With Ireland’s Test series against New Zealand still all to play for following the weekend’s historic win in Dunedin, it was time for the wider squad to get another match with their second game against the Maori All Blacks. With tricky conditions courtesy of heavy rain just before kickoff, the Maori All Blacks forced an Irish error with a clever kickoff along the floor and quickly ut the pressure on the tourists, scoring off the first phase of a lineout as their support looped around to create an overlap and put Shaun Stevenson over in the corner. Perhaps emboldened by their early success, the Maori All Blacks looked willing to play form anywhere but gave away a lineout just outside their 22 when Alex Nankivell’s pass went astray, but captain Keith Earls took a quick throw to Jordan Larmour, whose run from deep saw him scythe through the Maori All Blacks defence before they even realised that the ball was back in play, going under the posts to give Ciarán Frawley a simple conversion. The home side were soon back on the attack though and looked set to score with a huge overlap in the Irish 22, only for Tyrel Lomax to knock on a pass that died on him. The home team were dominating possession but a lack of accuracy was causing them issues, and after Fraley extended Ireland’s lead with a penalty, the next Irish attack saw Gavin Coombes held up on the line, despite the Irish being a man down following a yellow card to Cian Prendergast. However, a penalty gave the Irish another chance and while they were stopped again, it was at the expense of a yellow car for Maori loosehead Ollie Norris for collapsing the maul, and with the game now 14v14, Nick Timoney managed to stretch out and dot the ball down over the line. The Irish were almost immediately under pressure after some great counterrucking saw the ball turned over to Caleb Delany—on early for the injured Reed Prinsep—whose break took him deep into the Irish 22, but Ireland were lucky to get away with a turnover as Maori captain TJ Perenara had his arm pulled away by a man who was part of the ruck, and as the halftime whistle sounded, the Irish went in with a 5-17 lead.
Frawley opened the scoring early in the half with a penalty, but the Maoris were soon back on the attack and when Delany broke down the left wing and played the ball back inside to Connor Garden-Bachop was pulled back by Jordan Larmour before he caught the ball, resulting in a penalty try and a yellow card for the Irish wing. As the match entered the final quarter, Joey Carbery was brought on for Michael Lowry after the fullback was injured in a hard but legal tackle from Stevenson, but the Irish had the momentum as the home team continued to give away a number of penalties, and after a few minutes of concerted pressure, Coombes forced his way over from close range to make the score 12-25 with 12 minutes remaining. The home team refused to give up though and when Ruben Love countered a loose kick and broker away, he fed Cullen Grace out on the win, and the Crusader’s offload back inside went back to Love, who narrowed the gap to 8, Josh Ioane’s conversion attempt looking ugly and going nowhere near the posts. With 8 minutes left, Stevenson took a risk going for a Carbery pass one-handed and failed to gather, and was sent to the bin for the remainder of the game, and the Irish took advantage of the man advantage to seal the game with 3 minutes remaining as a whipped pass from Stuart McCloskey sent Larmour over for his second try of the night. As the hooter sounded, another break from Love sent Brad Weber over for a consolation, and Ioane finally found his kicking boots right in front of the posts for a final score of 24-30.
Did the Maori All Blacks get their tactics wrong today in Wellington? While Ireland tried to play a more territory-focused game and only play rugby in the opposition half, the Maori All Blacks looked determined to play from anywhere on the pitch.
Now the decision was somewhat understandable, as they were frequently carrying over the gain line in midfield—Delany especially standing out with his—and finding the space to exploit to break and put the Irish under pressure. However they were far too inaccurate, with too many balls going to floor at crucial moments, such as the Lomax knock-on in the Irish 22 with numbers outside him, or players getting isolated and turned over in dangerous areas.
Of course, the conditions in the build-up wouldn’t have helped things, with some heavy rainfall right before kickoff. But there is also the matter that this is a team that rarely plays together. Matches are infrequent, usually just a couple a year, and as such the wider squad is usually used, resulting in a team that is currently looking different—and that is before you even account for who is available or not due to All Blacks selection!
While the Maori All Blacks have gone out to give the fans a match to remember and looked to showcase their skills, the lack of pragmatism has likely cost them a potential 2-0 series win here.
This was a workmanlike performance from the players on the fringe of the Irish squad. The defence may have been breached on many occasions, but they tightened up in the red zone and crucially kept their discipline (though they certainly got the rub of the green at a couple of crucial breakdowns) and this forced the Maoris to play without the help of a penalty advantage.
Meanwhile with ball in hand, the Irish made sure that they were playing in the right areas of the pitch, which allowed them to focus on using the physicality of McCloskey at 12 and their pack to try to force their way over the line, with the skills of players like Larmour and Lowry then there to take advantage of the gaps this left out wide. But more than this it also allowed the Irish defence to put pressure on the Maoris deep in their own half and force some penalties in the latter stages of the game, while also stopping them get into any rhythm.
Are many of these players ready to go up against a Test team? Well Coombes looks like he should be knocking on the door for a spot on the bench—though the resurgence of Peter O’Mahony may have slowed hs route to the 23—while Craig Casey controlled the game well, Lowry grew into the game after some early fumbles and more experienced Test regulars Niall Scannell and Jordan Larmour put in timely reminders of their capabilities, but it will take more to have regular success in Test rugby.