Hope restored as Irish stem black tide
ANOTHER GAME, another defeat, but these things are relative and so this was a mighty improvement. It could have been better, but it could have been a good deal worse and three long weeks ago, it most definitely would have been one of those nights to hide under the seats.
Defensively, the Irish didn't crack, even if, offensively, they did a little. To describe a 41-10 defeat as defensively "flawless", as Gabriel Fulcher did, might seem bizarre, but the tackling. the willingness to make a hit, get up and make another one, was almost heroic.
The Maoris came in waves. Big, beefy battering rams in all black, who usually ran in straight lines for one of the support men to pick up and continue the surge at speed. It was the game's abiding memory - the green cordon seeking to stem the black tide.
When one of these unrelenting surges yielded a try and a 13-3 lead at the end of the first quarter, it looked like it might be another one of those long, rainy nights. Instead, the Irish actually had the better of the second quarter, before the Maoris killed the contest in the third and even then, the Irish didn't capitulate.
Referee Paul Macfie's attitude seemed to be typified by the moment he arrogantly waved away Gabriel Fulcher, refusing to talk to the Irish captain in the second period during which a contentious penalty try compounded the overall penalty tally of 16-9.
Given that, the lessons of the 10 and 12-try maulings in the opening tour games have been well learnt. Relative to those encounters, these Irish have improved defensively by about 300 per cent. To put this four-try-to-one defeat in Palmerston North's Oval grounds yesterday in its context, a staggering total of 146 tackles were made. More pertinently, compared to the 67 missed tackles against Northland, there were `only' 24 missed tackles against a far stronger Maori side.
Norman Berryman, quadruple try-scorer in that tour opener, saw as much of the ball, continuously being brought into the line off his wing just inside or outside fly-half Steve Hirini. Yet only once did he pierce the initial green line and even then, David Erskine caught his heel, to keep the burly man scoreless this time.
The fringe and midfield defence was pretty outstanding, the forwards rarely over-committing themselves and Brian O'Meara noticeably more vocal. Gavin Walsh gave the pack a bit of Kiwi steel, contributing to the high-tackle count as well as a strong Irish serum. Ditto Brian Cusack, David Erskine and Kieron Dawson, who set the tone with a number of early tackles, including the psychologically important first one on Berryman.
David Wallace, who's played more rugby than anyone else on tour, led the tackle count with 19. another commendation for this serious talent. Given his age. 20, his relative inexperience, and lack of time in the weights' room, he's surely what Ashton is looking for from this tour.
O'Meara, whose kicking was a little awry, and Richard Governey contributed their fair share, the latter meeting the Maoris head-on in the physical stakes. Governey, who's played in every game and revelled in Brian Ashton's fresh new broom, is now one of the tour's big successes.
Rob Henderson, buttressed by Kevin Maggs alongside him, won praise from the Maori coach, Malt Te Pou, while Conor O'Shea tidied up well and hit the line superbly.
Gradually though, the backs lost their way a little bit and the Irish struggled to establish a platform, even off set-pieces. Granted the serum was the stronger for an hour, even earning a complimentary "Bring on Phil Coffin (the renowned Wellington prop)" from one of the disgruntled member of a smallish crowd who expected a romp. But it was an effort to procure ball from the middle of the line.
By contrast, the Maoris invariably drove forward off the line-outs. Having earned a line-out from the kick-off, the Irish saw Dion Waller poach Stephen Ritchie's first throw, and were then penalised at the first serum before Jarrod Cunningham kicked the first three of his 21 points.
Conor O'Shea levelled from 45 metres; Governey and Dawson made big tackles on two previous thorns in the side of this tour, Calep Ralph and Berryman. before Dawson followed up Governey's kick behind Berryman to nail Milton Going, and O'Shea came within a whisker of putting. the Irish ahead from closer in. Encouraging.
The Maoris threatened to pull clear through Cunningham's second penalty and Jim Coe's converted 19th-minute try, the passage of about eight or nine rucks beginning with a blatant forward pass from Michael Scott and ending with his pop ball to the big flanker under the posts.
But the Maoris were making more handling errors, six-to-five in the first-half, and Maggs was up quick to nail Going. Erskine drove off a serum, O'Shea hit the line hard and when the ball was recycled for Governey, he stepped inside and then out again for a classic out-half's try.
Governey added the conversion, and Ireland were pilfering and pillaging well in the loose. Fulcher stole ruck ball and set off with a four-to-one overlap, a delayed pass compounded when Justin Bishop failed to hold Maggs final transfer. O'Shea then hit the line hard again, just being pegged hack by the last man, but Henderson fumbled on the blind side from the ensuing rock. All the while, Mr Macfie let the Maoris live offside, it taking him 50 minutes to penalise them.
By then, the wave of penalties (12 to three at one point) was taking its toll, Cunningham bisecting the posts either side of Errol Brain, propelling himself through a thicket of Irish legs with body positioning which almost defied gravity.
After another Cunningham penalty and a couple of tap penalties against despairing Irish forwards for playing rock ball off the ground, the referee then awarded a penalty try when the Irish backs lay offside - a joke given the Maoris flagrant and unpunished abuse of this law before the break.
Even so, the dam never burst. The Irish were still poaching ball and threatening to break out, but couldn't make the passes stick - Governey slicing through once more but reckoning that Dawson, on his shoulder, was covered and chucking a long pass towards Niall Woods which Berryman pawed into touch.
At least the burly Berryman finished scoreless and defending, a barometer of Ireland's developing developers.