The North “Stand” at the Aviva Stadium, with its limited number of seats and seemingly unlimited number of windows, provided the backdrop for the Irish starters as they watched Beauden Barrett take the kickoff at 3:15pm on Saturday afternoon.
As the ball came out of the Dublin sky, it was time for all the adulation from the previous weekend’s display to be forgotten and the preparation from the previous seven days to be remembered, and of the fifteen green jerseys for it to strike first, of course it had to be that of James Lowe, who took it cleanly at his 22 to set us on our way.
So let’s fast forward to around 5pm shall we. Of course I’m skipping out loads and loads of action there, and don’t worry I will get back to it, but I’m not the only one who believes this to be the most pivotal sequence on a day that was full of them.
There were 71 minutes on the clock and we led by 3. Obviously had we been offered that margin back at kickoff time we’d have taken it but by this stage our mindset was very different. For one thing it did not reflect at all the level of dominance we had already enjoyed up to this point, and what’s more, we had just been handed a get out of jail free card by a Richie Mo’unga forward pass that prevented them going back in front.
More crucially though, the All Blacks had already shown us more than once that they can produce a try from anywhere on the pitch, so even though this particular scrum was on their own 22, the danger was there for all the sellout crowd to see.
I mean, when this lot gets going, there can be a sense of inevitability to it, can’t there. Strong run, offload out of the tackle, another strong run, kick pass, retrieve, more strong running, great support, little final pass inside at just the right moment, and boom, they’re in under the posts yet again. Whether watching from the stands or at home, we’ve seen that happen so often it feels like Groundhog Day.
So I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who was getting this feeling as Akira Ioane lifted the ball from the base of a solid scrum before barging his way out of the 22 and offloading to David Havili running at full tilt as the Irish pack were scrambling to reform the green cordon which had been doing so well all day. Here we go again, I thought.
Watching this now for the gagillionth time, I see Havili actually had much better options at this point than chucking it to Reiko Ioane, not least of which was getting more out of the space ahead of him by running for longer, or even planting a kick into the path of Will Jordan on the far wing. But such is the quality of the All Black 13 that getting the ball to him in any situation still makes perfect sense.
On receiving the ball, Reiko is met by none other than James Lowe. You know, the guy some Irish “fans” don’t think should be wearing the jersey because of where he was born. Or the guy who some Irish “fans” think only got into the team because he plays for Leinster. Or the guy who some "bollixes" think "can’t defend to save his life”.
Quick sidebar on the defending thing...I guess I have to count myself as one of those detractors Lowe was talking about after the match, since I have mentioned his coverage on these pages before, as recently as mid-October no less. But hopefully there are sub-categories to that name, as I am one who not only wished but also believed he could prove us wrong, and when he did so with a fine defensive display at Scotstoun a week later, I gladly ate my words.
And even on this day you could say the second All Black try was helped by Lowe rushing forward too early allowing Jordan space behind him, though I certainly couldn’t harp on that without also mentioning his massive try-saving tackle on that same Will Jordan just 10 minutes into the match. But I digress...
Here, I really believe that even the toughest defensive coach on the planet would only expect Lowe to halt his buddy Reiko’s progress at this point. You’d have to be a complete “hater” to give out about him failing to prevent the offload if that’s what happened.
But you see, James kind of had other ideas. If this situation had an “inevitable” outcome, it wasn’t going to be a try, that’s for sure. His gift to the game of rugby is a never ending belief that despite having 14 team-mates with him on the park, every involvement of his has to lead to something special and surely every team needs at least one guy like that in their ranks at all times.
So it wasn’t enough that he wrapped his arms around Reiko. He also slipped them up as he brought him down to make sure there was no way he could offload. NOW he was relying on a team-mate to come in and at very least slow the ball down.
But this wasn’t just any team-mate. This was Peter O’Mahony. Ireland is blessed with back row talent right now, so much in fact that if it was just down to the skills required by those positions, you wouldn’t be that surprised if he didn’t make a test matchday squad anymore. However, he’s another who believes he can change a situation all on his own, and has done so many’s a time in the past, including against this very same opposition, so I never raise an eyebrow when he's on a team sheet.
