The Maori All Blacks and Ireland played a purposeful and above all entertaining game in difficult conditions on Wednesday night. It was so nice to see a tour match and it gave food for thought ahead of the first test on Saturday.
You’d want to be careful about drawing too many big conclusions from this game. With only a handful of sleepers until Saturday’s grand ball, it was largely a game involving fringe players from both national teams.
At the same time, there will be structural elements that interest both sides, a few individual performances and the question of Murray Mexted’s famous “ebb and flow of psychic energy” (not to mention the joy of having your “prostitute come inside of you” and some other splendid mextetics, all forgiven because the man was such a totemic player and a beautiful rugby spirit, even admitting some confusing syntax).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was a two-part game, but it wasn’t a two-half game. There was a game of about 30 minutes which was pretty even and then a 10 minute push where the Maori All Blacks did what most New Zealand teams can do and opened the game, almost from nothing, then there was the rest of the game. it was more or less like the first 30 minutes.
Ireland didn’t do much wrong in those 10 minutes just before half-time, but they were laid bare by the innate pace and skill of the Maori All Blacks. A contested kick from Ireland saw a quick and accurate transfer under pressure, players rushing into space and a try at the end of the pitch. It’s not a new story, but it should be a timely reminder to Ireland.
In general, I felt the Irish had their hands full with the physique of the Maori All Blacks at the collision and around the ruck.
At half-time, one of Ireland’s assistant coaches, looking a bit like a dazed escapee from Dunkirk, identified the ruck as a matter of concern. The Maori All Blacks were quick in the collision and tended to spill into the ruck.
I didn’t see anything illegal – it was just fast, hard and uncompromising work, the kind that has been a hallmark of New Zealand rugby since the dawn of rugby.
If I had to identify anything, from an Irish perspective, it could come down to a moment in the second half (73rd minute) when Ireland were pushing in attack.
The ball carrier was cut in half in the tackle and pushed back, then several Maori All Blacks players piled over and won the penalty.
At least one entered from the side, but it all happened very quickly and the side entry only became apparent on replay.
The referee, quite understandably, had already blown the penalty. As in most sports, the side that has the initiative, moves quickly and goes forward will be the most affected. Ireland will need to do better in collisions, so they can exert more control over the pace of what happens next. Easy to say.
New Zealand will take the set piece performance of the Maori All Blacks to heart. Ireland will have their hands full at the scrum and the lineout.
The most exciting scrum victory came from the Maori All Blacks in the first half (33rd minute), when they dismantled the Irish scrum and tried as best I could, I couldn’t pinpoint more than a victory in the hustle and timing.
Ireland will likely be hoping, or sweating, on Wayne Barnes’ second-half scrum penalty against New Zealand for crossing and rolling, rather than taking the pressure. It’s not a tactic unique to New Zealand, but it may be a picture Ireland are looking to paint. The referee for the first test isn’t my idea of predictable, so who knows.
I don’t know if Cullen Grace will have made it to the All Blacks. I thought he had a good game in the ruck and defensively, but I didn’t see the carrying power I might have liked. He wasn’t overwhelmed when he carried he just didn’t open things up so it could well be a matter of what the All Blacks selectors are looking for that determines if it was a determining performance or not.
I thought he was a good performer on the lineout especially on defense and even when he wasn’t stealing an Irish pitch he was putting the receiver under pressure and I liked the way he looked and judged and moved when he was defending on the lineout. For mine, if Grace plays, Ardie Savea is on the bench and Pita Gus Sowakula gets a run for carrying power. If fit, Sam Cane always starts. I don’t think the All Blacks managers see it that way.
Overall, I found Ireland’s defensive structures to be good.
There was a moment in the second half when it really stuck with me.
They missed an early tackle and a wide break was made on the wing, but when that break was brought down to the ground from around 20 yards out, there was a strong enough Irish wall already formed to hold the next phase.
So missed early tackles were a problem, but the overall structure seemed pretty solid. The Irish hope the early tackles will be as much about players who lack familiarity with each other as it is about the speed and agility of the All Blacks’ Maori players.
They hope the first team will have the cohesion to reduce early missed tackles.
I also assume whoever was responsible for the stupid endless kicking tactic for Ireland at the start of the second half when they earned a series of penalties deep in the Maori All Blacks 22 will be punished and that Ireland will take points when offered in the Test.
Take the points, receive the kickoff and go again. The scorecard, not the endless rucks, is what really creates the pressure. It really shouldn’t be news that the New Zealand teams can and will defend and the more you play the more they hurt you when you’re full and have no points to show.
The Irish might also want to point out that their best moments with the ball came when they turned the ball inside, just past the ruck, or ran big men into the second and third channels rather than just hit the ball. Ireland has large units that will require a lot of dismantling if used correctly.
New Zealand will almost certainly field a somewhat improvised midfield and they want to apply pressure there, force defensive decisions and move the defensive line. If they try to bump into each other next to the ruck, I believe Sam Cane will eat them alive single-handedly. Ireland’s 20th-minute try, when it opened the seam in midfield between forwards and backs, would be worth considering by both teams. I will leave out the irony of the goalscorer being Bundee Aki.
I imagine Ireland will be concerned about the injuries they have suffered – perhaps most particularly to talented and experienced forward rower Cian Healy.
Although a fullback (and therefore of peripheral importance), it was hard to ignore the impact of Zarn Sullivan. He seems like another victim of the mullet craze, but he can almost be forgiven.
He’s not a big body but he always gains ground in the tackle and it was hard to criticize his positional play at the back. His footwork, in traffic and on a bad pass to score in the first half was a sight to behold. Without a tour game, you wouldn’t have seen this.
At half-time, I wondered if the damage done to Ireland could be deep psychologically. They looked shocked and impressed. By the end of the game, although well beaten, I felt like they would have felt a little more comfortable identifying the issues. If they can handle them, we’ll see.
Finally, I would like to note two things. It was great to see a tour match where some good servants of the game in New Zealand who are unlikely to feature in testing were given a chance, maybe a last chance, to shine. Josh Dickson and TJ Perenara were two.
The other was a genuine and moving tribute to an excellent rugby player, Sean Wainui, whose untimely death should be a reminder of the burden carried by those who provide us with such viewing pleasure. I loved watching him play. He was quick, skilful, brave and he never gave less than anything.
Maybe he gave too much. His five tries against the Waratahs will forever be etched in my memory. If he had been anywhere other than New Zealand, I have no doubt he would have been a multi-cap Test player. I hope his family recovers as well as possible.