Maori All Blacks v Ireland

Maori All Blacks v Ireland

Ireland’s Summer Tour to New Zealand got underway on Wednesday morning (Irish time) with their first of 2 matches against the Maori All Blacks. Following a tribute for the late Maori All Blacks wing Sean Wainui and a thrilling haka, it was time for the action to get underway in Hamilton.

The Maori All Blacks are never to be sniffed at, and with this squad including capped All Blacks Brad Weber, Josh Ioane, TJ Perenara, Cullen Grace, Tyrel Lomax and former Wallaby Jermaine Ainsley, the Irish knew they would be in for a real test. But it was the men in green who took an early lead as Cian Healy—on early following a head injury to Jeremy Loughman—won a scrum penalty against Tyrel Lomax, which Ciarán Frawley converted. The Maoris were soon level through the boot of Josh Ioane and looking a threat each time they got ball in hand, and when a monster 50/22 from Zarn Sullivan gave them possession jut 6m out from the Irish try line, they worked the phases for the Blues fullback to go over for the opening try. The Irish almost had an immediate reply as Connor Garden-Bachop was beaten by a bouncing ball in the corner, but the ball bounced just a little too high for Jordan Larmour to gather. However the Irish were soon ahead as Gavin Coombes drew 2 tacklers off a lineout before putting Bundee Aki through with a short pass right before contact, allowing the captain to go under the posts to give Frawley an easy conversion. A Ioane penalty soon put the home team back ahead, before a strong carry from Zarn Sullivan put the Irish defence on the back foot, allowing Ioane to break away and feed Shaun Stevenson for the try in the corner, and with Ioane kicking the touchline conversion, the Irish suddenly found themselves 8 points behind after half an hour. The Irish indiscipline was costing them and after they gave away a free kick just outside their 22 for closing the gap at the lineout, it took just a few phases of hard carrying before Brad Weber sniped through a gap to score the Maori All Blacks’ third. And as the half came to an end, they broke with numbers, for Cullen Grace to score on his Maori All Black debut, Ioane kicking for a 32-10 halftime lead.

The Irish needed a strong start to the half, but after Cian Healy was adjudged to have been held up over the line, they bungled the penalty advantage they had by knocking on the tapped restart, and when Ioane failed to clear the 22 with his clearance kick, the Irish came again but found themselves held up again, this time through debutant Cian Prendergast. The Irish were straight back on the attack after a strong carry off the drop-out from Combes, but as they reached the line, Nick Timoney proved that third time isn’t always lucky as he was also held up over the line. Things soon got even worse for Ireland as promising young centre James Hume was helped off injured and the Maori All Blacks, now being led by debutant TJ Perenara, got their first chance of any possession in the half and quickly set about taking the momentum away from the men in green. With 14 minutes remaining, the Irish made it back down to the other end of the pitch but again found themselves held up (Coombes this time) but they had a penalty advantage and this time didn’t waste it, taking the tap and eventually driving Coombes over for a try that his efforts in the game deserved, Frawley adding the extras. Happiness soon turned to worry though as Cian Healy had to leave the pitch on a buggy after what looked to be an awful knee injury that will likely end his tour, and though both teams looked to finish on a high, the score remained 32-17 to the final whistle.

Heading for trouble

Just over a week ago, World Rugby announced that starting from the beginning of June, return to play protocols following concussion symptoms would be increased from 7 days to 12 days, in an effort to help improve the safety of the game. Unfortunately, any hard work being done to improve safety was undone in one 12-minute span at the start of this game.

With just 1 minute on the clock, Irish loosehead Jeremy Loughman carried low into contact and came out worse for wear. Television footage clearly showed him struggle to get back to his feet, and as he went off for a HIA, he was clearly being steadied by a medic. Now already there we have the first issue, as a player who shows severe concussion symptoms (such as balance issues) should just be off for the remainder of the game, not going off for a HIA. And to make things worse, Loughman somehow supposedly passed his HIA as he was back on the pitch within 12 minutes, with the Kiwi commentators (who frequently show a flagrant disregard for player wellbeing and safety in their commentary) saying how wonderful it was to see him back on the pitch. Well clearly he wasn’t in the best of states, as he was permanently removed at halftime.

This was almost a carbon copy of the Tomas Francis incident that was widely condemned during the Six Nations. The irish medics and any neutral medics who were involved in letting Loughman back on the pitch should be instantly out of a job and hoping that Loughman never has any health issues in the future, or else there may be a hefty lawsuit rightfully coming their way.

Work smarter not harder

The Irish were their own worst enemies in this match, especially the first half, as they just couldn’t stop giving away penalties. The vast majority of these were coming either at the breakdown or for offsides.

Granted the Maori All Blacks were having success when they could spread the ball wide—with Shaun Stevenson especially having the beating of Keith Earls all day—so it made sense for the Irish to want to blitz up and slow down the ball as much as they could at the breakdown, but they were too keen to do this, and this led to them continually being pinged for not releasing or not rolling away, while the defensive line jumped offside far too often.

This lack of discipline just made it too easy for the Maori All Blacks to camp themselves in the Irish territory for much of the first half, and with that consistent possession and territory, they slowly but surely found gaps to exploit in the Irish defence to exploit for tries.

With Ireland likely to use a similar tactic against the All Blacks given the quality they will have to choose from on the wings (Clarke, Jordan, Ioane, Reece and Fainga’anuku), they will need to make sure that hey do so in a much more disciplined manner, or they will be gifting the game to the All Blacks.

Stars of the future

Watching this game, there were 2 players—1 on each side—who really stood out to me. The first half may as well have been called the Zarn Sullivan show, such was the impact that the Blues fullback was having. He dominated the air to deal with any high balls sent his way, helped control the territory and possession game with his monster boot (including a stunning 50/22 that gave the Maori All Blacks a lineout 6m from the Irish try line to set up his own try) and frequently found himself dominating the contact in attack even if he wasn’t breaking the first tackle or 2. At just 21, it looks like he has a bright future ahead of him, and I can’t help feel that him at 15 and Stephen Perofeta at 10 may be a more consistent combination for the Blues than the current ones featuring Beauden Barrett. While the 2023 World Cup will probably be too soon for him, don’t be shocked to see him become a regular in the 23 during the next cycle.

Meanwhile in the Irish team, number 8 Gavin Coombes was a shining star on a disappointing day for them. The 24-year-old Munster back row was one of the most dominant carriers for the Irish, breaking tackles and making the big carries to put the Irish on the front foot. This quality of carrying was also cleverly used for Bundee Aki’s try, as Coombes appeared to be carrying into contact after being fed the ball off a lineout, only to feed Aki with a short pass right before contact after he had drawn in the 2 tacklers and created the gap for Aki to scythe through. While 4 of Ireland’s back row slots for the World Cup seem to be filled with Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan and Caelan Doris, Coombes has a chance to push for a World Cup space, where he will likely play against Romania and the Asia/Pacific 1 Qualifier (likely Tonga, but potentially South Korea/Hong Kong), before becoming a key part of the irish back row in the next cycle.