Having lost to the Maori All Blacks in midweek, Ireland’s next stop on their tour of New Zealand was a trip to Eden Park for the first of 3 Tests against the All Blacks. Ireland had never beat the All Blacks in New Zealand, but got the first chance with some sustained pressure in the 22 that eventually saw Keith Earls go over for the opening try after 6 minutes. The All Blacks had seen their preparations interrupted by COVID cases and were looking very ordinary against a strong Irish defence, but finally managed to work some space for debutant Leicester Fainga’anuku on 20 minutes, and when the Crusaders wing was stopped just short of the try line, Jordie Barrett came onto the ball from the ruck at pace to crash over, before kicking the conversion to put them ahead. The Irish continued to look the more dangerous side, but when James Lowe slipped as Garry Ringrose tried to offload the ball to him, Sevu Reece was first to the loose ball and outpaced everyone in the race from his 22 to the Irish try line, while things got even worse for the Irish as the same phase of play saw them lose Johnny Sexton to a failed HIA. The momentum shifted with that and the All Blacks were suddenly looking the more dangerous, and they had their third try with 5 minutes left in the half as Beauden Barrett’s grubber into the Irish 22 was collected by Quinn Tupaea. And it was soon 4 as Aaron Smith sniped through the middle of a ruck and chipped Hugo Keenan, and though he failed to regather under pressure, Ardie Savea was following up to dive on the loose ball over the line, with Jordie Barrett kicking all the conversions for a 28-5 lead at the break.
The Irish got the start they needed in the second half though, as a series of phases just short of the New Zealand line eventually saw Garry Ringrose go over in the corner. However the All Blacks soon had the pressure back on the Irish, and when Ardie Savea got on the outside of Ringrose, who slipped off the tackle, he had the pace to make it over for his second try of the night. Ireland continued to fight though and again managed to spend some time in the New Zealand 22, which eventually resulted in Josh van der Flier crashing over from short range, only for replays to show that the ball had been dislodged as he went over by Rieko Ioane, just moments after he had also denied Joey Carbery with what appeared to be a high tackle. and the Irish were made to pay with just 10 minutes left as Pita Gus Sowakula went over off a 5m scrum to score on his debut. The Irish looked to end on a high, and after Andrew Porter was held up, replacement centre Bundee Aki managed to crash over from close range on the next attack to score. Karl Tu’inukuafe was sin binned late on for not rolling,but the All Blacks defence held out and Jack Conan and Josh van der Flier were both held up over the line and one final driving maul halted to secure a 42-19 victory for the hosts.
Obviously having COVID cases affecting the build-up (and a separate illness for Richie Mo’unga) is not going to help the All Black be at their best, but boy did they look ordinary. In defence, they were struggling to deal with all the pressure coming from the Irish, with minimal impact at the breakdown (unless you count the penalties they conceded), while in attack there was very little being created.
While some great work was done to release Fainga’anuku down the wing after 20 minutes, Tupaea’s try was a result of poor Irish covering behind the defensive line, and the other 2 in the half were purely opportunistic. Despite being 28-5 up, the All Blacks were arguably second best for most of the half and large portions of the second.
For so long, the All Blacks had such an air of invincibility that the game was almost won before it even kicked off. These days however, despite still having some absolute superstars in their ranks, the All Blacks are just another team—and that makes them beatable!
22 and a half men
I’ve quite frequently been of the opinion of late that continually playing Johnny Sexton is going to be the downfall of the Irish. And here we’re seeing it again. While he is a great player and leader for the Irish, he has played so many minutes that nobody else is getting even close to enough minutes of Test rugby to be able to slot in when Sexton is not available. The game completely turned when he went off in this game a heads dropped and such a large source of leadership and organisation.
As Ronan O’Gara stated before the match, Test rugby is about the 23 men. Sexton’s body rarely lets him play the full 80 minutes consistently at this level. They need a second fly half who—even if they are not at the same level as Sexton—can come in and still run this team to a high level. However with Sexton taking almost all the minutes when he is available, nobody has been able to get a real shot at the 10 shirt behind him, which means whoever is picked as Sexton’s understudy goes in underprepared.
Granted when you’re touring New Zealand you want to try and prove a point, but Andy Farrell and the coaches need to prepare for the eventuality that Sexton is not available at a key point in the World Cup and the best way to do that is to keep Sexton out for a run of games and focus on the players behind him. I would argue that the Autumn Tests should be about finding the next 2 fly halves on the depth chart and then using the 2023 Six Nations to give them as much Test experience as possible, while Sexton’s body gets a much-deserved rest to help him through to the end of the World Cup. Heck, with Sexton now being stood down for 12 days as part of the new concussion protocols, they may as well start the Autumn process now.