Monday, July 11, 2022

NEW ZEALAND-12 IRELAND-23 (2nd test)

I know the screengrab make it look like Cane got the red
but I still think it's appropriate for his reaction

THE CARDS OF DUNEDIN


As trilogies filmed in New Zealand go, this test series has been packed with just as much drama, colourful characters and yes, even magic, as anything Peter Jackson was able to produce. And what's more we're only two instalments in, with a bonus spin-off episode to come on Tuesday.

So I have chosen "The Cards of Dunedin" for my writeup, partly as a nod to titles of the individual LOTR books/movies, but also because I see the flurry of first half sanctions as being key to the historic result.

Now I know that might seem a bit controversial...to say we won thanks to having a man advantage might suggest we were somehow lucky or maybe even got some favourable decisions from the officials.

But that's not the case at all. In fact, it has actually been proven that mistakes were made with regard to cards that may have prevented us from scoring even more, so I assure you it has nothing to do with that. Plus we mustn't forget that 17 of our 23 points were scored with even playing numbers.

What I mean by saying the cards being so critical is more about how and why they happened.

The All Blacks were justified as 12-point favourites given how the first test had gone, but as I said in my writeup, since many of their scores came from our mistakes, there was plenty for us to work with and every chance we could turn things around ahead of this clash in Dunedin.

And literally from the kickoff, we put it up to them. First high ball challenge, handled. First AB lineout throw, enough pressure to drive them back ten metres. First attack, line break followed up by seven Irish points. First defensive set, turned over at halfway, albeit with an Irish knock on. First scrum, solid lock by Irish front row then enough pressure on Beauden Barrett that the planned move goes out the window.

By minute 13, Ireland not only showed we came to compete, we showed we had our hosts' number in several key areas, and we also showed we could back up all that domination with enough scores to force them into a situation they are far from used to...being two scores behind so early.

Even putting aside the perennial talk outside of New Zealand that they tend to push the boundaries of the Laws - after a start like this, is it any wonder they might have tried to push them even further? Like maybe a late hit on Mack Hansen? Or maybe tackle Garry Ringrose off the ball when he looks certain to score? Or maybe stay upright when facing that same centre because you're wary of him offloading or stepping around you?

I reckon those two yellows and a red, which came in relatively quick succession from minutes 17 to 31, seemed to be direct consequences of what we had done in the time leading up to them. And even without the phantom "cover" denying a penalty try or the mixup over player numbers, it's fair to say that much like the previous week we seem to have left a score or two behind ourselves.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is that this wasn't just an historic victory to be taken in isolation. When you add it to what we achieved last November, plus the Triple Crown/strong 2nd place finish in the Six Nations, you have a clear pattern of a side that seems to know what it's about, is being well prepared for these big matches, and most importantly, appears focused for even bigger challenges down the line.

Because going by the body language of the players after the full time whistle, I wasn't seeing the kind of elation you tend to see in a big one-off victory. It felt like I was seeing a perfect mix of satisfaction from a job well done along with realization that there is more left to do, and not just next Saturday in Wellington either.

Obviously I was disappointed with a portion of the reactions of Irish fans online, some of whom seemed to only care about heaping praise on players from their own province, others who seemed to only care about heaping insults on players who came from outside their own province, but while I will always call that out it won't ever prevent me trying to emphasize what really matters; you know, the whole "standing shoulder to shoulder" bit.

Anyway that's enough of a preamble, time to stock up on Lembas bread and set off on a journey through the 80 minutes which led Ireland to cast yet another one of our long-standing demons into Mount Doom.

0-20

I've already summarized what happened in the opening few minutes by pointing out our first go in different situations, but I'd like to delve a little deeper into how our first score came to pass. It was clear the All Blacks were confident they could hurt us following up after a high ball but first Hugo Keenan from the kickoff and then Mack Hansen at midfield proved otherwise.

Then as we settled into our first decent bout of possession we first had Caelan Doris throwing a flat pass inside him to Josh van der Flier when it looked more likely he would send it further back, although this was only the appetizer to the magnificent entree about to be served by Johnny Sexton (who celebrates his 37th trip round the sun as this writeup posts).

You can see how we set ourselves up, with it looking to all intents and purposes that the Irish skipper was looking to use Tadhg Beirne as a screen to send the ball back to the four players stacked up towards the wide channel...but we don't talk enough about Sexton's ability to disguise his intent with his body language and it's clear not a single All Black expected a flat pass to Beirne, which is exactly what he did, putting the lock clean through.