In this series, he had a little bit of extra motivation, as he was the first tackler off of which Akira Ioane had just bounced moments earlier to emerge from the 22. Would this put him off his next task? Not sure he’d have earned the perfect moniker “War God” if it would. In fact you could say this absolutely critical moment had exactly the two men we needed to be involved.
So Lowe has gotten Reiko down and rolled away, and the All Black has one, two, THREE team mates gathering around him to protect the recycle for TJ Perenara, but three is clearly not enough for the War God who has already planted his feet in the ground and burrowed his way over the ball to give referee Luke Pearce no option but to go for his whistle.
You can see what it meant to Lowe. And everyone who was within a mile of me at the same moment will testify that I was making the exact same pose and even a couple of days later I can still feel the tickle at the back of my throat from the primal scream I let out at that moment.
And of course that wasn’t the only moment I let a roar that afternoon. Because this result wasn’t just about the individual incidents. For me, it was more about how our mindset affected theirs.
In the lead photo you can see Jack Conan producing one of the best Haka reactions I have seen. It’s not the kind of “game face” that you rehearse in the mirror as far as I can tell. You certainly couldn’t describe it as a “mask” that’s meant to hide what he’s really feeling. To me it’s showing exactly what’s going on with him - rather than being intimidated, he’s actually feeding off this ritual to turn it into motivation he can bring into the match.
And right from the start you could see our confidence with the ball from the previous weekend was still there - selecting more or less the same lineup helped this cause. Jamison Gibson-Park was continuing to defy his own set of doubters, darting from breakdown to breakdown and keeping tacklers guessing as his long miss passes were just as accurate as his short pop ones.
Not everything was paying off as it had against the Brave Blossoms, but we hardly expected it to - what mattered was that we persevered and when Codie Taylor saw yellow for a high hit on Sexton at 12m (some say it might have been red but I reckon the ref got this right) we had the confidence to go for the corner and the execution from here was nigh on flawless.
From the lineout hook up between Kelleher and Ryan, to Gibson-Park’s pass variation and accuracy, to knowing exactly when to send it wide, to Keenan and finally Lowe knowing exactly how to finish, it was the perfect start for Ireland.
But that was on 13 minutes and despite a continuation of the pressure and confidence, it was to be half an hour before we troubled the scorers again. And in the meantime, the All Blacks had given us a taste of what even the tiniest slip would cost us after Tadhg Furlong and Rónan Kelleher, who moments earlier had just been denied a try by a technicality, allowed Dalton Papali’i too much space off a lineout allowing him to slip, ironically, Taylor through for a try out of nothing to put them in front.
And as much as you have to admire our liathróidí towards the end of the half as we spurned three point chances only to come out of a long spell 5m from their line with nothing, it must have felt like an extra “gut-punch” to the lads going into the sheds.
Or did it? Remember how we approached the haka? While many teams could have felt despair after enjoying so much possession and territory only to be 5 points down against these guys, we actually came out with a completely different way of looking at things. See how we were able to dominate you at times in the first half? Well how about we do it some more.
This is exactly what I was hoping for as I wrote my preview, where my main concer was how we would handle... "Adversity. For all the joy the amazing feast of individual displays and team cohesion we saw against Japan last week brought us, the one thing the boys...were denied was a sense of having to fight our way back from a losing position."
And talk about “championship minutes”...after the period started out with about a set and a half’s worth of kick tennis, Papali'i was judged to be the first to blink as he was pinged for not rolling away and yet again, we were able to strike with our first real opportunity. Again we hit the lineout, again with the well timed sweeping move, and this time Garry Ringrose (once more bringing his “quiet excellence” though I thought he could've had an HIA check after his brave tackle in the early stages) got us well into the 22 before some phases at the line led to Kelleher forcing his way over.
Sexton’s conversion hitting the post meant things were level at 10-10 but we weren’t done applying the pressure, and it wasn’t just with the ball either. I lost count of the amount of times New Zealand attacks came to an end because their passes went to ground, clearly a sign of the hesitancy imposed on them by our coverage.
And after Perenara thanked his lucky stars to be able to clear his lines giving us another lineout around the 22, we managed a straight-forward looking try of our own as first, Kelleher hit Caelan Doris with his dart, then that same hooker provided the crash ball which teed up that same back rower to power past, again ironically, Codie Taylor, to rampage up the middle and put it down at the posts.
