TEAM OF AWESOME
The clock was approaching 25 minutes as the scoreboard read New Zealand 3, Ireland 5. The home side had good attacking ball from a lineout and were heading for our 22.
On the second phase, Tadhg Beirne got a hold of the ball, seemed to snaffle it, but went off his feet and so he wisely let it go. Pity – who knows when he’ll get a chance to do that again in this match…
So the All Blacks play on and try to send it wide to their left wing, but that gets quickly shut down and sent back inside. O’Mahony, Doris and Porter are among the tacklers who keep thwarting their attempts to break through until Reiko Ioane looks like he has a chance but he’s grabbed by a combination of Henshaw and Hansen so the centre spins around and tries to present the ball to his team mates who are a fraction of a second behind him…
…only as he looks up from the ground he sees an ominous red scrum cap looming over him, owned of course by Josh van der Flier, who doesn’t even need that fraction of a second to come through the gate get his hands on the ball and win it back for his side.
He lets Beirne take it and he wisely passes it to Keenan who in turn ships it to Hansen but they’re under a good bit of pressure in their own 22 until thankfully the officials spot that Ioane had come from on offside position which meant the threat was relieved by a penalty. That in itself had the look of a pivotal moment about it, although to be fair this series has been full of them.
So skipper Johnny Sexton goes to put the penalty to touch – the kick is 15m in from the touchline, right on the 22. The All Blacks have been good at punishing us for trying to take too much out of touchfinders by making the most of the laws for keeping the ball in play, so he needed this one to be good, and it really was.
Anywhere around the halfway line would have been fine, but his torpedo actually had the assistant ref raising his flag 10m into the New Zealand half, meaning this was now an attacking opportunity for us, once we won the lineout of course, and as I said in my preview, well actually in pretty much every preview this season, set piece accuracy on our own put in was critical.
Over to you, Dan Sheehan. Remember – his test debut was only last November as he came on in the 56th minute for Rónan Kelleher against Japan. Now here he was taking a critical lineout throw in a series decider in Wellington. And every time he looked down the barrel of the two lines before a throw, he knew his dart needed to be on the money, particularly with Sam Whitelock lurking halfway down having returned to the Kiwi starting lineup.
Actually his first attempt ended up going straight to Wayne Barnes, who called a halt just as he threw because he was annoyed by Andrew Porter shouting at him for the gap being closed so he gave the Irish loose head a talking-to. This meant James Ryan probably had to come up with a new call as there was a chance his original one had been exposed, thus putting extra pressure on Dan.
So Porter relays the fresh instructions to his hooker, who then sets for the throw. Sure enough Whitelock rises into the air, but Sheehan’s dart finds an absolutely perfect arc over the All Black’s outstretched arms and straight into those of Peter O’Mahony who is right at the apex of his lift.
From there we have the upper hand immediately as Sheehan goes around to collect the ball at the back of the quickly formed maul which is moving deeper into the All Blacks half as Wayne Barnes sticks out his hand for yet another penalty advantage.
But let’s see what we can do with it first eh…Jamison Gibson Park ships it to Sexton via Bundee Aki and the set play is to move it right the way to the other wing where the back three combines Hansen > Keenan > Lowe. He takes on Jordie Barrett who tries to tackle him into touch but Lowe is extraordinarily good at staying in play and he manages to recycle it.
JGP is there in time to keep the move flowing, to Aki via Sexton this time, and the centre works it closer to the 22. You might think we’d work a few more phases in the forwards or even spread it out wide the other way, but nah…the back three is stacked again in our left wing channel ready to have another go.
This time Hansen misses out Hugo Keenan and sends it straight to Lowe, which gives him that extra bit of time so that when he is confronted by Jordie again, he can actually fix him and slip it back inside to Keenan who brings it the rest of the way for our second try and our first taste of a two-score margin.
And to provide the icing on the cake, Sexton effortlessly stroked over the extra points to bring his own personal test point tally to over 1000 although I very much doubt he was thinking too much about milestones like that at the time.
When it comes to analysing rugby moves and set plays, I have never claimed to be anything of an expert at all. I am and always will be merely a blogging fan first and foremost. So when someone who IS an expert at analysis, like, say Brett Igoe, says “This has to be one of Ireland’s greatest tries” about our third one in this match, you should definitely listen to him.
From my humble point of view, however, I would actually use that phrase about this second one from Keenan. The third was a strike move off a scrum under the posts, while this one had involvement from pretty much every man in green, with strong D to start, a turnover, great kick to touch, perfect lineout and maul, then excellent use of the back three to create the space for the score.