Now we're in the 22 and on the front foot. Remember where we are, remember who we're playing, remember this is the opening attack where we need to make a statement of intent. We really have to make this count. At the very first breakdown, referee Jaco Peyper puts his arm out for a penalty advantage - some might say there's a debate to be had over this being in yellow territory already but let's not be greedy eh.

The ball gets shipped out wide where somehow Peter O'Mahony keeps it in and we go back inside for more crash ball from the van der Fliers and the Henshaws. On phase #9 a Mack Hansen show and go gets us to within 5. Following up is Beirne with another carry to get us in closer to the posts, another penalty advantage gets posted and to provide the perfect finish, yet another flat Sexton pass right into the path of Andrew Porter who nonchalantly plants down.

So as the clock ticked into the 5th minute, the home side were already 7 points down and taking another restart. Again it goes up the middle, again it's confidently fielded, this time by O'Mahony. As we clear our lines it's taken by their right winger (still won't use his name) as the home commentator points out they "haven't really had the ball yet".

A bit of kick tennis follows and they still don't get that possession until a minute later and even then, when they get to halfway, Doris manages to wrestle it free only to knock it on. We continue to thwart them despite a harsh call for a jersey pull by Lowe though that comes to nothing as James Ryan snaffles the resulting lineout.

Then something I genuinely never thought I'd see. An All Black pinged for clearing out beyond the ruck. And I don't even mean it to be disparaging. I've always said that if you can get away with that kind of thing, fair play to you, however frustrating it might be for others. I even thought maybe this one was a bit harsh compared to others I've seen let go, but it was crucial for Ireland.

Having gotten back into their 22, and again needing points, a Henshaw fumble on the set play made it look like our chance was gone only for our defence to stay solid as the All Blacks exited and Caelan Doris again latching on to a carrier, this time earning a straight arm penalty which Sexton was happy to pop over the sticks for a 10-point lead.

The first card came shortly after we denied them once more at midfield, this time with a seven-phase set that let to Beauden Barrett launching one which Mack hansen wasn't able to gather this time but still the chaser knocked it on giving us the scrum.

From the set piece, Gibson Park sent it blind side to Hansen who sent a great kick ahead into the 22 and the ABs were under a fair bit of pressure when Peyper called it back after being told that there was a follow through by Fainga'anuku of his attempted block down into Hansen that needed looking at.

Obviously my goggles are going to say this could have been red, but I have been consistent on these pages over challenges that can be considered "reckless" and this was definitely one of them. Still, let's just say for this one I can see how the officials found their way to mitigation but it was always going to be at least yellow.

Whatever the colour, every Irish observer was clear that it was crucial that we made this man advantage count, and when our lineout from the penalty was turned into a New Zealand scrum in their 22 after which they got two clearing penalties, it wasn't looking good for us at all even though it was only the end of the first quarter.

20-HT

Now when I say "it wasn't looking good" I have to be clear that I mean for us, the very-dedicated yet also very-much-unable-to-help fans. For all the uncertainty we had throughout this match, it was clearly not shared by the players.

And while there was a barrage of disgust from fans at halftime that we had failed to score in the second quarter, it really was harsh criticism given what happened in the lead up to their second yellow card.

What needs to be noted here is the variation we were using in our attack to get into their 22. The flat passes may have worked early, but on this next bout of possession we first kept going at their blind side before Sexton did a little dink over the top which a brace of Barrett brothers did well to clear.

But it only went as far as Keenan who gave it back to his skipper and with the opposition now with no idea what he was going to do, chose to bring it himself and got it deep into the 22 and with Ringrose on his inside, the offload seemed to be a certain try, at very least to Ofa Tu'ungafasi who proceeded to haul the Irish 13 down before he got the ball.

Again I was surprised even by the fact that the ref was going for a card at all because, well, you know, they already had one which was itself a shock to all biased Irish eyes. But there was more to this. Would Ringrose have scored? I thought so, obviously all other Irish fans thought so, and critically even the NZL commentary team thought so (the term "100%" was used, can't get clearer than that) except for the officials somehow deciding that Beauden Barrett, despite clearly being wrong footed at the time of the challenge, was in a position to cover?

I'm sorry, but this should have been seven points, and what annoyed me most wasn't the call by the officials but actually the way Irish fans seemed to forget about this come half time.

Though to be fair, although much had happened already, there was still much more to come before the break. Having failed to take advantage once again from the penalty after the yellow, there was an Irish scrum about 13m in the New Zealand half and we were again trying to mix things up to find a way through.

