Liam Toland: Schmidt era ends in a whimper as Ireland fail to ask the basic questions
Out of form team’s error-ridden display made things easy for clinical All Blacks
For Ireland to win, they had to place doubt in the minds of the best team in the world.
To do this they needed the very new All Blacks Richie Mo’unga and especially Sevu Reece to doubt themselves. The amazing Irish crowd did their job and set the scene mid Haka for the Irish team to take over.
We know how good Reece is but unfortunately we don’t know how bad he is, or how bad he could be because Ireland were simply unable to control their controllables and build a game delivering doubt.
Ironically, so extensive is the All Black skill set that they could afford to ignore Reece until they needed him; for that cross field kick sucking in four Irish defenders leading to Matt Todd’s try or the play off the right hand scrum leading to Aaron Smith’s second try.
He was there, only when they needed him as they had many others who were more than capable. Meanwhile Irish doubt grew.
The pitch is 70 metres wide and Ireland have far too often focused on one metre ignoring the remaining 69. I’ve never been a fan of this style with possibly only the Springboks physically capable of dominating this way.
With this style in mind, I was hoping Iain Henderson would step up physically but he looked exhausted and couldn’t gain purchase; he wasn’t alone.
Conversely, the All Blacks probe every metre of the 70-metre width exploring dormant and yet-to-be-exposed Irish vulnerabilities. And when those vulnerabilities are found it immediately becomes irrelevant the number on the jersey as to the skill set and, crucially, the decision-making.
On Friday, I noted how the All Blacks’ entire team is comfortable in every environment. Look at Ardie Savea; steals the breakdown ball off CJ Stander, immediately attacks space, carries in both hands, fixes multiple Irish defenders and finds hooker Dan Coles in open space.
Coles, perfectly comfortable in this area even being hunted by Keith Earls, wins the tackle contact and gently flips the ball into winger George Bridge for another try; turnover and 6 plays 2 who plays 11 – try. With so much possession gifted these skills flourished.
Ireland have been out of form for months and on Saturday looked like a team out of form for months where timing and execution was a huge struggle.
Ireland played a beautiful backline move, fixing Mo’unga and Reece whilst Rob Kearney powered into the gap with fresh, clean, empty grass behind, requiring quick hands from his outhalf where crucially Ireland forced the All Blacks to think in defence.
The pass was delayed, the run was overrun and Beauden Barrett scored. These all worked in 2018. So the question for today is style or form. I’ve never been a fan of the style but the form is the real killer because we will never know how far off the current style is because the form is just creating so many errors.
The impact of those errors can’t be overstated.
Ireland knew New Zealand were the top team and rarely offer openings so whenever the pendulum swung into Ireland’s favour it was crucial to maximise those moments.
One eventually arrived with Ireland choosing to kick the penalty to touch; muscle has a memory and this became Ireland’s moment – lineout maul tries have been scored against all the great teams, including New Zealand and regardless of how good New Zealand were until that point, Ireland have a great maul.
Before Johnny Sexton kicked, I watched from high in the stand his captain Rory Best with a perfect white towel in his hands mentally preparing for the lineout and physically preparing to dry the ball.
But as the Sexton’s kick sailed past the corner flag I watched as Best tossed the towel away and got back defending. There’s no ideal time for an error but this was a cruel, cruel blow to the emotional energy of the Irish; not to mention the Irish crowd who needed a moment to get behind their team. That it was our World Player of the Year who missed touch only added to the enormous fatigue, mental and physical.
This column has long explored the need to develop skills and decision-making at a far younger age of the elite cycle; ideally at under 12s. I wonder how many frustrated supporters throughout Ireland genuinely encourage the wonderful skills as displayed by the All Blacks on Saturday over the course of an under 12 season?
If not, why do we expect this skilful outcome from our internationals without them starting the journey at 12. Either way, for this band of players I feel huge sympathy in the knowledge that they’ll know that they didn’t force New Zealand to win but simply became facilitators of the win which is most disappointing.
Finally; my admiration for Rory Best will never dim. To hear him note, post-match, that there are ‘big men in tears’ in the dressingroom was heartbreaking. I will never forget the figure of eight in Chicago and the wonderful role he played there and to see him close to tears as his career brutally slipped away was gut-wrenching.
And for Joe Schmidt; his rugby template will long be analysed but today I think of the human where many times I’ve bumped into him across the country; down in Old Crescent across in Barnhall, up in Lansdowne where he’s given enormously of himself to Irish rugby clubs, provinces and country.
It’s a horrible end for him and his squad but he has transformed so much of our old systems that there’s a strong light still burning across the country and for that there is a bright future; starting with the under 12s.