Now I’m not trying to start a row here folks, not by a long chalk. And I repeat what I say, you should probably listen to Brett because he is definitely more qualified to rank such things. But instead of focusing on the disagreement, how about we focus on what it’s about? “The Best All Time Irish Try” has not one but two contenders, both in a deciding test in New Zealand, which we comfortably won.
And while we can’t exactly say “it never looked in doubt”, because at one point despite the big halftime lead it most certainly did look in doubt, the way we managed to pull more and more big plays out of the bag, both with and without the ball, demonstrated clearly that this is a squad that has its sights set on a lot more success than this one end of season series, however historic the victory may be.
But that’s the thing – much will be said about how much our victories in Dunedin and Wellington have made history, yet for me that is only goes so far to explain what has happened. To focus on the whole “first NH team to win a series in NZ” aspect would be to deny a body of work that spans all the way back to last November, when Andy Farrell had his first test window as head coach without any real COVID involvement.
And in that time he has shown us the core set of players he wants to work with, the way he wants to play and going by the results, it seems to be a formula that works so if we don’t include that bigger picture in our analysis of what happened on Saturday we really are doing Andy & his coaching staff a major disservice.
But for now it’s time to go back and look at the 80 minutes from the start – in actual fact this will probably be the last time you see a writeup in this format on these pages as we are making some changes for next season, but more on that later…
I know the coin toss in cricket has much more impact on how a match progresses than in rugby, but still I have wished for a long time that we made a bigger deal of the pre-game ritual – information on who won it and what decision was made is often difficult to find even in big matches. As it happens the NZ commentator mentioned in passing that Ireland won it and Sexton chose to take the kickoff.
And it’s no surprise that he would prefer to have the ball in his hand to start a match. Especially at this level where all kicks are expected to land on a sixpence, this should put you in control right from the start and give you a really good chance of getting on the scoreboard first.
It’s not like we hadn’t already shown we could strike the first blow in this series, having done it in both Auckland and Dunedin, so surely we couldn’t do it a third time? Well, actually, we could, and as the All Blacks do their post mortems this most definitely has to be their starting point.
Unlike our hosts who liked kickoffs straight up the middle with the hope of winning possession back immediately, we chose instead to send it into their 22 to welcome Will Jordan to the starting lineup; he took the catch and was immediately wrapped up by James Lowe.
Aaron Smith’s exit kick finds Hugo Keenan rather than touch, so we have one of the outcomes Sexton was looking for and he runs into the opposition half to have us on the front foot already. After a rampaging run by Caelan Doris brought us even further, we sent it out wide where it looked like we had an overlap until O’Mahony’s final pass to Lowe is intercepted by Beauden Barrett.
But we quickly regroup into defensive mode and Havili is forced to clear from behind his own try line, giving us a lineout well into the 22 and not even two minutes on the clock. Ryan calls it to himself, on to JVDF then Bundee Aki who crashes some extra metres.
The forwards do some heavy lifting for a few phases and when it seems Laulala has turned it over, the officials spot a tackle off the ball so now we’ve a penalty. It’s definitely in a kickable position for Sexton, but after consulting with Ryan the brave decision is made to go for the corner. Now, only a try will do.
From 5m out, Sheehan hits Ryan again and this time we’re setting the maul, turning it a bit to the left to get some traction then powering forward so that when van der Flier gets it down over the line, there are several All Blacks left trailing in our wake. Just 3:41 on the clock and we’ve only gone and scored first for the third week in a row.
Obviously our hosts were going to respond, and a high tackle by Doris at midfield gave them a chance to set up an attack down at our end. Given how solid our defensive line has been, it’s no surprise that their very first set piece involved Beaduen Barrett putting up a high ball into our 22 that was aimed perfectly to drop near the posts right at our try line.
Enter Mack Hansen. Just as a reminder…we’re only 5-0 up, it’s “early doors”, it’s our opponents’ first attack and we all know that if they make good on this, they can quickly follow it up with a score or three more. He only went and made the catch, calling the mark, under pressure, with all kinds of consequences should there be any slip up as you can see by the screengrab. Plus for good measure he followed it up by thumping a clearance to touch well outside the 22.
And to follow it up even more, we had Tadhg Beirne rising to pilfer the lineout giving us a chance to clear our lines even further. Now – as it happened, they did come back at us with the high ball and won it back before winning a penalty and what was interesting about this was that unlike us, they weren’t for going for the corner.
