By Phillip Coulter
In a pre-match interview, Declan Kidney said: “The belief is unquestionable. Just because you have a bad day doesn’t mean you can’t turn it around a week later.” And Ireland did just that. They may not have got that elusive first win against the All Blacks but they took them as close as I can remember.
It was a big night for Christchurch and the people of Canterbury as they hosted the All Blacks for the first time since parts of the city was rocked by a series of earthquakes. It had the potential to be another horror show for Irish fans. But instead Ireland stood up, fought back, and showed huge character to push the best team in the world to the very edge of a chastening defeat.
There was a difference in Ireland’s style of play right from the beginning. In the first Test, Ireland spread the ball well and stretched New Zealand early in the game. Once the World Champions had worked out Ireland’s style of play they simply sat off in defence, isolating Ireland and forcing them into leaking penalties. A week later, Ireland adjusted their game plan, but still managed to play an attractive brand of rugby in a more structured and direct way, mitigating against the turnovers and penalties that plagued them last week.
There’s no doubt Ireland would have been embarrassed by the last week’s hiding and for a team dripping with Heineken Cup gold, that will have hurt. But it showed in their performance in the second Test. They were a different beast, combining a ferocious physicality with a faster, more organised line in defence. As a result, they forced the All Blacks into making a lot of uncharacteristic mistakes. Ireland didn’t reinvent the wheel. They simply maintained the ‘unquestionable belief’ that Declan Kidney had talked about before the game. Added to that was an insatiable appetite for hard graft.
Changes in personnel also made a big difference for Ireland. Gordon D’Arcy’s best rugby is behind him and arguably Declan Kidney now has younger, more talented centres at his disposal. Yet on Saturday his understanding with Johnny Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll gave the Irish backline a more settled look. Without being spectacular, D’Arcy brought a cool head and calming influence which added value to Ireland’s all round game.
Up front, the selection of Kevin McLaughlin ahead of Peter O’Mahony didn’t have the Kiwis shaking in their boots, but it was an important change, as McLaughlin gave the Irish back row a better balance. He rarely carried the ball but he was busy doing his job, making tackles and hitting rucks – all the unglamorous jobs that a blind side is employed to do.
After the game, Richie McCaw admitted he was ‘relieved to get away with the win’ and rightly so. Ireland’s overall performance on the day warranted a win. The All Blacks could have counted themselves lucky to get away with a draw this week. Instead like all good teams they somehow managed to find a way to secure a win. For Ireland, if they can show the same intensity in the final test as they did in Christchurch then they might just salvage something special from the tour.
Apart from the added intensity, increased work rate and improved accuracy, Ireland’s kick chase was much better, embodying the extra commitment they carried into the second Test. Sexton and Conor Murray both judged their kicks better while the chasers hunted in numbers to get the ball back.
Room for improvement:
Ireland’s restarts still need to improve if they are to have a chance of beating the All Blacks in round three. Francois Pienaar once said ‘if you can control the restarts, you control the game.’ New Zealand didn’t control this game but they definitely controlled the restarts and reaped the rewards. They won their own restart which led to a score after Sexton’s penalty had made it 10-0. They repeated the trick straight from kick off in the second half, and two minutes later Aaron Smith bundles over for a try. This is very frustrating and needs sorting out, fast.
Follow Phillip Coulter on Twitter @PhillipCoulter