Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Pride now restored to Irish rugby

Ireland's Jonathan Sexton misses a penalty near the end of the game

I'm not too sure losing comes any crueller than this. We can trot out all the usual cliches about New Zealand snatching victory from the jaws of defeat and all that guff but from an Irish perspective this is as tough as it gets.

Tough, yes because we ultimately lost a test we could and should have won, but much more than that because on this extraordinary occasion the winning and losing was in our own hands.

The history creating New Zealanders were brave to a fault in completing the perfect year but in failing to seal the deal by way of Jonny Sexton's late penalty miss (pictured) followed by the concession of that penalty when counting the clock down in 'ball up the jumper' time we coughed up our best opportunity ever of beating the All Blacks and with it the chance of finally get that gigantic Gorilla off our back.

And more is the pity because on this occasion we deserved it. Ireland yesterday were unrecognisable from the ragged and disjointed crew of a week before.

Everything we failed to deliver against the Wallabies we produced in spades against the 'Blacks. The lineout was productive, the scrum immoveable with the work at the breakdown exceptional.

It would be wrong to say the all conquering Kiwis were rattled but they were certainly knocked out of their stride as rugby from the heart made for the Irish order of the day.

To pick out an Irish player who played up to scratch against Australia was nigh on impossible. Yesterday, it was equally impossible to pick out one who didn't.

We won't go down the road of moral victories but certainly pride was restored to Irish rugby.

The kicking, so wayward and unproductive in the previous two tests, was right on the money while line speed and cohesion in defence was several gears up from that delivered against the Samoans and Wallabies. So too the kick chase whereby the pressure on any counter attacking was every bit as relentless as it had to be.

Joe Schmidt will be disappointed and with very good reason but when measured against the inexplicable flatness of the week before it puts his newly inherited squad in a much better place going forward to the Six Nations and everything that lies ahead. We are still very much a squad in transition but with definite signs against the world's best of hitting the right track.

Schmidt prides himself on attention to detail and it was that key aspect that enabled us to hit the ground running.

Whether it was Tommy Bowe gobbling up the restart, Conor Murray measuring his clearance kick or the chasers (one and all) exerting pressure the early message was one of organisation and hunger for the fight. By contrast with the Samoan and Wallaby tests, this was from another planet entirely.

We matched New Zealand physically and with that comes respect but even more we took our first half tries by way of every opportunity that came our way. At 19-0 we were almost in dreamland and therein lies the real tragedy of not winning. I doubt we will ever have such an opportunity again.

The discipline too was exceptional conceding just one penalty in what must surely rank as the most complete opening half ever by an Irish side against the All Blacks.

Cian Healy was back to his wrecking ball best while Devin Toner came of age alongside a rejuvenated Paul O'Connell. In the back row both Sean O'Brien (the official Man of the Match) and Jamie Heaslip in particular were exceptional.

Murray too more than justified his re-selection ahead of Eoin Reddan while both Gordon D'Arcy and Rob Kearney produced their best displays of the November series. On the downside is injury to Rory Best who was another on top of his game at the time he was forced out.

Despite the 15 point lead at the break you knew the second-half would bring the inevitable Kiwi fight back. And so it did. Therein lies the real disappointment and one that will grow even larger in time. The inability to seal the deal and break that psychological barrier forever

Against that, what we witnessed was a great team, perhaps the greatest ever, at the end of a long and arduous season, get across a finishing line that at times in the contest seemed beyond even the best.

But that is why they are what they are... the reigning world champions at the end of the perfect 14 from 14 return.

From an Irish perspective, the final Aaron Cruden conversion scarcely mattered even though it meant the losing of a game they might otherwise have drawn. But for the All Blacks, it did and at the second attempt he nailed it.

Courage and conviction had taken them out of a losing hole. A disappointing defeat but in the cold light of day Irish rugby pride restored.

On Saturday at Wembley the New Zealand Rugby League team performed a similar never say die performance when pipping England at the death.

Yesterday their Union counterparts repeated the dose. In neither case did it happen by chance. Perhaps therein lies the real message at the end of a memorable weekend all round. And still this one cuts deep. God only knows how the players must feel.

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