Monday, November 07, 2016

IRELAND-40 NEW ZEALAND-29

END GAME

logo post greenRemember, remember, the fifth of November.

I’m not going to pretend I was the first to come up with that reference as it was all over social media on Saturday night, but I still think it’s worthy of the writeup’s opening sentence as it was truly a match we will never forget.

For me, it was defined by the final fifteen minutes of play, so to set the scene I must first condense the opening three quarters into just a few words - don’t worry, I will flesh it out later.

After 47 minutes, we led by 22 points.  After 64 minutes, we led by just 4.

Many Irish fans had told themselves before kickoff they were going to ignore history, the experts and the doubters, insisting that their belief could not be shaken...but even the diehards had to be rattled when arguably the game’s greatest ever side outscored us 21-3 in that 17-minute spell - and the one further try they needed to wipe out the deficit completely seemed to have an air of inevitability about it.

But then the boys in green played like they were in one of those epic fantasy movies, where an army of what looks like a million soldiers is about to take on an army of what looks like a billion, yet all it takes to motivate them is one charismatic general with sword raised high, riding his horse back and forth, somehow speaking loud enough for all to hear his chest-thumping oratory which ends with words like: “Not this day!!!”

First to shine in this amazing end game was Joey Carbery...earlier this year he was playing club rugby, now he was taking the field during the big New Zealand fight back.  And once he had some decent open play possession, he planted a gem of a territory kick well into their 22 as though he could do it in his sleep.

Yet the All Blacks kept coming back at us in waves, finding the midfield metres easy enough to gain (out ran us 514 to 194 on the day with the ball, an incredible stat all things considered) yet when they reached our 22, not so much.  Our line speed throughout the contest had them so rattled into throwing quick passes in the wide channels that sometimes they went to ground without much actual pressure.

At other times however, there was much actual pressure, and in those closing stages it was our perfect defensive positioning shutting the World Champions down time and time again.  On 73 minutes, not for the first time, it was Andrew Trimble forcing the mistake as Squire got nailed throwing his pass forward and into touch.

“Take the scrum!!!!” came the cry in Harry’s in the Green from a frazzled Irish fan with a tendency to harp on rugby.  Given a lineout steal led to the second try of the All Blacks’ purple patch, they probably didn’t need me to implore them.

From the set piece (solid as a rock all day for us with 8 from 8) do we choose the negative option of a box kick?  No - instead we have the confidence to ship it into the wide channels ourselves and Simon Zebo (in literally flying form) had a bit of space and he does take the option to kick, making his a beauty which comes to rest deep inside the All Black 22.

Zebo knew he could put boot to ball because under Joe Schmidt’s guidance, he could be sure there would be a host of green jerseys there to exert pressure, and he was right.  Eventually the ball came to Julian Savea, who could be forgiven for thinking he could nip back over his own tryline before running the ball out on the way to clearing the danger.

Eh, yeah, about that….BOOM!  Meet man of the match Conor Murray.

Laying a finger on the big New Zealand winger was one thing.  Getting both hands on him, another.  But being able to absorb the hit and get him down at that moment was the stuff of legend.

If the Chicago Bears achieved something like that in the NFL, they’d get two points for the “safety” as well as the ball back on the next possession.  In rugby, “all” we got was a five metre scrum.  And in my head, the celebrations after the Murray tackle were totally predicated on our using this scrum to kill more of the clock.  I mean...it’s not like we’d actually attempt to score off it, right?

Eh, about that...Heaslip picks it up, runs one way, throws it inside to Robbie Henshaw on a perfect line crossing behind him and……

Wait, what?  We scored?  A try?  What does that make the margin now?  Nine - that’s more than a converted try, right?  And how long is left on the clock?  Four minutes.  Wait - hang on, we’ve a conversion as well...can Joey nail it?  Yes!  Eleven point margin!  They need two tries now?  Hang on….does that mean...can we actually say it now….can I let the thoughts and feelings go that I was so  determined to suppress at halftime?

You mean to say we’ve actually won this thing, going a whopping 34 points against the bookies’ spread in the process?

I didn’t see the final couple of minutes as they happened.  Watching it back I had no idea Carbery actually missed a penalty in that time, nor did I know that we continued to pile the pressure on our illustrious opposition.

None of that really mattered.  It was time to celebrate.  And apart from one or two comments like “Well we weren’t perfect” and “Well let’s see if we can go on and show it wasn’t a fluke” (which I only mention on account of how much they made my blood boil), the happiness and gratitude among the Irish rugby family has been amazing.  The well wishes from abroad, including Kiwis, equally so.

But there will be plenty of time to harp on the future or even what this result means for the game on these shores (or indeed World Cup seedings)...this is meant to be a match writeup so I’d best get back to those opening 65 minutes.

Hand on heart, I was not a full believer at kickoff time.  My prediction was that we’d lose by 12.  But I also said we would be ahead after 30 minutes, and the reason for this was that I had full belief that we’d be well prepared by Joe Schmidt & co...this was evident literally from the kick off.

I reckon it must have really annoyed the All Blacks that we put each and every restart from the halfway line straight down the park to land on their 22.  This only means one thing - we saw this as a weakness of theirs.  And you know what, we were spot on.  They found our kick accuracy and chase very difficult to deal with every time.