That is the straightforward sensible option for 99% teams in test rugby, but in this particular match situation, you’d have bet your house on the Kiwis opting to go for the jugular, so I have to assume this decision was proof that they weren’t exactly sure where to find it. And what’s more, their nerves showed even more when Jordie pushed his kick wide.
For the rest of the opening spell the All Blacks continued to go to the high ball, and came very close to making hay when Will Jordan got to one ahead of Hugo Keenan only to knock it on so Lowe cleared, and when we recovered an overthrown lineout, the same winger booted a sweet kick ahead up the touchline that somehow the AR determined hadn’t quite done enough to be a 5022.
Still, it was soon our turn to put up the bomb but after Hansen batted it back to our side, the All Blacks turned it over and when Reiko Ioane had a go himself at the 5022, it made it with room to spare setting the home side up well to start the second quarter.
We had them under pressure from the lineout but Sexton was judged by Barnes to have “made a poor decision” at a breakdown which gave the home side a penalty right in front – maybe even they would always choose to slot it from this position, which Jordie duly did.
Now we get to the part which I described to open the writeup so let’s jump ahead to right after Sexton’s conversion which made it 3-12. We exited well off the restart as JGP’s kick found touch deep in their half but they took it quickly.
What’s key here is the amount of players Ireland had on the chase. Often the All Blacks are renowned for attacking from deep but when there’s a hoard of stampeding green jerseys they might have thought twice about the quick throw here. In the end Their Winger I Shall Not Name found himself running into heavy traffic so Beauden chose to help him out by clearing Porter out beyond the ball, seemingly forgetting the lesson from last week that ABs are getting pinged for this now.
This time the calculus is very different for Sexton’s decision. Having absorbed a ton of pressure and gotten an outstanding try to create a 9-point lead, this was a kickable chance to kill a bit of time to regroup and stretch the margin even further, which he duly did amid all the booing around the Caketin.
And again we have a distinction between what Irish fans were thinking back at home and what the players were thinking on the pitch. We’d have been delighted with 12 point lead at the break but when James Ryan pinched a lineout 10m inside his own half, we were on the attack again looking for more.
Dan Sheehan went on a wander bringing it to halfway and a good old fashioned Sexton wraparound got it to the far side where Keenan kicked it ahead into the 22 , then Hansen followed it up with a tackle and for some reason NZ chose to run it a few phases, hardly advisable against our determined chasers.
So Laulala brings it into contact against JVDF and tries to shift it to his right arm but as Porter hits him on the other side it squirts out of his hands, going forward where it was taken by his fellow prop George Bower. Am I the only one who thought this might have been a penalty? Well, as it turned out, it’s just as well it wasn’t because we’d have probably taken the three under the sticks.
Instead we had a crucial scrum where it was imperative that we win our own ball. The ABs sure enough put on a shove but we resisted and JGP was able to get the move going. Keenan with the first carry, Doris with the second, and when Sheehan finds Sexton on the next recycle, his body language bamboozles Havili enough for him to put Aki through and with Henshaw inside him, there was try number three.
Our skipper slots the extra points and somehow we have a whopping 19-point, 3-try-to-nil lead going into the “sheds”.
Just one quick sidebar here – there was an incident after the “hooter” where a lineout throw by the ABs was deemed crooked; normally a scrum when the clock is in the red means the half ends but Wayne pointed out the Laws state that this must be taken. In fact he called it a “silly rule”. Actually when you think of it, it makes perfect sense.
If it’s your throw and you’re leading, you can throw it crooked on purpose and no match or half should ever end that way. Anyway, enough of that – back to the amazing fantasy land of a big halftime lead, something we hadn’t had yet in this series.
Obviously the fact that the All Blacks won this quarter 22-3 doesn’t look great, in fact this was probably worse from an Irish standpoint than the 2nd quarter in Auckland had been, and actually could have been even worse still had things gone differently.
For the first try the home side set out to take control from the kickoff as we had done in the first half and it worked, yet the route was nowhere near as direct. Having clearly abandoned the aerial strategy they instead knuckled down and set about out hitting our defence at the contact area, assuming it would break eventually.
Well, on their first go at it they did make a lot of progress from halfway to our 22 but caught a massive break when Tadhg Beirne ripped the ball free and apparently the rugby gods saw fit to have it bounce straight back to the host team, without really breaking their momentum, in fact if anything it allowed Beauden to get within 10m of the line.
