Donal Lenihan: Leadership and direction of the senior men inked Ireland’s place in the history books
“With the lessons from Auckland fully absorbed, we’re about to find out if this Irish side is as good as we like to think it is”.
Well now we know. It was difficult to escape the feeling that the 42-19 score line was scant reward for the effort Ireland put into that opening test at Eden Park, the game slipping away from them in a frantic 17 minute period before the break when the tourists conspired to hand New Zealand 28 points.
In previewing the second test, it was also hard to ignore the quality and attacking intent Ireland showed in the opening quarter in Auckland along with the character displayed in an uphill second half battle when they matched the New Zealanders point for point.
On the three occasions Ireland had beaten New Zealand, victory was achieved on the back of a massive defensive effort, by building a lead and by forcing New Zealand to chase the game. On so many occasions in the past, New Zealand’s stacked bench are introduced with the team in a commanding position on the scoreboard which they usually embellish even further.
The challenge is in forcing their impact players off the bench to play catch up. With two mercurial talents in Will Jordan and Richie Mo’unga parachuted in early in the third quarter in an effort to spark an ailing New Zealand attack, Ireland knew if they could deny that dynamic duo the time and space to operate, the game was theirs.
The quality of Ireland’s defending throughout was exemplary. Individually and collectively, everyone understood their roles, trusted the man on his inside and outside shoulder in an unbreakable defensive chain, hunted in packs and closed down the much vaunted New Zealand try scoring machine. When you see Beauden Barrett being called ashore with 25 minutes to go, you know you’re doing something right.
On the other side of the ball, the quality of Ireland’s attacking play in the opening half was quite breathtaking. The only problem, a lack of composure, especially when playing against 13 men for a combined seven minute period before the break with New Zealand in disarray after the sin-binning of one tighthead prop in Ofa Tuungafasi and the sending off of his replacement Angus Ta’avao for a reckless hit on Garry Ringrose.
With Beauden Barrett having to pack down at No 8 in one uncontested scrum and Ireland playing against only five backs, their skillset and decision making let them down when attempting to go around New Zealand rather than through them.
When the hosts finished the half with a trademark try in added time to reduce Ireland’s lead to a measly three points, you wondered how Andy Farrell’s men would cope, given they should really have been 17-0 ahead at that stage.
Nothing highlighted their profligacy more than the fact that, in seven visits to the New Zealand twenty two in a frantic and incident packed first half, Ireland scored only 10 points. Incredibly New Zealand, with just a single entry in Ireland’s twenty two, came away with seven. The fact their try was scored with the clock in the red was even harder to take.
With over 70% possession and territory, not too mention a significant numerical advantage, you feared that Ireland had missed their chance to put this amazing test away. You only get so many openings to punish New Zealand and Ireland were squandering theirs.
Thankfully this Irish team is made of stern stuff. Nothing underlined this better than the fact that – despite being reduced to 14 men themselves with James Ryan in the bin – Andrew Porter powered his way over the line within eight minutes of the restart for his second try on the night to compensate for Ireland’s failings before half time. That was the break they needed.
This historic win was built on solid foundations. All week you sensed the frustrations of the Irish front five surrounding their set piece failings in that opening test. That had to change to have any chance of winning.
While the lineout was always going to benefit from the absence of New Zealand’s most capped second row Sam Whitelock, Ireland still lost two crucial attacking throws at key moments in the contest. That said, the quality of ball out of touch this week was far superior from an attacking perspective.
The biggest transformation up front was in the scrum with Porter outstanding, winning two crucial penalties against Tuungafasi in a reversal to what happened last time out. It did, of course, help massively that the New Zealand scrum had to cope with having only seven forwards after Ta’avao’s red card.
Then again, as we saw when Australian second row Darcy Swain was sent off against England at a similar stage in their first test win in Perth last week, it doesn’t always guarantee a win for the team who are benefitting numerically.
If anything, Ireland looked spooked in that period in the second quarter when they had a two man advantage, forcing passes in order to find space. When James Lowe knocked on with a gaping overlap out wide, you wondered how Ireland would cope mentally given that, for a second week in a row, try scoring opportunities were being squandered. We need not have worried.
The most impressive aspect of the second half performance was the leadership, assurance and direction shown by the senior men when it mattered most. Johnny Sexton’s decision making and leadership was exemplary throughout, in contrast to his All Black counterpart Sam Cane who looked flustered with the chaos unfolding all around him.
In fairness to the New Zealand captain, with so many of his players coming and going at times, nobody had a clue what was happening, least of all referee Jaco Peyper. Sexton may be turning 37 today – what a birthday present he received on Saturday night – he is still operating at a different level to all the other No 10’s knocking on the door. That is a serious concern a year out from a World Cup.
Peter O’Mahony is a man reborn in this series with two incredible shifts to date. Playing against New Zealand always seems to bring out the best in him. His feet and evasion skills in contact have improved immeasurably, his poaching and lineout work impeccable while he has also kicked to good effect in both tests, with one stunning 50/22 not only clearing the danger on Saturday night but offering Ireland an attacking lineout twenty metres from New Zealand’s line.
The balance, work rate and energy brought to bare throughout this contest by the back row trio of O’Mahony, the indefatigable Josh van der Flier – what a player he has developed into – and Caelan Doris was central to this win. It also helped Ireland’s cause immeasurably that Ardie Savea, man of the match in Auckland, was incorrectly lost to a mistake by the officials after the sending off of Ta’avao.
Another major factor in this win was the positive contribution off the bench. Bundee Aki was like a man possessed when replacing Ringrose but the most pleasing aspect of all was the scrum penalty won at the death by the replacement front row of Cian Healy, Rob Herring and Finley Bealham with Ciaran Treadwell also backing up in the second row.
For this team to continue their upward trajectory with the World Cup beginning to come into focus, failing to win a test match down here would have been a set back to their lofty ambitions, whatever way Andy Farrell choose to spin it.
With that minimum objective achieved, the next target is for the back up squad to get a win over the Maori All Blacks on Tuesday night. If they could manage that, it would be all systems go for a crack at an extremely rare series win in this country, an achievement would set this Irish squad apart from everyone who has gone before.