All Blacks squeak home against Ireland

MARC HINTON
Last updated 21:48 16/06/2012
All Blacks v Ireland
IAIN MCGREGOR/Fairfax NZ Zoom
Richie McCaw on the charge.

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The All Blacks needed a last-gasp drop goal from Dan Carter to save them from an Irish team seemingly destined for redemption.

Playing their first test in quake-ravaged Christchurch in two years, Richie McCaw's world champion side were able to keep intact their 107-year undefeated record against the northern hemisphere outfit. But only just.

It took a dramatic 80th-minute dropped goal from Dan Carter - at his second attempt in a surging finale - to rescue a series-clinching victory for the All Blacks. But the 22-19 final margin said it all. This had been close. Damn close.

For the first time since Steve Hansen took charge, the All Blacks were unsettled by an opponent who took them on physically and with real punch and precision. It was a remarkable transformation from an Irish side who had been battered into submission just seven days earlier on Eden Park.

But what a difference a week made. The Irish got stuck into the All Blacks up front and few in the sellout crowd of 20,669 would have denied them at least the draw that looked likely when Jonny Sexton's 67th-minute penalty levelled the scores at 19-19.

It would have been just the second draw in the long history of tests between these two countries - equalling the 1973 achievement - but in the end the All Blacks kept their cool and found a way to snatch victory under the most unpromising of circumstances.

Fullback Israel Dagg had been sinbinned in the 72nd minute for a late and high hit on his Irish opposite Ron Kearney, and the New Zealanders not only had to survive a 49-metre penalty attempt from Sexton, but also the final eight minutes a man down.

To their credit the All Blacks upped the ante when it mattered most. They worked their way upfield - largely thanks to a surging run off a ruck from skipper Richie McCaw - and established the field position for Carter to unleash his heroics.

His first attempt, off a poor pass from Piri Weepu, sailed wide off his right boot. But referee Nigel Owens had spotted an Irish deflection and Carter got a second opportunity via the scrum. This time the delivery was on the money and the best No 10 in the game slotted the winner with his lethal left boot.

The All Blacks coaching box - by this stage with windows fully steamed up - erupted in joy as their men sent the crowd home happy.

"We got out of jail with the late drop-kick," said Carter. "We were relieved to get through that game with a win. We're quietly happy but not getting ahead of ourselves. We know we've got a lot to work on."

But after the giddy heights of last week's 42-10 demolition on Eden Park, this was a plunge back to earth for the world champions who badly lacked the fluency and accuracy from Auckland. They made too many basic errors and allowed the Irish to take them off their stride with their physicality.

This was a different Irish side this week, and that was evident as the visitors deservedly eked out a 10-9 lead by the break, their forwards showing the commitment that had been noticeably absent in their first test defeat.

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Clearly Irish coach Declan Kidney had pushed the right buttons during the week, with the visitors making an impressive start to the test, shooting out to an early 7-0 lead when halfback Conor Murray snuck across from a ruck on the line right on the 10-minute mark.

The Irish put some real pressure on the All Blacks through the opening quarter, Murray's score coming when the men in green elected to take the lineout option from a wide penalty. At that stage they had the New Zealanders well and truly in batten-down-the-hatches mode.

The All Blacks looked unsettled early and took a while to find their rhythm. But even when they did get their hands on the ball as the half wore on, they lacked the precision from last week, all too often errors coming before the Irish defence could be breached.

In fact, it was only the precision boot of Carter that got the All Blacks back into the contest after Jonathan Sexton had slotted a penalty soon after Murray's try to extend their advantage to 10-0. The New Zealand No 10 landed three straight penalties to reduce the margin to a single point and missed his only attempt right on halftime when a 54-metre effort came up just short.

The All Blacks hit the front for the first time in the match just a minute or so into the second half when halfback Aaron Smith - having a second straight standout test - was driven over by his forwards from close to the line. Carter's sideline conversion took them out to 16-10.

But the Irish would not go away and three Sexton penalties over the run home got them right back into the contest and set up that showcase finish.

Loose forward Sam Cane came on at halftime to replace No 8 Kieran Read who picked up another knock to the head, and the young man from Reporoa did not disappoint in a promising display.

McCaw was typically gutsy up front, but the All Black forwards will be the first to admit they were outplayed on the night. Smith had another quality test in the No 9 jersey, while Carter was the steadying influence needed in the big moments.

But overall the All Black backline disappointed, unable to work their magic as they had a week earlier.

Jamie Heaslip was outstanding in an Irish pack that played brilliantly as a unit, while Sexton was the pick of a backline that enjoyed their forwards' dominance.

McCaw summed it all up perfectly at the end, admitting he was "pretty relieved" to scrape out the victory.

"We didn't match their intensity like we wanted to," said the skipper. "Mistakes at test footy level, these guys make you pay and that's pretty much what happened."

All Blacks 22 (Aaron Smith try; Dan Carter 4 pen, conv, dg)

Ireland 19 (Conor Murray try;  Jonathan Sexton conv,  4 pen).

HT: Ireland 10-9.

- Fairfax Media

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