Liam Toland: Plenty to build on after All Blacks onslaught

Superb Ireland performances not enough to stop New Zealand team intent on revenge

“For over a thousand years Roman conquerors returning from the wars enjoyed the honour of triumph, a tumultuous parade. The conquerors rode in a triumphal chariot, the dazed prisoners walking in chains before him. A slave stood behind the conqueror holding a golden crown and whispering in his ear a warning: that all glory is fleeting.” – General George Patton

As my mind rested for a moment in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening, I couldn’t quite feel my emotions. I had been so angry throughout the game, more so than ever before, and having lost 21-9 I was troubled with how to frame such a brutal Test match.

Clearly New Zealand came not just to beat Ireland but to beat Ireland up which they did through a display of wonderful skills, tactics and ferocious, ferocious physicality that bordered heavily on assault. A yellow card for New Zealand centre Malakai Fekitoa: you’re having a laugh.

Amazing story

So why did Saturday’s game trouble me so much? Well, for a start, Ireland deserve enormous credit as much of last Saturday was an improvement on Chicago; yet we lost.

Both props, as I've noted, have been sensational but in Tadhg Furlong there's a Lions Test player. To see him in open space, against a flowing All Black attack, reading the evolving movement and landing a big hit on Julian Savea is just part of his amazing story.

More players stood up and some struggled to gain purchase. Losing Robbie Henshaw and Johnny Sexton afforded us an early view of Garry Ringrose and Paddy Jackson. The timing was far from ideal, but I kept wondering how Joey Carbery would perform in such conditions. Yes, the kicking stats puts Jackson ahead but in Carbery there's a real sense that Saturday's environment is tailored for him.

Seán O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip were phenomenal, and O'Brien could have scored two tries which really frames the performance; it was that close, 23-21. And it was those margins that separated the scores: a bobbling ball by Josh van der Flier, a skip pass from Cian Healy and poor exit kick from Jackson were cruelly punished.

The loss of three crucial players had an immediate effect and it would have even more of an effect we needed the bench in the closing quarter. Hence, the value of Ireland’s performance in these circumstances was huge, especially in how New Zealand played.

However, I jumped out of my seat when Ireland elected to kick three points from a scrum-penalty on 23 minutes. Down a man, Aaron Smith, New Zealand were vulnerable. Rarely will Ireland have an attacking platform metres from the All Black try line, almost centre-field with about 60 metres lateral space being defended by six All Blacks.

Special player

In fact, I question the value Ireland gained playing against 14 All Blacks for 20 minutes especially as their back three were often reduced to two in back-field. At times we played too much rugby in midfield when green grass was available deep in All Black territory.

With so much possession and an extra man Ireland will be disappointed to not have gained more. But part of the story is the concept of the “force multiplier” which New Zealand maximised throughout.

So what of New Zealand? Well, as expected, the two beanpoles made a colossal difference. Brodie Retallick is a very special rugby player whose influence was everywhere. His range of fielding, lineout, scrummaging, offloading and defence is a wonder to watch.

However, in Beauden Barrett, New Zealand have a total rugby player. On Friday I noted the impact that Retallick and Sam Whitelock would have on their lineout and scrum and that in fixing these problems the rewards would be realised out wide.

We knew the danger of their scrum platform in hitting the line off a very flat attacking backline. To combat this, Ireland needed to do two things: destabilise the All Black scrum, which proved very difficult and which was not helped by referee Jaco Peyper’s interpretations.

Conservative approach

Secondly, Ireland needed to release

Conor Murray

very early at scrum-time to fill the gap which Barrett was liable to attack. The All Blacks are consistently brilliant at attacking this space off scrums. But as Barrett “scored”, my mind drifted back to that penalty: we could have elected for a scrum with superior numbers. Why the conservative approach when the advantage was ours?

With a whole new perspective in attitude, aggression and application the All Blacks were sensational at the breakdown. Clearly embarrassed by Murray’s try in Chicago, they smashed the ball carrier, rucked and counter-rucked, getting their feet on to the ball, coming in from all angles and often knocking the bridging player back over the ball.

This forced two outcomes. Ireland enjoyed huge swathes of possession but at a price. Murray had to dig more than in Chicago, and Ireland, in general, had to commit more to simply secure the ball. This was often done against a single All Black; hence, force multiplication.

Ireland got wide but rarely did the All Blacks offer an overlap. They were patient in defence in the knowledge that a violent breakdown would stymie Ireland’s attack. But Barrett brought more variety to their game; he was the difference.

Finally, there is an opportunity for a cabinet reshuffle in the Irish backline for Australia. Regardless of injuries, there is value in Carbery and Ringrose starting.

liamtoland@yahoo.com

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