A certain blogger who will remain nameless (that would be me) questioned the Ireland selection in the lead-up to this fixture last week; the blogger did not see where the creativity and physicality was going to come from to down the ‘juggernaut’ New Zealand. Never mind, for once Hawkeye Sidekick was well wide of the mark and Ireland delivered a performance which has to rank as their most emphatic and complete performance ever.
How did Ireland manage to break the hoodoo?
Ireland had what Axel Foley referred to ‘as a bit of dog’ in the lead-up to this fixture. The 2013 reversal in the Aviva Stadium still hurt and resonated among the Ireland players who were on duty in the magnificent amphitheater that was Soldiers field. From the poignant yet striking formation (tribute to Axel with the eight formation), Ireland were a team focused on writing the wrongs and getting over the line against New Zealand who despite several injuries had potency in every line.
Ireland’s game management centered around three key areas: the first was the exploitation of a New Zealand second row partnership which had a open loose forward in the ranks. Even New Zealand with their impressive squad depth was well short in this area and Toner /Ryan dominated lineout exchanges. The Ireland maul was gloriously executed in their first try on nineteen minutes; no continuity in the New Zealand front five to counteract the set-piece. Stander in the lead-up to the try was immense; his sheer raw physicality and work rate was infectious.
The Ireland scrum has on occasion let the team down in vital moments but this was a day where the line fronted up and won their battle against a New Zealand front row oozing class. It was the coming of age for Jack McGrath (who was mistakenly called Rory Best by a NZ journalist last week) and Tadhg Furlong whose scrummaging was on point and gave Ireland a solid platform to launch attacks out wide. With the lineout firing well, Ireland had the core fundamentals right to seriously trouble New Zealand.
The New Zealand three quarters possessed massive upside with ball in hand but Ireland pinpointed the channel consistently in this test match. Henshaw and Payne were making significant game line yards and the CJ Stander try from close range came from Ireland’s ability to break the NZ three quarter channel ten meters out to allow the Munster talisman to power over. Henshaw’s performance was nothing short of sensational; his work rate, his twelve tackles and general willingless to run with ball in hand throughout was a joy to behold. Payne’s assured defensive organization was to the fore and NZ struggled to make any concerted line breaks in the first fifty minutes of this encounter.
The Ireland half-backs won their battle hands down; it was helped by a supreme pack effort but Murray to the fore caused endless issues for NZ in the close fringes. Murray’s try just before half-time was a superb piece of game management. The Munster scrum-half sensing that Smith was day dreaming on the defensive read made a snipping run which was never going to be stopped. Smith’s performance added to the off the field indiscretions must make him extremely vulnerable for the axe. Perenara’s introduction in the second half provided much needed direction for NZ in open play.
Sexton vs. Barrett. Sexton for fifty minutes was lights out sublime; his game management and ability to execute provided Ireland three quarters with massive game line gains. Barrett floundered as his pack and scrum half were under immense pressure. Sexton’s lack of game time caught with him in the third quarter and unfortunately at least one of NZ tries were down to Sexton’s kicking game inaccuracy (either out in the full or the aimless aerial bomb leading to Ben Smith’s try). Carbery’s introduction was made at exactly the right time and the youngster provided the coolness and direction which Ireland required to close out the contest. Several key game management decisions from the Athy native in the last ten minutes belied the fact that this was Carbery’s debut. His kick to the touch forcing NZ deep into their own half with eight minutes to go was as good as it gets.
New Zealand are a supreme team. Their comeback in the second half was sensational; their speed of pass, line speed and offloading were to the fore in that third quarter. Ben Smith’s try was a thing of beauty; how agile was the full back to cross the whitewash while under pressure from the likes of Zebo and Heaslip at the corner flag. New Zealand have that aura about them; you never think they are beat until the final whistle. When Zebo crossed over to make it 30-8, any other opponent would have lied down and looked for the final whistle to go. NZ are a different beast; they continued to play their rugby and their calmness in that third quarter is something that Ireland and others learn from.
With Ireland hanging on 33-29 with fifteen minutes to go, the signs did look ominous. NZ were clearing rucks quicker, fast ruck ball to Barrett who was starting to impress. Ireland had to dig into the well and the hit from Trimble in midfield which caused NZ to spill ball to go forward a key moment in the contest. Ireland was refusing to take a step backwards; the fans in the stadium responded. The Ireland players were reenergized and the last eight minutes were superb culminating in the fifth Ireland try.
Ireland of old would have set the scrum, kept it tight in the front five to kill the clock but Ireland under Schmidt are a different proposition. Another solid scrum and Heaslip executed the pass to Henshaw on the running line perfect. Henshaw was never going to be stopped after breaking the first NZ tackle. Try for Ireland. Game over. History was made. It was a move which typified the evolution in play from Ireland; their sharp attacking lines were too much for NZ.
Chicago; a town which had its own hoodoo broken last week with the Cubs World Series win seen another hoodoo consigned to the history books. Ireland vanquished all the horrors and tribulations of twenty-eight previous NZ wins with one supreme performance. This performance is now the blueprint for Ireland going forward; this is the performance which should be the baseline for Ireland players and coaching staff to aspire to each and every week.
Given the players unavailable for selection, this Ireland win is all the more remarkable and with the likes of O’Brien, O’Mahoney, Earls, Kilcoyne, Henderson all raring to get back to the national setup, Schmidt has serious selection dilemmas going forward. What a day! Ireland score forty on NZ. Ireland score five tries on the reigning World Champions. Incredible stuff. NZ unbeaten record is smashed.