Fighting Irish are lifted despite loss against Maoris
It was an agonising defeat to the Maori in the International Stadium yesterday but a performance that deserved a win, or at least a draw, and one that has given this tour and Irish rugby a much needed boost.
Last weekend's hammering by the All Blacks, John Muldoon's injury and Jamie Heaslip's suspension had cast a pall over this encounter and Ireland were being lined up for a flaying.
The excitement surrounding the Maori's centenary celebrations had enveloped Rotorua all week, and like sacrificial lambs, the Irish were led out to be gorged upon.
And, after 15 minutes, that was how it appeared to be panning out.
The Maori were scoring at the rate of a point a minute and there was an eerie sense of déjavu as we prepared to revisit the horrors of New Plymouth.
What happened subsequently is testament to the character, spirit and ability in this Irish squad as Declan Kidney's men drew a line in the sand and took over the match, scoring 22 unanswered points from a position where the score transformed from 18-3 to the hosts to 18-25 to the un-fancied visitors just after half-time.
The Maori hit back with their third try but, with less than 10 minutes to go and the home team clinging on to a three-point lead, Jonathan Sexton had a kick to tie the scores.
The out-half had produced a superbly controlled performance, nailing each of his previous eight kicks — including two from half-way and one from far out on the right-hand touchline — but his final effort drifted wide and Ireland were denied the very least they merited.
The Maori scored three tries to Ireland's one, which is hard to argue with, but if Ireland had snatched victory nobody could have quibbled given the intensity of their display.
Once again the cards did not fall Ireland's way and while the red and yellow cards scuppered their chances against the All Blacks, it was Mark Lawrence's failure to produce yellow that cost them this time around.
He penalised the Maori five times in succession for breakdown indiscretions yet incredibly no-one was sent to the bin. With Ireland completely dominant, playing against 14 men would have allowed Geordan Murphy's side to go for the jugular.
They will look at defensive lapses for the tries — 12 now conceded in two games — when Hosea Gear and Dwayne Sweeney took advantage of space on the left for the first-half efforts and substitute Karl Lowe rounded off a move that began with a quick throw in the Maori half for the third on 64 minutes.
Geordan Murphy led by example from the back, the unheralded centre partnership of Paddy Wallace and Gavin Duffy caused problems and Sexton pulled the strings expertly from 10.
Having come so close, it was hard for Kidney to mask his disappointment afterwards but he was equally eager to commend the performance that has got this tour firmly back on track.
“We play to win so it is extremely disappointing,” he said.
“I'm disappointed for the players because they put in a great effort. After the first 15 minutes we worked our way back into it, weren't going too bad, up by a few points but then we didn't close out the game.
“Last week was a tonking, you feel extraordinary after something like that. I wouldn't say this is as disappointing but disappointing in a big way too,” he added.
It is not in Kidney's nature to criticise referees, and he certainly wasn't about to buck that trend yesterday, but there is no doubt Lawrence's failure to show yellow hurt Ireland badly.
“He has to call it as he sees it. It was a centenary match. He's a good ref,” was Kidney's simple summation.
So, on to Brisbane and the Wallabies. A fourth win in a row may make for grim reading but this performance has created momentum. Once the immediate disappointment of the one that got away dissipates, Ireland can look to end an up-and-down season on a powerful note.
For all the injury problems, the most encouraging aspect of this trip has been the development of players who a year ago would not have been close to first team selection. Now, Kidney has selection headaches to address for next weekend and, while there are undoubtedly areas to improve on and they will have to be more clinical in critical areas to take on the Wallabies, Ireland can got to Australia with something of a spring in their step.
“All the different areas that we got better tonight have to improve again,” acknowledged Kidney. “Did someone say that last try came from a quick throw-in? We let them run once out of their 22 too. Things like that in defence have to improve. But a lot of things in attack too put the defence under pressure.
“We'll take a good look at it (selection). I think every time a guy gets a chance to wear a green jersey and he makes a go of it, you want to give that respect. Then you see what it is and come up with the best mix for next week.”
NZ MAORI: R Robinson, S Maitland, D Sweeney, L McAlister, H Gear, S Brett (W Ripia 62), A Smith (R Tipuna 58), B Murray (C Newlands 70), C Flynn (D Coles 53), B Afeaki, H Triggs, J Hoeata (R Graham 64), L Messam (capt), T Latimer (K Lowe 53), C Bourke.
IRELAND: G Murphy (capt), S Horgan (R Kearney 71), G Duffy, P Wallace, J Murphy (R Kearney 53-55), J Sexton, E Reddan (P Stringer 62), M Horan, J Fogarty (D Varley 60), T Court (J Hayes 40), E O'Donoghue, D Tuohy (D O'Callaghan 64), R Ruddock, N Ronan, C Henry (D Wallace 64).
Referee: M Lawrence (S Africa).