On the All Black side of things, they had actually been defending reasonably well all things considered, and here were were being forced back a bit but when the ball got to Ringrose, everyone flinched when they saw his collision with Angus Ta'avao.

"Looked like an accident" says the ref before any replay is shown. Clearly he really, really, REALLY doesn't want to flash yet another card at a black jersey. Yet replay after replay after replay shows the challenge to be worse each time. No attempt to go low, no change of height or direction from the carrier, clear contact with the head, no alternative than red.

Now had this been Super Rugby, the home side would have been able to return a tight head prop to the field in the 50th minute, but now they were without two of them for the next 5 minutes or so and couldn't have more than 14 on the pitch for the remainder of the match.

There was much confusion over personnel for the next while, and rather than go through it all I'm going to leave it to this excellent Murray Kinsella twitter thread to explain the numerous technicalities. To bottom-line it, it was Papali'i who should have sat out the rest of the match not Ardie Savea but more crucially, the ABs had 13 on the park for around 2 minutes when they should have had only 12.

A word on Ringrose going off...absolutely nothing against Bundee Aki but I hadn't been wild about his having the 23 jersey for the first two tests. I'm always happy when he starts it's just for percentage reasons I prefer a back three player on the bench but the way this turned out, boy did we need him, it was a cameo so good it almost put him in the frame for PotM.

But everything began to go wrong for Ireland, in this half anyway, on the 35th minute when Mack Hansen, again in space on the wing and taking the right option to kick it ahead, saw the ball drift just over the touchline to send the play all the way back towards halfway for an All Black throw.

Despite being two (though should have been three) men down, this was the home side's "purple patch" where they took advantage of rugby situations where it doesn't really hurt with unequal numbers, aided and abetted of course by Ireland shipping a few penalties in a row.

Once the Savea confusion was handled (albeit incorrectly), a well set maul off the first lineout got them moving forward and then a little grubber forward flicked off Porter on the way by which meant when it found touch in our half, they had yet another lineout.

The next one brought another penalty, this time against Ryan for getting arm instead of ball in his jump. Now we're in our 22, for the first time in the game I might add, and there's yet another advantage on the way for taking out a lifter. A few phases later, Ryan is caught on the wrong side for a penalty, which they quick tap and Ryan again tackles before the carrier has gone 10 so there's no dispute that his own card was bang on.

Even after all of that, the All Blacks needed a good bit of luck to breach our goal line defence (although you could say we had luck too in that we might have seen a second card). On another day the loose ball would have found an attacking hand or chest to be knocked on but this time the rugby gods placed it onto Beauden Barrett's boot and let it trickle perfectly over the line for him to dot down and his conversion ended the half. When it could, probably should have been 0-17, it was now 7-10, quite the swing.


40-60

Sexton took the restart, our first of the contest.

When Beauden's exit kick didn't go too far, our skipper returned with a bomb that was perfectly contestable for Hugo Keenan who won it back for his side, and once again we were applying pressure down the other end and our hosts found it difficult to escape.

It was an Irish scrum right on the halfway line that put us in a position to get that crucial next score. You could feel the tension even from the other side of the world that this was a pivotal set piece.

All was good in the front row, and Gibson-Park was able to launch an attack by sending Bundee Aki on crash ball well into enemy territory. A few phases later it was a perfectly timed pass from Sexton putting Aki through this time and we had an overlap on the outside that eventually got us into their 22.

Next it's Tadhg Beirne involved in the heavy lifting and now we're at the 5m line. 7th phase, 8th phase, JGP goes on a little snipe to bring us even closer...the All Blacks employing their "chaos theory" to try to knock us off our game but we're still going strong.

Finally on phase 11, there's Andrew Porter again, this time getting it down right under the posts, and all with 17 seconds still left of James Ryan being on the naughty step so not only are we back to a two-score lead, we're also back to a man advantage.

Our road to that try cannot be understated. The occasion, the venue, the opposition, regrets from earlier failed opportunities, fear of further ones....none of them stopped us from running full tilt at them, creating the chances, and forcing them down whether the home crowd liked it or not. Such was our confidence that even the introduction of Will "can create a try out of literally nothing" Jordan didn't seem to phase us.

Now we were even winning full penalties at scrum time, on top of all the other things like our world class back row trio of O'Mahony, JVDF & Doris forcing turnovers for fun.

