After an enthralling and exhausting match, surely the greatest compliment that you can give Ireland is that New Zealand had to be brilliant to beat them.
Yet, the Irish changing room must have held the strangest of emotions — 80 minutes of tiny margins, but when you looked at the scoreboard, it gave the impression of a fair old stuffing.
Last week I stated that, unlike England and Scotland before them, a huge first half performance was required to force the All Blacks to have to produce something special in the second half, rather than simply close out the game. And so it turned out — the workrate, defensive effort and no lack of skill in attack were all more than evident, but it pushed New Zealand to come up with something that little bit special, and they delivered the killer blows when it mattered most. The men in black were clinical and efficient.
This efficiency operated from a platform of greater experience, reflected most of all in the timing of New Zealand’s scores.
In the minutes just before half time, if you have put in an enormous effort — you cannot wait until the break. You will catch yourself casting a glance at the clock with the thought, “nearly there”. The mind might only be 1% in the changing room, but suddenly that presents an opportunity to the opposition.
Then in the minutes immediately after half-time that same 1% might be lingering in that same changing room. These two situations provided chinks of light for the All Blacks. In the space of six minutes the complete landscape of the game had changed.
While pure skill played a major role in these scores, the main ingredient was the term that best sums up the All Blacks — “relentless intensity”. They started at such a pace that you wondered whether it could be sustained for the duration, but it was never in question. The real issue was whether Ireland could continue to defend at that high level for 80 minutes but the cracks were exposed at crucial times of the game.
When they are on this sort of form, the All Blacks combine delicious juxtapositions: brutality and beauty, savagery and sophistication, and when these elements merge, they inevitably produce something quite special.
However, from an Irish point of view, what is most pleasing is that our own players joined the party and made their own significant contributions to the game. Brian O’Driscoll still produces moments of skill that set him apart from the vast majority of international players. His one-handed pick up at full tilt and low drive for the line in total self-belief was a moment of sheer class. No doubt it will inspire schoolboys all over the land to practice this on the training ground. But to do it when it counts against the best team in the world — that is what makes BOD special.
Jamie Heaslip is now consistently the best player in Irish rugby and has become an inspirational figure in the pack. Our own Stephen Ferris rose to the occasion and Jonathan Sexton confounded any potential critics. But none of them is Dan Carter, who in a different life must have been a concert pianist.
The margins were small, but the inescapable truth is that in every aspect of the game the All Blacks were just that bit better. Add all those little bits up and you have a comprehensive victory. This is why Declan Kidney stated that he does not take that much comfort in defeat. The biggest thing that the Ireland coach has achieved in his time with the national team, and before that with Munster, is that he has changed the mindset. No longer is a great “effort” good enough, no longer can an Irish team be satisfied or lauded for going out and giving everything only to lose. There is only one way to become the best and that is to earn that right on the pitch and then enjoy and embrace that same reputation rather than let it stifle you.
Ireland gave their best performance of these Autumn internationals by a mile. It may not have been good enough, but the players reacted positively to Kidney’s vote of confidence in them through his selection. The challenge is now to learn from the experience, seek further improvement while maintaining the same high level of intensity. Meanwhile, the All Blacks are still the yardstick in world rugby.