It took all of 24 phases for them to get it over our line in that move courtesy of Ardie Savea, but it was only when that same player jackled a penalty on our next spell with the ball down their end that it really started to look like a comeback was on the cards. You don’t mind so much giving up a score provided you know you can still get more yourself, and right at that moment it looked like the All Blacks had tucked in to some Shredded Wheat during the break.
Obviously a very big moment came at minute 51, namely the Porter/Retallick collision, but first I’d like to take another quick sidebar…
The incident itself happened with the clock at 48:59. There then followed a bout of “kick tennis” which lasted until James Lowe found touch and with the TMO contacting Wayne Barnes time wasn’t stopped until 50:25. There are those who feel we should always play on to minimise disruption but the fact is, since the hit was eventually deemed foul play, this meant that there was 90 seconds of play that never mattered.
Luckily it was all just kicking so there was a low probability of anyone getting injured, but that’s not within the TMO’s control. There could easily have been loads of contact in that time, so I reckon once he spotted it the play should have been stopped. And yes, I know we wanted to kill time and the extra minute and a half helped Ireland, but I guess on safety we have to put all that aside don’t we.
Anyway…back to the hit. Red for me. NZ TV kept popping up this graphic of the World Rugby guidelines and to be fair to Wayne Barnes, he was not only following them but doing it out loud so we could hear him and he determined that Retallick was “absorbing the tackle” and made that mitigation for yellow. I disagree, and I would be annoyed had it gone the other way.
(UPDATE – since this article was posted it has been announced that Porter was cited for this challenge, although the citing went on to be dismissed)
When the match resumed, the penalty was put to touch in our 22, and when the maul was going nowhere they broke away there was a glaring exception to the rule of Irish defending as Sheehan, JVDF, Furlong and Hansen all failed to get a hold of Akira Ioane and the blindside powered over.
My reaction to a try scored that easily directly after a card? “Ruh-roh.”
We needed a break – something, even the smallest thing to go our way and quickly. Sexton sent a shortish restart hoping to win it back but it was taken by Whitelock who knocked on at halfway moments later giving us a scrum to calm our nerves.
Many wonder about why we chose to remove JVDF at this point to allow for a sub prop to come on for the scrum – the best suggestion I saw was that having already made 100,000 tackles in this series, he was due a breather…
Anyway the ABs put us under pressure at this scrum until a brilliant piece of innovation from Caelan Doris saw him scoop it through his legs to JGP allowing us to go on the attack. Lowe took it towards their 22 into a central position where Barnes stuck his arm out for a penalty, just what we needed as Sexton was able to put the lead back to two scores, 17-25.
Shortly afterwards we had another penalty after Tadhg Beirne did more Tadhg Beirne things at the halfway line. With just over 3 minutes left until Porter’s return, it made sense for Sexton to take time off the clock with a place kick even if it was right on the edge of his range.
In the end he really gave it a good go, only for it to hit the crossbar almost dead centre and back into play. The home side tidied well, cleared, and we ran it back until Sexton put up another bomb that was inch perfect outside the 22; Beauden and Keenan went for it only for it to fall right on the line where it was brilliantly gathered by Jordie (well described by the NZ comms as a “slip catch”).
Two passes later, the one thing we worried about when we saw the name Will Jordan on the team sheet happened. He found a perfect line, broke through a gap, and from there it was like sevens rugby. Our halfbacks were never going to stop him, nor was Henshaw chasing back, it was a superb try (though still not best of the match, see opening paragraphs!).
More importantly, the gap had now narrowed to three, and actually could have been one had Jordie not missed the conversion (looked ok at first but on replay clearly went wide high above the upright). The only positive thing for Ireland at this stage was that both Porter and JVDF were now able to return to the field, although as it turned out Rob Herring jogging on with them to replace Dan Sheehan was just as significant as the clock ticked beyond 60.
So we were back to needing “a break – something, even the smallest thing to go our way” again and we got it just after the restart when Sam Cane was judged to have knocked on. Now we had a scrum, central and just 7m outside their 22 – if we had even an ounce of attacking mojo left from the first half, we badly needed to find it now.
And sure enough, JGP sent it to Keenan who brilliantly found Aki at full pace and that got it all the way to 5m from the line; after he’s tackled the ball is left exposed at the back of the breakdown which looked too tempting for Akira Ioane to ignore as he ran around and picked it up – trouble was, he hadn’t done it legally so we had a penalty.
