Talent wins games but teamwork and intelligence win Test series. The observation belongs to former basketball icon Michael Jordan and there is an element of paraphrasing in that he used the word, “championships”, but it is equally applicable in identifying core characteristics at the heart of Ireland’s rugby achievements in New Zealand.
In the first Test, Andy Farrell’s Ireland squad showed flashes of their ability, albeit in defeat, but by the time the group had claimed a series win in Wellington, via a first ever victory on New Zealand soil in Dunedin, they had emphatically proved to possess superior teamwork and game intelligence. Those values underscored the triumph.
Farrell and his fellow coaches identified New Zealand’s pressure points and successfully adapted their findings based on performance values from game to game. They shared a game plan and the players enthusiastically signed up, a symbiotic relationship that survived the rigours of Test matches.
It also required trust in players. Tadhg Beirne was a beneficiary. Sidelined with a thigh injury since the Six Nations, he removed a light dusting of rust in the first Test defeat, ramping up his contribution in the win in Dunedin. On Saturday, in Wellington, he was imperious, producing a one-man highlights reel that showcased his qualities as a rugby player.
It started after just 17 seconds when the 30-year-old got fingertips to the attempted clearance kick of New Zealand scrumhalf Aaron Smith. It was a mild deflection rather than a charge down, but Beirne had served notice.
Paul O’Connell’s work on repairing a misfiring Irish lineout from the first Test manifested itself on the double, representing the platform from which the tries scored by Josh van der Flier and replacement hooker Rob Herring were launched, but those long hours pouring over footage also enabled Ireland to destabilise New Zealand in that facet of the game.
Beirne was the first to profit after just seven minutes, pilfering a Codie Taylor throw intended for Akira Ioane at the back of a lineout 30 metres from the Irish line. The Munster secondrow spent a little time working out the cadence of the game.
He was far from idle. He snaffled a loose ball on the ground after another New Zealand lineout had come a cropper, then insinuated his way into the centre an All Black maul along with Peter O’Mahony to force a turnover and then, before the first quarter had elapsed, was quickest to react to Mack Hansen’s tap back as Ireland regained possession from a Johnny Sexton up and under.
At two rucks he got his hands in but not on the ball. That decision-making process requires a steady nerve and a shrewd appreciation of circumstances. Beirne had a pivotal role in Ireland’s third try of the first half, his vigorous clear-out on New Zealand secondrow Sam Whitelock following a muscular carry from Caelan Doris, ensured that blue chip, ruck speed.
Jamison Gibson-Park whisked the ball away, Dan Sheehan, Johnny Sexton and Bundee Aki completed the prep work that allowed Robbie Henshaw to cross unopposed. It championed one of Ireland’s most potent virtues on the day; teamwork made the dream work.
Beirne stripped Ofa Tu’ungafasi in a tackle and while it did not lead to a turnover it did temporarily check New Zealand’s post interval renaissance. The Irishman intercepted a Smith pass on the halfway line, an act of defiance, sandwiched between tries for the All Blacks human forces of nature, Ardie Savea and Akira Ioane. Ireland were further imperilled by Andrew Porter’s yellow card but during his absence Beirne won a penalty turnover at a ruck on the halfway line. Sexton’s conversion rebounded off the crossbar.
By the time the visitors were restored to their full complement, Will Jordan’s try allowed New Zealand to close the gap to three points, trailing 25-22. Herring’s try provided a little breathing space on the scoreboard (32-22) but the walls of Wellington’s “Cake Tin”, as the ground is affectionately known, looked like they were closing in. New Zealand’s window to reduce the deficit started to close as the minutes ticked away so they mustered all they could for one final push.
Beirne asked his team-mates to hold his coat while he got to work. As New Zealand threatened once again, he forced Whitelock to remove him illegally from a breakdown by virtue of a neck roll. Less than two minutes later he hustled brilliantly to close a gap inside the Irish 22 and once Conor Murray had made a tackle on Jordan, he dominated the air over the prone player to nick a turnover.
The Kildare native somehow summoned enough energy, in the shadow of the Irish posts, to counter-ruck aggressively, propelling Dane Coles backwards and into his scrumhalf, an action that allowed Ireland to regain possession. It was a fitting epitaph for his final act.