Blackest of nights for Irish rugby

 

New Zealand 60 Ireland 0:THERE WERE mitigating factors in defeat. Missing six Lions. A 17th Test in a 51-week season and all that. But there were no excuses for an all-time record Irish defeat. This Hamilton humiliation represents one of the blackest nights in the history of Irish rugby.

Sadly therefore, it will always be a blemish on the careers of all those involved, both management and players. It was also embarrassing for all Irish fans, not least those living in New Zealand who attended the match.

Anyone Irish simply wanted to crawl away from the Waikato Stadium on Saturday night.

That it came a week after largely the same group of players were pressing for the biggest one-off wins in Irish rugby history until a debateable late refereeing decision only makes it all the more inexplicable. A week may be a long time in politics, but à la the near miss in 1992 before the previous record 59-6 defeat a week later, this defeat rather discredits last week’s performance.

For sure the two of three changes which were enforced discommoded Ireland.

Called in from his family holiday in Portugal, Paddy Wallace struggled every bit as much as most of the Irish players had done in the first Test in coping with a brand of high tempo, high intensity rugby the like of which he would not have experienced all season.

As Sonny Bill Williams and co stampeded toward him, you had more than a little sympathy for Wallace. His absence from the original squad – in part because of the 30-man limit while also keeping “an eye on the future” – had been questioned, but in the longer term Gordon D’Arcy’s absence highlights how inside centre is becoming a problematic position. His call-up and selection at short notice, leapfrogging the original Brian O’Driscoll-Keith Earls combo and both Darren Cave and Fergus McFadden, backfired.

Delayed for an additional day in Auckland before linking up with the team on Wednesday, in all of this Wallace was the victim of circumstances. This was akin to being dumped off the QE2 in the middle of the ocean with a couple of rocks around his legs and being told: “See you in the Aran Islands.” If D’Arcy’s absence was keenly felt, ditto the Trojan workload of Jamie Heaslip at the breakdown and at the base of the scrum, where at times it looked as if Peter O’Mahony and Conor Murray had never met.

It’s easy from the cheap seats, but it didn’t help Murray, or Wallace for that matter, that Ireland were so passive at the breakdown and in defence. Ireland had been competitive at the breakdown in the first two games, with Sean O’Brien and Heaslip in tandem. But by game three, the All Blacks had worked them out.

With Richie McCaw leading from the front, and his long-term successor Sam Cane brilliant on his full debut, they were collectively lower, harder and hungrier. That they counter-rucked ferociously for the first time in the series also seemed to completely unhinge Ireland.

The last team in the world to concede quick ball, time and space to is the All Blacks, and predictably they feasted upon this and Aaron Smith’s quickfire service to run hard and free their hands on the gain line.

Although injury curtailed his evening after 24 minutes, Aaron Cruden had a big hand in the first four tries, while outside him SBW looked like a man against boys and Conrad Smith could have been smoking cigars.

Tactically the performance shines an unflattering light on the coaches and the team leaders for, ironically, Ireland had more possession and territory in this game than a week previously. But as in the first Test, almost everything seemed to go through Jonny Sexton as Ireland sought to attack with width but scant penetration, going wide-wide or cross-crossing off slow ball with switch passes, sometimes appallingly enacted.

Unlike the final quarter in Christchurch, when Brian O’Driscoll charged up the middle, this ploy was hardly ever used. In Ireland’s underdeveloped offloading game, O’Driscoll’s distribution looked forced and led to costly turnovers again. There was no Plan B, just Plan A tried harder; and damningly, even after the interval.

Clearly Ireland have psychological issues against the All Blacks and especially if falling a try behind. Cane scored within seven minutes off Cruden’s popped pass out of the tackle (after the French officials missed Williams’ forward pass to Conrad Smith), and within five minutes Cruden attacked the gain-line off scrum ball and offloaded brilliantly as he was hitting the deck from Sexton’s tackled. Wallace was out of the game and Williams breezed past Fergus McFadden with the Irish back-row not a factor.