Still over 25m left but already the seeds of belief had been planted in my head, although they hadn't taken root enough to stop me from letting out an almighty roar when James Lowe's pass towards the wide channel sailed over his team mates and into touch. I wasn't aware of the penalty advantage, you see. Clearly he was.

What's more this penalty was right in front of the posts, and Sexton wasn't for missing those especially on this day as he closes in on becoming the 8th member of the "1000 test points or more" club.

So there we were, at the end of the third quarter, having stretched our lead to 13, definitely more lucky a number than not for us, but clearly against this lot we really needed to stretch that margin to 15 or higher so there was no time for letting up.

60-FT

Finally after the 60 minute mark it looked like the All Blacks had worked out that our stingy defence, particularly a man stronger, was going to take some improvisation so when they won a penalty in their own half, Will Jordan didn't hesitate to take it quickly to try to catch us unawares.

And sure enough for the next few phases they had managed to up the tempo and seemed to be getting into something of a rhythm when Jordie Barrett appeared to slip through two of our best tacklers in Robbie Henshaw and Caelan Doris - he had Reiko Ioane right there with him for the offload and he could have brought it the rest of the way...

...only for Doris deciding "You Shall Not Pass!!!" (had to slip at least one LOTR reference into the actual writeup, sorry) by laying down an absolutely inch perfect ankle tap for the ages that brought him down. Am I the only Irish fan who had already mentally added 7 points to the AB side of the scoreboard? I very much doubt that I am.

Two phases later it was that man Andrew Porter involved again by burrowing his way into breakdown and by now my screams had transformed from ones of "oh no we're going to blow this lead aren't we" to ones of "hell yeah we're actually gonna win this one".

And to finally seal the deal we had two magnificent kicks, one from a likely source, the other not so much. The first was from Hugo Keenan who managed to fire one from inside his 22, 15m from the touchline, out of bounds almost 10 inside the All Black half, an almighty punt in a high pressure situation. But the best was yet to come...

I'm not sure Karl Tu’inukuafe knew the pass from his scrum half was intended for him the way he snatched at it but he was always going to knock it on. And a scrum 10m in our own half would not have been the worst thing, and any mere "War Mortal" would have been happy with that.

But when the ball falls to Peter O'Mahony, especially in a match like this in which he was clearly born to feature (whether or not he actually did tell Sam Cane he's a "shit Richie McCaw" I will still tell my grandchildren he did), you can be sure to expect something different. Fully aware of his position, he did not hesitate to "funt" it (yeah I know I'm borrowing heavily from TRK-speak here, more than happy to give him the nod) and before we knew what was what, it was our lineout in their 22 thanks to the new ruling.

And although we lost the lineout, the way our defence had been playing it was almost a blessing and for a second magical time, Jaco Peyper spotted another All Black clearing beyond the ruck ("Winger Who Shall Not Be Named" the culprit this time) and guess where this was? Right under the posts again for Sexton to push that lead to a wonderful 16 with all of 13 minutes to go.

If you do watch this match in full again, even though you know the All Blacks do get one more try from this point, I still strongly suggest you watch it all the way to the end because they really do have to work bloody hard to get even that, such was the determination of our defence, as our bench proved to be much, much deeper than theirs with important contributions all the way through the 23.

The consolation try eventually game courtesy of Jordan (who surely has to start next week btw) right in the corner but with the clock at 77:29 by that stage, there was nothing more the home side could do and this match was done.

HARPIN POINTS

For one thing, among all the satisfying things about this performance, one of the best for me was that at halftime I wanted us to "Regroup, make man advantage count, mind discipline", and that's exactly what we did.

Only one more key harpin' point for me, even though I have already made it earlier I have to say it again...this was a team result.

Sure, we had leadership and creativity from Sexton, power from all of our backrows (with a little extra O'Mahonyness from O'Mahony thrown in), strength off the bench especially Bundee Aki, but it's ALL about the team display, yes, in defence but above that, more importantly, in their seemingly endless belief because while we may have been found wanting for it back at home, the lads on the pitch had more than enough for all of us put together.

WHAT'S NEXT

And following on from what I said about their confidence, they don't look like a side that will be happy with just the one win on this tour so we'll see what happens during the week and next Saturday. Obviously we'll be giving it all the full Harpin treatment with a podcast during the week and the usual previews and tweets and what not so do stay tuned.

So congratulations once more to the boys for ticking this very important box, very much looking forward to seeing what's on the cards in Wellington. JLP


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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019