Sunday’s narrow loss to best team in world showed anything is possible
Nigel Owens a key figure in a classic contest and another dramatic endgame
Watching it a second time isn’t any easier. Entering the last 10 minutes, the BBC co-commentator Philip Matthews described it as “the biggest 10 minutes of a rugby nation’s life”. Well, it could have been, but alas it probably isn’t now.
It was an extraordinary 10 minutes too, possession changing hands continuously. And what makes watching it again even worse is the reminder that Ireland had generated genuine belief that they were about to lay the biggest bogey in their rugby nation’s life.
Firstly, when Ireland’s potent maul earned the penalty to make it an eight-point lead. As an aside, one can’t help but wonder would Jamie Heaslip, say, have been yellow-carded for pulling down the maul as Kieran Read did then, but in any event, even these remarkable All Blacks would have struggled to generate two scores in less than six minutes.
Jonathan Sexton used up 45 seconds from the point he placed the ball to striking it, five seconds longer than for his 33rd-minute penalty, and the ensuing miss created doubt, for sure, but even then Ireland regained possession three times in the final five minutes in the New Zealand half, as Mike McCarthy shunted Julien Savea into touch, Ma’a Nonu knocked on and Ian Madigan retrieved an Aaron Cruden chip with just a minute and 40 seconds remaining. It was then that you truly believed.
Eddie Butler, the BBC commentator, observed that Ireland could close it out from there by holding possession through a few more phases. On another day, with another referee, that would have happened.
Nigel Owens is a fantastic referee, and when Alain Rolland retires at the end of the season, it will be valid to describe the Welshman as the best referee in the world. First and foremost, he has real empathy for the game while still having the presence to command a game. His dialogue with players is clear and concise.
His first instinct, unlike so many referees, is not seemingly to award penalties. Rather, it is to let the game flow. There were only 13 full penalties in the match – eight against New Zealand and five against Ireland.
He makes good use of the advantage law, and doesn’t bother resetting scrums if the ball is at the number eight’s feet. He is always sharp and on top of the game.
It is also true that had Sexton landed that 74th-minute penalty, the last penalty of the game wouldn’t have mattered. Yet that penalty against Jack McGrath with less than 30 seconds remaining rankles, as does the scrum penalty he awarded against Ireland with the score 19-all in Christchurch last year.
It almost seemed as if he was looking for it, which is perhaps understandable given referees have to decide whether the side in front is illegally sealing off the ball as they run the clock down. Interestingly, Owens had been warning players “to stay on your feet”, but his verdict that “number 17 (Jack McGrath), straight off your feet” simply isn’t the case, as when he enters the ruck McGrath’s legs are vertical to the ground. In the context of the game, when players had been going off their feet on a fairly regular basis, it’s a bloody tough call.
As with Vincent Clerc’s superbly conceived match-winning try in Croke Park in 2007, credit has to be given to New Zealand for the composed manner in which they then constructed Ryan Crotty’s equalising try through 11 phases and 23 pairs of hands. Had Ireland done the same in either instance we would rightly be hailing such composure and skills under pressure.
It is also no coincidence that Owens has now presided over the best two games of the year. But, a la Nicky Evans landing a match-winning drop goal in the fourth minute of overtime against Stade Francais in 2009 after Harlequins had recycled the ball 29 times, Munster’s epic win over Northampton in 2011 courtesy of Ronan O’Gara’s drop goal after 40 phases, not to mention Dan Carter’s match-winning drop goal in Christchurch, dramatic, prolonged endgames do have a funny habit of following him around. Perhaps this is a little unfair, and merely reflects how rugby games are so open to being interpreted differently by any individual referee on any given day.
Perhaps Ireland, wilting, did lose a little of their accuracy at the breakdown as well as line speed in defence, for it was that accuracy, usually with just two or occasionally three men clearing out All Blacks beyond the ball, which was as important as the handling and hard running – an example being the excellent Mike Ross blowing Read off the ball after Conor Murray had supported Seán O’Brien’s gallop up the middle in the build-up to Rory Best’s try.
That this approach sparked a classic is small consolation. In one fell swoop the Aviva could have made its mark. It would have been the ground where Ireland had had their finest one-off win ever. It could have become the fortress which the players are striving to make it.
But at least this game should generate confidence. The opening Six Nations game is against Scotland at 3pm on Sunday, February 2nd, with an atmosphere guaranteed for the Welsh six days later, but there can be no excuses about Sunday kick-offs after this.
The All Blacks brought out the best in both Irish team and supporters alike. Thank the lord for the haka too, for it even had 50,000 people in their seats before kick-off. Last Sunday showed all manner of things are possible.