ireland did charge both conversions prematurely in the second half. Cruden hadn’t begun his run-up to kick the ball. Apart from yesterday, had it been an issue for him it would have manifest itself for other conversions against other teams, throughout the season.

Despite the disappointment, we have to take the huge positives from the performance. If anything it proves we need to play the All Blacks more often. Sunday was only the twenty-eighth meeting between the teams in one hundred and eight years. Although having played them fourteen times in the past twelve years is a big improvement in the scheduled meetings.

It would also help if we got to play them at home a little more often. The support of the crowd and atmosphere at Aviva Stadium was phenomenal from start to finish. But only five of our last fourteen games against New Zealand have been on Irish soil.

This is the seventh close game of those fourteen fixtures, so it is just a matter of time before we eventually beat the All Blacks.

In the meantime bring on the 6 Nations!