New Zealand flop shows up just how poor Ireland were
Wouldn't we have all slept a little easier if New Zealand had put England to the sword? We could have told ourselves we just faced a juggernaut.
"Once you put New Zealand under pressure, they become very, very human."
Gordon D'Arcy, on eir Sport after England had dumped New Zealand out of the World Cup, no doubt echoing the comments from inside the Ireland camp in Japan.
The Irish squad had beaten this New Zealand side twice in three years. They knew they were human.
Last Saturday, in Tokyo Stadium, Ireland were so poor that the Kiwis looked like super-heroes. World Rugby loves dickying up match footage with graphics of flames and speed lines and the All Blacks had plenty of highlights to give them:
— Rugby World Cup (@rugbyworldcup) October 25, 2019
Ahead of the tournament, in Ireland, a lot of the talk was about beating Scotland so we could avoid the All Blacks in the quarter finals. We were not the only nation guilty of presumptuousness and Japan rocked us in our second Pool A game.
It meant that Ireland fans were looking on in hope that Scotland could beat Japan in the final game of that pool, just so we could avoid New Zealand. It was not to be, but I personally felt we had as much chance of turning the Kiwis over as South Africa. Both would be extremely tough. It was a frying pan or fire call.
After 40 minutes in Chofu, last weekend, with Ireland 22-0 behind and New Zealand playing like the Space Jame aliens, a part of you yearned to be up against the Springboks in the last eight. The following day, South Africa never really hit top gear and still beat Japan 26-3.
In their 46-14 victory over us, New Zealand came out and set a fierce tempo. Ireland's first two carries resulted in knock-ons while the All Blacks were making ground all over the park. They made 54 carries across the gainline and 43 of them were classed as 'dominant' [significant ground made].
Sevu Reece appeared untouchable, George Bridge made 117 metres off his 15 carries and Kieran Read was playing like a souped up mix of Colin Meads and Jonah Lomu. Loosehead Joe Moody and lock Brodie Retallick were showing up our backline with their own passing and carrying games.
Following the game, I received a message from a Kiwi friend of mine that was over in Dublin for the game. He had not seen a full Ireland game since we beat the All Blacks at the Aviva Stadium in November 2018. He messaged:
'I felt stink watching that. The whole place went quiet after 20 minutes. I slipped my jacket over my All Blacks jersey near the end. Almost embarrassed to be there. What happened to you guys? I thought you were good?'
So did we, up until we ran into England. Twice.
Back in November 2018, the last time many Kiwis were paying attention, we registered our second ever Test win over the ABs by manically fronting up in defence [remember that CJ Stander turnover and Devin Toner smashing Brodie Retallick?] and Jacob Stockdale unlocking them with a magic chip and chase.
In early February, talk in Ireland was about retaining the Six Nations title and - with England and France the home games - going for back-to-back Grand Slams. Were we to do that, we would go into the summer in peak form and confidence and as World No.1.
Such talk was parked quickly as England tore us asunder in Dublin in our opening fixture of the championship. We cobbled together three wins [decent ones away to the Scots and home to France] but Wales exposed us again. All of our brio had washed away.
When England walloped us 57-15 at Twickenham, in mid August, we were assured that it was because they were two weeks ahead of us in pre-season training. After watching the job England did on New Zealand in the World Cup semi final, that 45-point loss doesn't seem so shocking.
In Yokohama, in the semis, England did to New Zealand what they did to us. They started like demons and did not let up.
The Kiwis were turned over 19 times, they were dragged over the sidelines with ball-in-hand on six occasions, their lineout was disrupted and they could not get into the English 22 for long, long stretches. They conceded 11 penalties and, in possession, showed what happens when you recklessly offload rather than holding on and going through phases.
Reece and Bridge made sloppy errors and, all of a sudden, you were wondering why Steve Hansen was going into a semi final with two green Test match wingers. Why Hansen had dropped Sam Cane from his XV. Why Ryan Crotty and Rieko Ioane were nowhere to be seen. Why Owen Franks had been left at home.
Following his side's 19-7 victory, which could easily have been 33-7, Eddie Jones said:
"New Zealand are the god of rugby so we had to take it to them and put them on the back foot."
England revelled in the challenge whereas Ireland made them look like gods.
A third World Cup triumph in succession looked on the cards after last Saturday's quarter final but the England coaching team spotted flaws in their game. Their squad - driven on by Owen Farrell and young tyros Tom Curry, Sam Underhill and Maro Itoje - followed the game-plan of Jones, Steve Borthwick and John Mitchell to perfection.
The All Blacks line-out was targeted, their ruck ball was slowed down and England's drift defence was spot on. More importantly, England showed real bite, and naked aggression, in defence and they did not sit back.
Ireland beat New Zealand for the first time in 111 years, at Soldier Field, by taking the fight to them and scoring five tries in the process. It is a shame that we did not expand on that brave, expansive game-plan but we had fun along the way [the peak being the 2018 Grand Slam].
In 2004, Ireland went to Twickenham and beat world champions England to set in motion a period of dominance for green over white.
On February 23, Andy Farrell will take his Ireland side to face England in the 2020 Guinness Six Nations.
Getting a win over this English crew, at this remove, would be a miracle.
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