Fractions add up to huge drop in performance
New Zealand took full advantage of the fine margins in devastating and destructive show, writes LIAM TOLAND
IN THE opening Test of this series New Zealand covered 746 metres ball in hand to Ireland’s 203. The score ended 42 points to 10. In the second Test New Zealand’s ball in hand was dramatically reduced to 297 with Ireland’s shifting to 194 and the score was 22 points to 19. On Saturday, New Zealand were back up to 656 with Ireland also improving to 346 but the All Black application in possession, and more crucially without possession, was a devastating, disturbing and destructive sight to behold.
There are reasons for the above statistics and the swings in our fortune, but sitting here at my computer 20 minutes after the final whistle I struggle to articulate them, such is my feeling for the players who are so much better than the score cruelly hints. Let’s start with Richie McCaw’s post-match interview, as in explaining what went wrong for the All Blacks in the second Test he may have hit on our ills when he said “perhaps we were just a fraction off” last week.
Turning the “fractions” argument on ourselves could be seen as papering over the cracks, but to be fair there was a monumental drop off in every aspect of our play, but in fractions. The overthrow at the 48th-minute attacking lineout is one such fraction. It missed its target by inches as the ball landed in Sam Cane’s hands. Off the All Blacks went through sub outhalf Beauden Barrett, who cuts out Sonny Bill Williams to find Conrad Smith on afterburners to slip outside Brian O’Driscoll and find his winger Hosea Gear, who barrels his way in for a try; score 41-0.
Those fine margins don’t quite explain why the All Blacks’ back three went from 309 metres run ball in hand in the first Test to 61 and then back up to 301 in the third Test but the following might. The brilliance of the second Test for Ireland was in initially getting ahead before letting that lead slip. But in years gone by Ireland would have fallen away badly in the final quarter. But in Ireland rising once more towards the end they did two things; firstly they banished the history of countless Tests, but more importantly they kept themselves in contention.
In not getting into contention Ireland’s tackle success rate dipped badly in Saturday’s Test but so too the less measurable; tackle quality. Whether it was lack of energy (exhaustion) or too much pace from the All Blacks, but the defensive line slowed and crucially the swamp tackle of last week had failed to materialise with one on one tackles taken on the All Blacks’ terms.
The knock-on effect is offloads and front-foot ball that scrumhalf Aaron Smith lapped up to keep the black monster flowing. In these circumstances there is no Irish winner but the backrow in particular are on a hiding to nothing with their opposition flowing forward, linking, smashing, offloading and when it took their fancy scoring.
In the absence of precision and in the headlights of multiphase play physicality can get you back in contention but Ireland, with the exception of individual efforts, couldn’t get that physicality.
Margins and fractions define outcomes where the opposition and even the referee can influence, but physicality in the corridor of power can brush past those very margins. Blindside Liam Messam was a colossus in the corridor of power and with his physicality he epitomised the transformation in all things Black.