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.

The biggest turning point in the Test series was the All Blacks without the ball. No other side (Barcelona excepted) can sniff out an opportunity to regain possession. For the opening two Tests the possession stakes were exactly 59 per cent to New Zealand and 41 per cent to Ireland (both Tests). Bizarrely Ireland had 56 per cent of possession last Saturday but it was Messam and co who used that against Ireland, which brings the margins back into play.

Messam wasn’t to know that Paddy Wallace had his best season in rugby this season and should possibly have been on the plane initially. However, he probably didn’t fully realise that a few short days ago Wallace was on the beach. But in Messam and his colleagues’ application around the corridor of power Wallace was given no mercy.

The delicate switch passes so easily executed all season started to go to ground, the running lines of opposition read all season became impossible such as when outhalf Aaron Cruden carried off a lineout straight at Jonny Sexton with the blindside winger decoy monster Hosea Gear floating behind. Cruden carried in both hands limiting Sexton’s options to remain fixed on Gear, forcing Wallace onto Cruden. The pace of their movement and the arrival of Williams into the hole gave Brian O’Driscoll no chance; 14-0. On 18 minutes the delicate balance of match fitness was tested once more by Williams taking a switch pass on the way to his second try; 21-0.

In the entire second Test Williams carried for 20 metres; 20 minutes into the third Test he had stolen 74 metres. Rustiness once again raised its head between the Irish centres with the ball spilling to the ground for Ben Smith to make it 26-0. I began wondering would switching Fergus McFadden into the centre and bringing on Andrew Trimble have made a difference.

With a Test slipping away very quickly the Irish remained competitive in certain areas, such as in the lineout but for the overthrow, and in defensive lineouts Donnacha Ryan, in particular, competed in the air, but in nearly every other facet of the game the Irish were blown away.

In summary, Ireland were forced to make far too many tackles, in too many channels, against too many black jerseys to gain any real foothold on the match. The loss of Jamie Heaslip and especially the oft underrated Gordon D’Arcy was enormous to the feng shui of the team already without three Lions.

The tour has proved many points. The question remains do we wait too long getting players such as Declan Fitzpatrick into Test rugby, petrified by their lack of experience or ability. Could a backrow of Dominic Ryan at seven and Seán O’Brien at six have been a worthy sight last Saturday? Had Paul O’Connell not been out it is likely that Dan Tuohy wouldn’t have made the bench and not played in three Tests against the All Blacks. Like the Turkish barber above the All Blacks have the numbers and the massive pool to dip into; we don’t.

As the players return from New Zealand for their well-earned break don’t just drift off into the good night, rage, rage against the dying of the light and get on your bike in preparation for the crossrugbylegends.comMizen to Malin Head. The aim of Cross Rugby Legends is to support Cancer Research. It’ll be led by charity patron Paul Wallace and his brothers Richard and David.

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