Keith Duggan: All Blacks show Ireland exactly how wide the divide really is
The fact that Rieko Ioane wasn’t even in the New Zealand matchday squad was telling
Ireland players face the New Zealand Haka before kick-off in Tokyo. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
The player who illustrated the true difference between the rugby cultures of New Zealand and Ireland was nowhere to be seen on Saturday night. Rieko Ioane had started for the All Blacks on that cold, fabulous night in Dublin in 2018, when Ireland’s 16-9 win sent a tremor of excitement rippling through the rugby world. That result was interpreted as empirical proof that in Ireland, a new contender had arrived.
In New Zealand, things can change fast. Ioane, the dazzlingly quick and powerful wing who had notched up 22 tries for the All Blacks in his first 21 games, was emblematic of the new wave of players coming through. The Auckland Grammar star was a young man in a hurry, one of the youngest ever New Zealanders to earn his stripes on a squad to play the Lions and shortlisted for World Player of the Year that November.
But a subsequent dip in form saw him pushed to the margins of the squad, making his only appearance here in Japan against Canada – when he scored a try. Ioane is the most spectacular omission from the team that lost in Dublin that evening. Since then, Steve Hansen completely altered his back line. Beauden Barrett’s reconfiguration at fullback has completely changed the dimension and potency of that division and facilitated the inclusion of the thrilling Richie Mo’unga at outhalf.
Only Codie Taylor remained from the frontrow that started in Dublin. In all, the New Zealand team had seven changes to the side that lost in Dublin.
Twelve Ireland players started both games and the three changes were marginal calls: Conor Murray was injured last November, Bundee Aki was ruled out of Saturday’s game through suspension and Devin Toner was not included in the World Cup squad.
But Ireland’s faces and form are deeply familiar to the point that they were described as “old carthorses” in one of the victorious New Zealand dispatches on Saturday evening. So a loss of form was enough to push a blazing talent like Ioane to the margins of Hansen’s thoughts: he just can’t get on the team. In Ireland, the opposite is true. It is sometimes almost impossible for the leading players to get off it.
Lots of things were said and reported in the giddy aftermath of Ireland’s victory last November. The game had been a war of attrition and will, and in holding New Zealand to a measly nine points, Ireland had announced their intention to chase after bigger prizes in the year ahead.
“You’ve got the two best sides in the world playing each other – so as of now they’re the number one team in the world and I guess they are favourites for the World Cup.” That was Steve Hansen.
“It’s not normally there but the truth of things at the moment is that Ireland versus New Zealand is the great rivalry of the modern game. And maybe because Ireland won two of the last three games they are edging it.” That was the New Zealand Herald.
“Ireland took rugby’s globe and set it spinning in an awestruck Dublin last night. They took notions of All Blacks infallibility and tore them to shreds.” That was the Sunday Times veteran rugby writer Stephen Jones, not noted for honeying Ireland.
Nobody knew then that Ireland’s form would decline so alarmingly when the new international season began in February. The reasons for that will be chewed over in the months ahead. Maybe it was just down to the natural timeline and that imperishable players like Murray and Healy and Kearney had already reached the pinnacle of their potential and, through nobody’s fault, have began the descent. Without being the best they have ever been, they remained the best option available to Schmidt.
Maybe it is time to acknowledge, too, that the domestic and international regime is absurdly long and physically and mentally gruelling. And maybe Schmidt’s vision of rugby, formidable and successful as it was, is not suited to the guerrilla demands of a World Cup tournament.
None of these, though, explain the mystifying awfulness that undid Ireland in passages over their unhappy month in Japan – the dropped passes, the missed kicks to touch, the muddled thinking and the general sense of a team seeking, with increasing desperation, for the pilot light that had guided them under Schmidt: control. Those explanations, too, will come to light eventually.
The wait, then, for an Ireland team to win a quarter-final will go on for another four years at least. But that was always a curious goal to begin with. Since when does making a semi-final in anything count as a triumph? The significant thing of the Schmidt era, apart from the Grand Slam title and those wins against New Zealand, was that for the first time an Ireland rugby team dared to think and even talk about themselves in terms of being world contenders.
They risked looking foolish and in the context of Saturday’s seven tries to two tanking, they leave themselves open to bitter ridicule. And being from Ireland, they are guaranteed to get plenty of that. It was both odd and striking to hear of Johnny Sexton – one of the great players of the contemporary game; this World Cup be damned – all alone in Tokyo stadium on Friday and explaining to the gathered media as to why he felt his Ireland team had a chance. He invoked his old school days and the Leinster Senior Cup.
It must have mystified international listeners; as if the consequences of those old secondary school games could somehow be transferred into weaponry to win a World Cup quarter-final against the country whose team have not lost a World Cup game in 12 years.
However, Sexton’s digression unintentionally illuminated just how local and intimate Ireland’s rugby playing pool remains. Rugby is, at best, the fourth most popular game in the country, which enjoys a massive if casually supportive audience. There are unbroken areas of the country where rugby is, in the truest sense, foreign.
If the IRFU and Irish rugby is genuinely serious about expanding itself into an organisation capable of challenging for a World Cup, it is going to have to draw a blueprint to break through to the heartland of the GAA country. That’s where the majority of the most powerful and adaptable Irish athletes are to be found.
Ireland cannot just pluck a Mo’unga or a George Bridge from the chorus line and make them a star. They cannot leave the equivalent of TJ Perenara, a Jordie Barrett – not to mention a Sonny Bill Williams – on the bench. They don’t have the luxury of leaving a natural like Rieko Ioane suited and in the stands.
So Ireland pack their bags today, deeply disappointed and perhaps at some level feeling humiliated. Schmidt moves on to the rest of his life. His vision of the game never embraced the most beautiful aspect of rugby – the opportunity for elusion and off-the-cuff invention. But it brought huge success to Ireland through a group that may have overachieved.
In time, it won’t be the remorseless mauling – and there was nothing vengeful or vindictive about the All Blacks here, it was just business – that this Ireland team will be remembered for. In time, it will be regarded as almost miraculous that an Irish team managed to beat New Zealand once, let alone twice, within the space of a few years when they did the most dangerous thing any team or individual can do in Ireland.
They dared to believe they had a chance of becoming the best.