As if we didn’t already know, there are no soft landings in New Zealand.
On a wet and miserable looking winter’s evening in Hamilton, Ireland were subjected to a right skinning by the Maori All Blacks with the game going rapidly south for the visitors between the 28th minute and the end of the first half.
In that time, the hosts piled on 21 unanswered points and looked to be having some fun in the process especially when Cullen Grace rolled over the line for the their fourth touchdown with James Hume gamely hanging on as the opening half closed for business.
Prior to Grace’s moment, Ireland had missed at least three tackles after Jimmy O’Brien’s kick and chase had ended up with the Maoris simply off-loading and spraying the ball into the lightly policed wide channels (again).
Cian Prendergast, Craig Casey and Ciaran Frawley all failed to haul men down and, as such, even with a clumsy home player’s calf managing to double-up as a pass, the Maoris were out of sight as the teams trooped off.
Throw in Ireland’s disciplinary issues – Wayne Barnes was all over them in the first 40 – along with problems at the breakdown and with general physicality plus some set-piece work which simply wasn’t up to scratch, and it was little wonder that this Ireland side with its smattering of debutants was in trouble.
Fair enough, this tour is at the end of a long enough season and is about as far away as you can travel but some of the work Ireland brought to the table in this opener – an important occasion for all those involved whether anywhere near the Test 23 or not – was well below the expected standard.
And, yes, the tourists did manage to rally enough to win the second half 7-0 but little can realistically be taken from that with the Maoris’ own handling errors and discipline getting the upper hand in a contest which descended into what became essentially a stalemated slog.
Inevitably there were injuries. Cian Healy needing the medical cart to be ferried off was the most concerning sign for Andy Farrell ahead of Saturday’s first Test though James Hume also required some assistance to leave proceedings about 10 minutes ahead of Healy.
Hume had really needed to showcase his excellent Ulster form, but the window of opportunity here remained pretty much closed as he was mostly required to chase and tackle black shirts throughout his 49 minutes on the pitch.
Precious few of those wearing green enhanced their reputations here against a fired up Maori side who brought plenty of extra emotion to this challenge and will now be looking at achieving a double when the sides meet in just under a fortnight’s time by which stage a potentially battered Ireland may be struggling to field.
O’Brien, Frawley who played at 10, Prendergast, Jeremy Loughman, Keith Earls and Jordan Larmour all struggled to get into a game where Ireland played too much on the back-foot and then when they found some semblances of momentum were unable to move the scoreboard on through their more direct approach.
Tom O’Toole went the distance and largely looked to have come away from this in reasonable shape but the fact that he did 80 minutes may have been more down to Loughman being unable to come back on for Healy which, in turn, forced Finlay Bealham to play the final 10 minutes at loose-head.
Nick Timoney had moments but not enough of them and the same could be said of Kieran Treadwell. Gavin Coombes too while Ireland really needed better discipline from the hard-working Bundee Aki.
Pity Michael Lowry. He came on for Hume and barely got any valuable work from the occasion though he was by no means alone.
The All Blacks may be having their own issues ahead of Saturday, but Ireland resemble damaged goods already.