Three points making it a 6-point margin would have been no good to us with the home side in this mood. Sexton had to back us to make the most from a 5m lineout so that was the call. With all of the game’s six tries having come down the other end, we badly needed one here now, which in turn meant we badly needed Herring’s dart to stick. Luckily for us this situation is a forté of his and he has gotten on the back of many a good set piece for his province over the years.
Before the lineout is thrown, the ABs make the odd move of replacing their skipper Sam Cane with Dalton Papali’i. He certainly did not look injured and this, to me anyway, had all the hallmarks of “even if we do take the lead here, you won’t be on the pitch when we do it, and your days as skipper are done” about it. I have to say it was a very, very odd time to make changes to your pack.
Anyway, Herring still had to make his dart count, and he found James Ryan perfectly, though without any competition I might add. The home side had set for a maul, but that didn’t seem to make any difference to our formation, which went one way first, then started moving the other as Herring broke off and got it over the line.
Once more, I would like to apologise to my neighbours and their newborn baby for the almighty roar I may have let out at this point.
Now the lead was ten, and with about 14 minutes left on the clock at this stage, it was still one the home side could claw back. But I guess nobody told that to our defence. Tadhg Beirne gets a huge chunk of the credit for forcing about a thousand turnovers in that time (might be overstating it but it felt like there were that many) although I reckon he’d be first to say it was a team effort.
On 70 minutes they had a scrum right under our posts and all Irish fans who were scratching their heads at Porter and Furlong being taken off before it was set had their doubts put to rest by a massive shove which put the ABs on the back foot, with our backs following up well before a neck roll by Whitelock on Beirne gave us the clearing penalty.
I may have let another roar just then, possibly even louder, but sure the baby was already awake at that stage, right?
As the clock hit 75, then 76, then 77, not only was it getting more and more likely we had done it but we were actually spending more time down their end of the pitch. Carbery had replaced Sexton at this stage and he made a timely interception which put us down there.
Eventually the home side had possession in their own 22 and the clock had gone red – in the back of my mind I was thinking if anyone can find two scores after the hooter it’s this lot (nonsensical I know but sense was well out the window at this stage) until eventually Akira knocked it on and, well, we had only gone and done it.
Let the records show that while this writeup is much longer than usual, I would have gladly made it twice as long if I had the time. Perfect way to end the season. Each and every true Irish rugby fan was right there with Peter O’Mahony, both in his reactions towards the end, and in his celebrations later with Bundee Aki.
Only one real harpin point for me. The historical element of who we had beaten and where we had beaten them is one thing, but I can’t help thinking back to Andy Farrell’s original lineup being named for that first match of the 22/23 test season against Japan back in November.
The postponement of our match against the USA brought the end to COVID’s disruptions of Andy’s plans for this squad, having just two matches under his belt when it hit. Now he could make a plan and select a squad for a regular series of matches in front of big crowds just as nature intended.
And among Irish fans there was much moaning over his selection t face Japan, mostly because it was very much a Leinster-centric one. I was really annoyed with this, though not because I follow the boys in blue, rather because it really shouldn’t matter how the team is made up because they are all wearing the same jersey.
But the only real way to shut down those critics is to win, and by God, these boys have done that. 3 for 3 in November, 4 for 5 in the Six Nations, and now 2 for 3 (3 for 5 combined with Maori matches) with a Triple Crown and Steinlager Series trophy in the bargain is well.
So I guess there was method in his “madness” right? And what’s more, you can tell by all the soundbites coming from this squad that they are far from finished. Hopefully he and his coaching staff have earned a lot more support from us for the challenges that lie ahead because to adapt a corporate slogan, it really is a Team of Awesome.
THAT’S A WRAP
I’ve been doing these writeups for every Leinster & Ireland men’s match since the 2008/09 season. I have no plans to stop Harpin On Rugby as an entity, but this is probably the last writeup I will do in this particular format. From next season the plan is to put more emphasis into podcasts, and by the way don’t miss our last one of those for this season, which should post on Thursday.
Anyway there will be more details on our changes over the coming weeks, for now I’d like to thank everyone who has ever read, liked, shared and commented on my writeups over the years. Needless to say it has been a pleasure.
But thanks most of all to everyone involved at both Leinster Rugby and the IRFU – obviously I couldn’t do any of this without them and over the past thirteen years both have provided a host of top quality entertainment for me to harp on; I’m very looking forward to whatever comes next. JLP
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