We owned those opening stages, forcing a couple of early breakdown penalties which eventually saw Sexton pop over a 3-pointer.  But as we exited from our 22 on the restart, Murray’s box kick was met by a flying catch by Ben Smith putting his side instantly on the front foot ready to test our defence.

And while our D was absolutely world class for the majority of the contest, for this one series, the Sexton-Henshaw-Payne axis on which we most rely got their positioning wrong allowing the All Blacks to find their way through and eventually get the game’s opening try. 


The score did have an ominous look to it, particularly the manner in which it came about.  And for a couple of minutes afterwards it looked like we were going to struggle for territory as Steve Hansen’s men seemed to be tackling every bit as effectively as we were...until Joe Moody got involved.

His challenge on Henshaw has to be up there with the dumbest things ever seen in top-level sport.  Why do it ever...but most of all, why then?  You just scored a try.  You are starting to exert pressure on them.  Just stop the guy and let your teammates do their thing; no need for any extra mustard on the tackle!  But no, instead he turned Robbie, and the match, on the head, rightly seeing yellow for his trouble.

This gave us some time back in their half and boy, did we make the most out of that ten-minute spell with an extra man.  Excellent mauling technique off the lineouts got us over for our first courtesy of Jordi...later it was a determined line from Rob Kearney followed by a trademark bulldozer carry from CJ Stander for try number two.

Meanwhile on the All Black side of things, there were quite a few system errors, not least of which was in their lineout.  Of course a lot of these shortcomings were down to our pressure, but not all of them.  And when it comes to the biggest performance gap in head-to-head battles, you need look no further than scrum half; this accounted for the third Irish try.

Aaron Smith has been rightly hailed as the best 9 in world rugby right now, but on this day it looked as though his mojo didn’t make it past US Customs.  A bizarre chip into our 22 that killed a good spell of pressure for his side was one sign...but when he totally fell asleep at a breakdown near his own line, not every scrum-half would spot the opportunity let alone do something about it yet Conor Murray was bang wide and got duly rewarded with seven crucial points after racing through the gap.

More decent defending including of course the odd choke tackle here and there got our 17-point cushion to half-time but like I said earlier, nobody was taking anything for granted. 

Six minutes into the second half, Joe Moody hit Rob Kearney high.  It wasn’t the worst such challenge I’ve ever seen but here’s the thing...the ref awarded a penalty, and he had warned NZ skipper Kieran Read earlier for his side’s dangers tackles.  Moody should have seen yellow, which would have meant his second and thus red.  End of.  I normally hate using those two words, but they belong in this case.

As things turned out it was quickly forgotten - Sexton put an immaculate punt deep into the All Blacks 22 and shortly afterwards he was supplying the final pass (though I really thought he could have grounded it himself) to Zebo for the crucial opening score of the half. 


Not long before that try, Aaron Smith had been taken off.  Leinster fans have been impressed by the form of scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park since his arrival and some may wonder why he was let go by the Hurricanes.  The difference TJ Perenara made to the All Blacks’ offence should be enough of an explanation.

The Super Rugby title-winning 9 had his side’s attack running smoothly pretty much from his first opportunity, and got the first score himself thanks to a break by Dane Coles followed by a quality offload & grab between the pair.  Then after a lost lineout it was Ben Smith applying a superb finish in the corner.  Finally (thankfully so) it was Scott Barrett with a very composed dot down for a debutante closing the gap to four bringing us to my chosen starting point on 65 minutes.

In the midst of that comeback we did have one crucial three pointer and it is important for the records to show that it was Conor Murray who had to take it as it was when Sexton got forced off.  As if the try, brilliant clearance box kicks finding halfway, “cute hoor” shenanigans preventing a quick All Black lineout and the monster tackle on Savea weren’t enough!

This was such an overall team effort (my personal favourite stat after the final score was that we only conceded 4 penalties vs 12 for NZ) I wouldn’t want to single out too many others but special mention must go to Rob Kearney and Simon Zebo, both of whom definitely proved their many doubters wrong.  There had also been some confusion over Mike Ross’ omission yet this was put to bed by Tadhg Furlong who was heavily involved.

We also had seamless contributions from the bench with Healy, Cronin and Dillane all chipping in and most notably Josh van der Flier who had to come on early for the unfortunate Jordi Murphy.

Given the unique location, the occasion itself deserves a mention...the pre-kickoff buildup went from the ridiculous (a fiddle player??? really???) to the sublime (best and most meaningful opposition haka stance ever - another time I can say “end of”!). 


The TV presentation was, er, how can I put this diplomatically….”not what we’re used to”?   Nowhere near enough camera angles and the ones they did have weren’t always properly utilised.  But the importance of the growth of the game in the USA cannot be overstated and hopefully there will be more big occasions like this down the line.

Another thing that cannot be overstated, of course, is the importance of this win for Irish rugby.  It’s actually ok for us to allow ourselves to forget about the context of Ireland’s prospects for the 2016/17 season .

This is a result that will be talked about long, long into the future.  You could almost say it will “stand alone”? Sorry Munster fans - I mean purely in international terms of course!  And with the two sides meeting again in a fortnight, hopefully it won’t stand alone for long!

It’s about time this article reached its own endgame...just to say congratulations to Joe Schmidt and his coaching staff for crafting the playbook on this 80 minutes of history, as well as to his players for executing it so well. I could watch it over and over.  In fact, I know I will.  JLP

#COYBIG
#ShoulderToShoulder
#111yearsofhurtareover

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