It was a weekend of contrasting fortunes for Ireland and Wales, as the former achieved a landmark win and the latter slumped to a dire defeat. With the Barbarians in action too, and Guinness Pro12 and Anglo-Welsh Cup matches to take in, there was plenty to write home about.
Conor Murray and Ireland
Are there enough superlatives in the dictionary to describe Ireland’s 40-29 win over New Zealand? It was their first victory over the Kiwis in 29 attempts and, astonishing, this was only the fifth time New Zealand have conceded 40 points in a Test match.
The chief architect of Ireland’s win was scrum-half Conor Murray, who absolutely bossed proceedings. It is no exaggeration to say every Ireland player had an outstanding afternoon in the unfamiliar surroundings of Chicago’s Soldier Field. The pack produced so much quick ball and the back three of Rob Kearney, Simon Zebo and Andrew Trimble were among those who really stood out, but Murray was the top dog.
He scored a fine individual try in the 34th minute, making his opposite number Aaron Smith look like a chump as he breezed past him from the back of a ruck. Murray also stepped up to kick a penalty while Johnny Sexton was injured and he kept Ireland going forward at a great rate of knots throughout.
New Zealand rallied from 25-8 down at half-time to trail just 33-29 with just 15 minutes to go and it looked like the story of the match would be yet another Kiwi comeback and another year of heartbreak for Ireland. However, Zebo kicked over the top of the defence and Malakai Fekitoa gathered it under pressure from Zebo and Robbie Henshaw, and so offloaded quickly to Julian Savea.
He tried to sprint out of trouble over his own try-line, but a tremendous chase and tackle by Murray meant Savea was bundled into touch in goal. Jamie Heaslip picked up from the back of the five-metre scrum and fed Henshaw and the centre crashed through for the try which sealed the game for Ireland.
From the pre-match moment when Ireland formed a figure of eight to face the Haka, as a tribute to the late, great Anthony Foley, everything about this Ireland display was top quality. Their supporters in a fantastically vocal crowd were made to sweat a bit in the second half, but there is no doubt Ireland deserved their win.
Taqele Naiyaravoro and the Barbarians
The Barbarians showed you don’t have to have weeks of preparation to produce a top level performance, as they drew 31-31 with South Africa at Wembley on Saturday after just three days of training.
The Man of the Match was the Barbarians wing Taqele Naiyaravoro, who terrorised the Springbok defence time and time again. He created his team’s first try and scored one of his own in the 40th minute to give the invitation side a 17-12 half-time lead.
Then, on 56 minutes, Naiyaravoro conjured up one of the best tries you will ever see. With South Africa 19-17 up, the Barbarians won turnover ball and the big Australian rampaged up the left wing then flung an outrageous offload to Andy Ellis, who stooped to collect it and chipped ahead, only to see Jamba Ulengo tidy up the ball. However, the South Africa wing’s clearance kick was caught by none other than Naiyaravoro and he set off on a diagonal run. His powerful break, plus quick hands from the other backs, put Luke Morahan in at the right-hand corner and the Barbarians were ahead again.
Edinburgh bounced back from their 19-14 Guinness Pro12 defeat to Zebre last weekend with a 28-17 victory over Ulster. Both teams were missing some Test players but Ulster still fielded a strong side so Edinburgh’s young pack in particular had to dig deep.
Magnus Bradbury had yet another superb game in the back row, gaining 44 metres from ten carries, scoring Edinburgh’s third try and making 11 tackles.
His back-row colleague Jamie Ritchie made 17 tackles to impress head coach Duncan Hodge and in the backs Blair Kinghorn and Damien Hoyland kept the Scots going forward.
Leinster wing Adam Byrne scored a hat-trick for his side in their 33-10 Guinness Pro12 win over Zebre in Italy. The 22-year-old struck in the 34th, 48th and 64th minutes and, given that he also scored a try against Connacht last week in his first league appearance of the season, Byrne is on something of a hot streak.
Harry Thacker and Freddie Burns
This duo shone for Leicester Tigers in their 21-20 Anglo-Welsh Cup win over Bath. The home side took an 8-0 lead at the Recreation Ground, but Thacker’s strong carries and Burns’s game management and goal kicking put Leicester 21-8 up early in the second half and although Bath fought back, they just fell short.
Thacker was named Man of the Match for his dynamic play in the loose and one peel and break from a lineout created a try for George Catchpole which ensured the Tigers were 15-8 up at half-time. Burns kicked 11 points from the tee and controlled the game well.
Three home defeats in the Aviva Premiership have made Kingsholm an unhappy place to be so far this season, but Gloucester got their Anglo-Welsh Cup campaign off to a winning start against Saracens, coming back from 25-5 down at half-time to win 36-32.
Wing David Halaifonua scored the winning try at the death, ploughing his way down the right-hand touchline and taking Nathan Earle over the line with him.
It was by no means a one-man show for Gloucester and Henry Purdy was among their other shining lights, but without Halaifonua’s power and pace in that final moment, it would all have been in vain.
What a washout Wales were in their 32-8 battering by Australia. Wales have gained an unwanted reputation for starting their Test season’s slowly but this was a whole new level of bad against a Wallabies team which didn’t exactly set the Rugby Championship alight.
Wales have not become a bad team overnight, but too many players had a poor game on the same day. Their defensive organisation was all over the place, there were gaps everywhere for Australia to exploit and they created more opportunities with their skilful offloading game.
Australia dominated territory, possession and the metres-gained statistics. Their line-speed was excellent and in the first 15 minutes they had 91 per cent of the possession, which left Wales reeling.
Ross Moriarty is the only Wales player who had anything like a good game and even he missed a couple of tackles. The more eye-catching mistakes in the Welsh ranks include Dan Biggar being sin-binned in the first quarter for pulling Dane Haylett-Petty back off the ball and Sam Davies costing Wales a try on his debut off the bench as Haylett-Petty picked up a pass to no one from him and raced in from a long way out.
It was Wales’s heaviest home defeat in a decade so it will be a tough week on the training ground as they try to right the wrongs before facing Argentina.
Aaron Smith and Joe Moody
New Zealand’s 40-29 defeat at the hands of Ireland was down to a superb all-round team effort from the men in green and more than a handful of below-par performances from All Blacks players.
Among the villains on the New Zealand side was scrum-half Aaron Smith, who was substituted after just 46 minutes. He looked off the pace and made a defensive mistake at the back of a ruck to let his opposite number Conor Murray waltz through for a try. Smith stepped too far away from the ruck and left a gap on the openside that Murray happily darted through, touching down for a score which gave Ireland a 25-8 half-time lead.
Joe Moody must also shoulder some of the blame after he was sin-binned for a needless tip-tackle on Robbie Henshaw with six minutes on the clock. While he was off, Ireland scored two tries, the first a lineout drive which was grounded by Jordi Murphy and the second a touchdown by CJ Stander after a break from Rob Kearney. By the time Moody came back onto the pitch, Ireland were 15-8 up so it was a costly mistake from him.
Sale Sharks beat Wasps 17-13 in the Anglo-Welsh Cup and while scrum-half Mike Phillips had a good game for them in many ways, he also cost them five points when his flat pass at the back of a lineout was intercepted by Guy Thompson.
The Wasps back row sprinted from his own half to score a try which took Wasps from 7-3 down to 8-7 up.
Rugby league star Josh Charnley came on for the last 20 minutes to make his debut for Sale but his team-mates might all count as Sinners to some extent as they failed to bring him into the game at all. Sale director of rugby Steve Diamond quipped: “Well he did nothing, he didn’t get the ball did he, so it wasn’t really a debut was it? He just wore the shirt!”