OK, perhaps I was a tad brave/stupid/nuts to forecast that Ireland would win this one, but hey – what's the point in togging out if you have absolutely no belief you can win?
And as it turned out, we came up against an All Black unit that was literally firing on all cylinders...from the pre-match PR (where they'd have us believe they all came together for the first time this international season about five minutes before kickoff) to Dan Carter's effortless placekicking to their clinical offloading and most of all, to their assembly line of promising rookies like Aaron Smith and of course hat-trick débutante Julian Savea.
But they are the number one ranked team in the world and also the current four-year guardians of “Bill”. So all of the above is pretty much what you'd expect from them before kickoff, which means when analysing this game from an Irish viewpoint it's important to focus on what we did (or didn't do depending on how you look at it) to try and front up to them.
When Leinster lifted their third Heineken Cup in four years, around the social media sphere the common line by those scrambling to find a means to take the wind out of the sails of their fans was “well it's great that they play like that for Leinster – why can't they do that for Ireland?” At Eden Park on Saturday we saw why.
The principles which have brought Leinster so much success have been twofold – a smart, stubborn defence and a high-octane offence which Jonathan Sexton is allowed to dictate mostly thanks to hard work at the breakdown and quick ball from his scrum-half. I'll get to the defence later.
At this stage, I really don't care how one-eyed I sound, because this is a point I have made over and over. Declan Kidney took much praise from pundits and keyboard warriors alike with his selections for this test but still he persisted with a halfback pairing from different provinces. So in between Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip leading the team in tackles and Sexton trying to get the most out of Keith Earls at 12 running from deep, we had Conor Murray, who I'm sorry to say is Tomás O'Leary 2.0.
That's not to say Murray is bad or that he doesn't have a part to play in the Ireland setup, it's just his game isn't suited to the style that Sexton brings to the table. It's almost as though Kidney's reasoning is “I don't pick provincial half-back partners because that's exactly what the opposition will be expecting”. If so, I'd argue that the opposition are expecting it because they fear it having seen it work so well!
So time after time we saw Murray being undecided as he took the ball from the base of rucks and mauls. I could also criticise him for the two midfield scrums he wasted by getting pinged for delaying the put-in. Perhaps Nigel Owens was a bit harsh with the first one, but having established that precedent, to be caught for it again was simply inexcusable.
Besides...although Declan Fitzpatrick himself had a good début and while he was on, the front row was the very least of our problems, Murray didn't know that on the first put-in so you'd think he'd be falling over himself to get the ball in quickly!
And the O'Leary comparison extends further when you look at the All Blacks' opening try. We can argue from dusk till dawn as to whether Zac Guildford knocked on when he spilled Murray's box kick but the fact remains it was kicked way too far and once it was deemed to have been lateral there's no team on the planet better suited to attacking from deep and with the bulk of the Irish team clued in to following the box kick up the touchline, there was easily enough light shining through our defence for Savea to be put in for his maiden test 5-pointer.
Finally, to bring on Reddan & O'Gara together for the final quarter is like rubbing our noses in it! Remember...I'm not suggesting we would have won had Reddan started, nor am I saying ROG shouldn't have come on. It's the blinkered determination to mix the pairings that continuously gets my goat.
Now, on the subject of our defence...we really do need to be smarter with that choke tackle. It can be as much of a blessing as it is a curse. The All Blacks made TWENTY clean breaks during this match, and a good few of them came from the front line tacklers taking the high-risk option of standing off and going for the chest area with their first hit.
When you compare this to the Under-20s who are doing so well down in South Africa by diving at the attacker's ankles you have to wonder is there any kind of uniformity among the Irish coaching setup at all. Also you have the Leinster defence which is a lot more straight-forward - first man gets him down, second tries to rip, with the choke-tackle kept in the back pocket as an option only used at the right time.
We basically played into the All Blacks hands by playing as we did in the closing minutes against Wales in February, and although the two wingers were caught out of position more than once for tries, it would be harsh to heap all the blame on them and I feel it's our overall philosophy without the ball that needs looking at.
And it's not as though we never showed glimpses of what we could do. The All Blacks may be a rugby machine, but even they offer up some chances and you have to be able to capitalise when they do – this is precisely how we got our one and only try, thanks to Rory Best's quick reactions, Peter O'Mahony's impressive outhalf-like vision & execution, and Fergus McFadden's ability to make Richie McCaw run like he's an ageing local Sunday morning league prop.
But we can't prepare for a series of tests against a team of this quality hoping for a series of events like that to cross the line, or indeed relying on our centres to brilliantly combine in thwarting what seemed a certain try by Kieran Read from the resulting restart. I know we were missing some marquee names, I know our injury list is getting longer, and I know the players we're sending out there are coming to the end of yet another monster campaign.
I just want to see in the performance that plans have been put in place to maximise our potential, or at very least blood some new players for the next World Cup down the line. All I seem to make out is the same playbook that was designed to overcome Australia in that very same Eden Park last September being kept on a constant loop and I really think the other test nations are bang wide to it by now.
The hashtag #Kidneyout was trending on Twitter as this match was going on. It's a shame in many ways because I believe he has done much since assuming the role. But I really don't see the benefit of him leading us into the 2013 Six Nations campaign, even if he does show us something different between now and then.
You can safely say I won't be sticking my neck out predicting Irish victories over the next two tests! Maybe these defeats won't affect our rankings enough to knock us out of the second pot in the RWC2015 pool draw, but they are doing plenty to leave a sour taste in the mouths of fans trying to savour what has overall been a celebratory season for Irish rugby. JLP
Also this weekend
Saturday, 9 June 2012
Top 14 final