Was Doris a worthy Player of the Match? Well the try, choke tackle and being our leading tackler (although he wouldn't have made top 5 for the opposition as they had more than twice the work) didn't hurt. Personally I’d have gone for Lowe, but you could also make a case for Gibson-Park (who also did what could be the "50:22 of the season"), Ringrose, Keenan, maybe even one or two off the bench, but hey - not a day for arguing over which green jersey shone the brightest as it was all about how we worked together.
But having established just how fearless we were showing ourselves to be, now it’s time to look at just how it was affecting our opposition, because it’s not like they haven’t faced this kind of bravado before; they do play the Springboks every year after all.
For me there were two key moments where I could definitely say “ye Gods, we’ve really rattled them”. The first harks back to that Havili moment highlighted earlier on in that screen grab. Like I said, he had better options yet was so wary of the Irish defence that he felt he had to rush his decision.
The even bigger indicator for me came moments before that incident when the Havili try was ruled out for a forward pass so they went back for a penalty advantage. 999 rugby teams out of 1,000 faced with that situation away from home would probably go for the easy three, but not this team. They were unlucky with that forward pass, so surely they could’ve backed themselves to get over again and actually take the lead.
Yet Sam Whitelock didn’t hesitate to instruct Jordie Barrett to take the points. Did that show confidence in being able to get back there quickly or actual fear that our defending was so good it was possible they’d end up with nothing? I think the evidence from the 80 minutes is pretty clear that it’s the latter.
Such clear proof that a team which had racked up 205 points in their last three outings was now desperate to gather up anything that was going is surely the biggest compliment you can pay to the Irish set up on the day.
A more than honourable mention must go to Joey Carbery, yet another who has had his place in the team questioned. When Lowe and O’Mahony provided their wonder moment, it was down to him to kick the penalty from halfway. Sure, his remit wasn’t just to get the points - taking time off the clock didn’t hurt our cause and also even if he had missed, at least the play would be down that end of the park where we wanted. Yet he still nailed it.
Just another quick sidenote here, mostly to credit the TMO for backing up the assertion by our pitchside staff that Sexton had indeed been taken off for an HIA, allowing Carbery to also take that other penalty which had been just awarded as he took to the field.
Many criticised the referee on the day; I’m not sure he was that bad - maybe I thought the All Blacks were laying all over the ball in that series at the end of the first half, but that could be my goggles talking. Also I have to disagree with Luke Pearce when he told Sexton “You can’t ask me to refer to the TMO”. As captain, Johnny is absolutely allowed to ask. It’s just that the ref isn’t obliged to act. I also thought Messrs Cahill & Lenhian in the RTÉ commentary were going way too hard on the Irish captain for his handling of the officials.
Going back to our bench, which many of us had worries about going into the match, it actually proved to be extremely strong, with O’Mahony, Carbery and Beirne with his last minute jackle providing the individual moments, although perhaps more crucially it was the fact that in all the chopping and changing we lost nothing in our defence which was forcing our illustrious opponents into mistakes right up to the very end.
And speaking of the end, just how fitting was it for it to be that man James Lowe bringing things to a close by booting it so hard towards that North “Stand” that it might have actually broken a window.
This writeup is getting close to the 2500-word mark and I could easily harp on this amazing test match for that many again, but I reckon it’s about time to apply the brakes; I can use this week's podcast to bring up anything I may have left out.
When it comes to what we can take from this win, Sexton said it best after the match...
"If this is the peak, it is no good for anybody"
...so it’s clear the lads know what they have to do on the road ahead from Argentina next weekend to the 2022 Six Nations to the now-even-more-mouth-watering tour to New Zealand in July, all the way to France 2023.
For now, let’s just enjoy this coming together of four proud provinces and the amazing 80 minutes they produced. Top notch work by Andy Farrell with his coaching team, Sexton with his players and everyone else involved.
Also, of course, let us not forget Ciara Griffin and her Irish Women's squad who had another week of negativity thrown at them only to emerge and produce an impressive victory over the USA. A great few days for Irish Rugby overall. JLP