All Black test ugly viewing from afar
Christchurch – New Zealand 22 – 19 Ireland
The collective breath of a nation was held for the longest time on Saturday evening. With only minutes to go in an intense test match against Ireland, a below par All Black team lost their fullback to a yellow card, for a late challenge on his opposite number, and left the game hanging in the balance.
At that point, on another gloomy summer’s morning in England, I was also thinking it was about time to switch the game off and let go of some steam. The old feeling had returned - which was usually reserved for Test matches against Australia or France; there was no way out and we were going to lose.
However, having a bit of a penchant for punishment, I decided to continue with the rugby Tourette’s and spent the final eight minutes screaming sporadically at the iPad.
In the end though, a relieved New Zealand managed to muscle their way down field - after Ireland fly-half, Jonny Sexton, had missed the opportunity to put his side into the lead – and scored the winning points via the left boot of Daniel Carter. As replacement Ben Smith kicked the ball into touch to end what was an enthralling and obviously sapping instalment of test rugby, every oval-ball loving New Zealander must have slumped back from exhaustion and wiped the sweaty beads of anxiety from their brow.
From afar, I could not quite believe what I had just witnessed. Truthfully, I had thought that a near unchanged All Black, match-day squad would again control the test from start to finish and run out winners by at least a 13 point margin. After the final hooter sounded I felt mentally drained, and dumbfounded, at what I had just witnessed.
Leading up to the test series, I had followed the fortunes of the Irish sides that had competed so manfully in the Rabodirect Pro12 (Celtic League) and the European Cup competitions. With Leinster and Ulster fighting it out for European dominance at Twickenham in the Heineken Cup final, the stage had been set for a battle-hardened Irish squad to land on New Zealand shores and take it to the All Blacks.
After last weekend’s drubbing at Eden Park I was disappointed that Ireland had rolled over so irresolutely, leading me to believe that they were tired, burnt out and unmotivated after such a long and gruelling campaign for their provinces. After 72 minutes at the chilly AMI stadium in Christchurch, I finally saw what Ireland coach Declan Kidney had been wanting from his Leinster laden team which came within a whisker of beating New Zealand for the first time in 26 attempts.
The Irish XV, man for man, where better in nearly every facet of the game. Lead by the lion-hearted Brian O’Driscoll and the Leinster trio of Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Kevin McLaughlin in the loose, Ireland hit every point of contact with a ferocity, I believe, not seen in a test match since the All Blacks destroyed France at the Stade Velodrome in Marseilles three years ago.
For New Zealand, few shone.
The heroes of Auckland, seven days previously, came up against a green wall of guts and determination and nearly did what no other All Black side had done in 107 years, lose to Ireland.
New Zealand coach Steve Hanson and selector Grant Fox must take a hard look at who will fill the fifteen jerseys in Hamilton next weekend, as the last match against this impressive Ireland team will not be easy. Early indications are that number 8, Kieran Read, will not make the cut, so Captain Richie McCaw will slot in at the back of the scrum, and that 20 year old Sam Cane will wear the number 7 jersey.
Throughout the match the New Zealand pack held its own until the introduction of Ben Franks, for his brother Ben, at tight-head. For a world champion team to lose so much parity by removing one player is alarming and it highlights the fact our propping stocks are minimal. With no Carl Hayman, John Afoa or Neemia Tialata to call upon, the NZRU must look to change its stance on overseas selections or invest more into making the Macintosh’s and Tameifuna’s of this world into world class props.
Completing the tight five, Sam Whitelock and Brodie Rettalick have shown more than enough to keep their spots but it is in the loose that Steve Hanson has to look long and hard. As impressive as Sam Cane was when he came on at half time it is worrying that we should have to shift the best open-side of all time into number 8 and fill his position with a novice. Without Read, who rivals South Africa’s Pierre Spies as the best eight man going, New Zealand do not possess anyone else who commands the breakdown like the Crusaders man. With the Hurricanes Victor Vito injured we look light in the loose. However, Liam Messam of the Chiefs would be a fair option, with McCaw at seven and Adam Thompson on the blindside. Sam Cane would keep his place on the timber.
First test star Julian Savea deserves another chance to make amends for his anonymous outing on the wing but Sonny Bill Williams must now make way for the recharged Ma’a Nonu. Williams again had an up and down match and did not impose himself as physically as he did in Auckland. Bringing back the refreshed Nonu and unleashing him from his cage will worry the Irish backs, especially now Gordon D’Arcy has been ruled out, and O’Driscoll must be hurting after two massive efforts.
Daniel Carter must stay at 10 if Israel Dagg is at fullback. However, with the in-form Aaron Cruden getting itchy feet on the bench, Hansen and Co should perhaps look to shift Carter to fullback, Dagg to the wing and slot Cruden in at fly-half. Carter at inside-centre is not the future when you have Williams and Nonu in the squad, and others around the country knocking on the door. When Cory Jane returns to the right, Dagg could fill the left and Carter the 15 jersey, and the All Blacks would have a dangerous, and tactically immense, back three.
Whatever team runs onto the paddock next Saturday, they must recognise that history beckons for them and that a 3-0 series victory is the only outcome that we will accept.