Shell-shocked, Ireland were a busted flush after 12 minutes.

But a defeat of this scale simply should not happen, no matter how good the All Blacks are, and this raises questions about the team’s mental and emotional preparation for the game. And, following on from what must have been an excruciating end-of-tour banquet, you have to wonder about a mindset which had half the squad leaving Hamilton for home or holidays at 8am on Sunday, the other half later in the day. This presumably means packing their bags before kick-off. Economic factors were assuredly at work, but this looks very much like a false saving.

Wales, in their 18th Test of the season, came within a point and a bounce of the ball of beating Australia. England drew with South Africa. Brilliant as the All Blacks were, neither Wales nor England would have been beaten by 60-0 or anything like it here.

Only Cian Healy, Donnacha Ryan and Robert Kearney emerged with credit from this fiasco. Some careers have been set back, others have tasted Test rugby for the last time.

What a horrible way to end.

For sure it exposed the lack of back-up quality in the absence of Paul O’Connell, Stephen Ferris, Jamie Heaslip, Tommy Bowe, Gordon D’Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald et al. But in the longer run, how this group heal the scars of this Hamilton Humiliation is difficult to imagine.

Scoring sequence: 7 mins Cane try, Cruden con 7-0; 12 Williams try, Cruden con 14-0; 19 Williams try, Dagg con 21-0; 23 B Smith try 26-0; 40 (+3 mins) Barrett pen 29-0; (half-time 29-0); 44 Cane try, Barrett con 36-0; 50 Gear try 41-0; 58 Messam try 46-0; 63 Dagg try, Barrett con 53-0; 73 Thomson try, Barrett con 60-0.

NEW ZEALAND: I Dagg (Canterbury Crusaders); B Smith (Otago Highlanders), C Smith (Wellington Hurricanes), SB Williams (Waikato Chiefs), H Gear (Otago Highlanders); A Cruden (Waikato Chiefs), A Smith (Otago Highlanders); T Woodcock (Auckland Blues), A Hore (Otago Highlanders), O Franks (Canterbury Crusaders), L Romano (Canterbury Crusaders), S Whitelock (Canterbury Crusaders), L Messam (Waikato Chiefs), S Cane (Waikato Chiefs), R McCaw (Canterbury Crusaders, capt). Replacements: B Barrett (Wellington Hurricanes) for Cruden (24 mins), K Mealamu (Auckland Blues) for Hore (half-time), B Retallick (Waikato Chiefs) for Whitelock (57 mins), P Weepu (Auckland Blues) for A Smith, T Ellison (Otago Highlanders) for C Smith (both 61 mins), A Thomson (Otago Highlanders) for Cane (70 mins), B Franks (Canterbury Crusaders) for Woodcock (74 mins).

IRELAND: R Kearney (UCD – Leinster); F McFadden (Old Belvedere – Leinster), B O’Driscoll (UCD – Leinster, Capt), P Wallace (Ballymena – Ulster), K Earls (Young Munster – Munster); J Sexton (St Mary’s College – Leinster), C Murray (Garryowen – Munster); C Healy (Clontarf – Leinster), R Best (Banbridge – Ulster), M Ross (Clontarf – Leinster), D Tuohy (Ballymena – Ulster), D Ryan (Shannon – Munster), K McLaughlin (St Mary’s College – Leinster), S O’Brien (Clontarf – Leinster), P O’Mahony (Cork Constitution – Munster).

Replacements: A Trimble (Ballymena – Ulster) for Earls (49-55 and 64mins), C Henry (Belfast Harlequins – Ulster) for McLaughlin, R O’Gara (Cork Constitution – Munster) for Wallace (both 55 mins), E Reddan (Lansdowne – Leinster) for Murray (59 mins), D O’Callaghan (Cork Constitution – Munster) for Tuohy (56 mins), D Fitzpatrick (Dungannon – Ulster) for Ross (60 mins), S Cronin (St.Mary’s College – Leinster) for Best (68 mins). Sinbinned: Kearney (40+2-52 mins).

Referee: Romain Poite (France).

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