A Daniel Carter drop goal has seen the All Blacks escape with a 22-19 win over Ireland in what turned out to be a nail biter. It was a close contest throughout, as the All Blacks were made to work for every point and in the end, were lucky to come away with the win.
It was an Ireland team that came to play and showed what a difference a week can make, bringing a physicality to their game that went missing after 20 minutes last week.
Defensively they were outstanding, using an umbrella-type defence and rushing up to ensure the All Blacks couldn’t find space.
To go with this, their ball retention was excellent, forcing the All Blacks onto the back foot on defence for large periods of the game. But despite having them under the pump, the All Black defensive line was breached just once, when Connor Murray sniped around the fringes close to the line to give Ireland the early lead.
A penalty goal followed five minutes later and the All Blacks found themselves in the unfamiliar position of trailing 10-0 after 16 minutes.
With this, the All Blacks began to claw their way back into the game, gaining complete dominance for the remainder of the half and were duly rewarded with nine points. It was during this period that they looked the best, holding the ball for long periods, maintaining good field position and forcing Ireland into taking bad options.
Despite this, they still went to halftime trailing 10-9 with the game still in the balance. It is in this position that the Irish have so often faltered against the All Blacks, letting the game get away in the early stages of the second half.
And it looked as though this may happen once more, as the All Blacks came out firing and had Ireland under the pump. Almost straight away, Aaron Smith got one back on his opposite, running blind into a gap before being pushed over for the All Blacks' first and only try of the game.
Daniel Carter converted, and with this start it looked as though the All Blacks were poised to run away with the second half.
But this Ireland team had a point to prove. While past teams may have begun to lose hope after this, they kept their chins up and fought valiantly.
A messy kick off reception from the try saw Ireland were gifted possession in good field position and were almost immediately awarded a penalty, which they slotted to bring the score back to 16-13.
From here the momentum was with Ireland, keeping the All Blacks under pressure and on the back foot for the majority of the rest of the game. They played with passion and intensity and were rewarded, after exchanging penalties, a further kick late in the game saw the score at 19-all with 14 minutes to play.
But as they have done so many times before over the years, the All Blacks kept their cool and were able to snatch victory despite having lost Israel Dagg to the sin bin with eight minutes to go.
What may have been a surprise was the way in which it happened, with Daniel Carter slotting just the fifth drop goal of his test career.
It was well and truly a wake-up call for what seemed like a complacent All Black team. Whilst Ireland played very well, it seemed as though the All Blacks felt they would start where they left off last week and consequently, Ireland were able to give them a real scare.
The forwards weren’t bad; if anything they were better than in Auckland, supporting the ball carrier and seeing their runners were isolated much less. For the first 50 minutes, the scrum was dominant, gaining a tight head off the first scrum and ensuring the backs got front foot ball for the rest of this period.
But after Owen Franks was replaced by his brother Ben, this dominance changed hands completely, and the All Black scrum struggled for the remainder of the game.
The changes made throughout the second half have to be questioned as they seemed to be very much premeditated rather than informed decisions.
To go with breaking up the dominant front row, two top performers in Aaron Smith and Brodie Retallick were replaced by two out-of-form players in Piri Weepu and Ali Williams. The Irish pressured the All Blacks at breakdown time all night and consequently the ball was slow, but Smith coped well providing good service.
But with slower ball, the backline had very little space to work with and became a non-factor. Therefore, one must ask why bring on Piri Weepu, who likes to slow the ball down at ruck time rather than catch the defence unawares. It’s not as if Smith was playing poorly and needed replacing and was provided much faster ball than what Weepu did.
Taking off Brodie Retallick appeared to be a mistake too, after having a very strong game, bringing on a player in Williams who is more inclined to range rather than do the hard work in close.
And indeed it was Williams who conceded the penalty which brought the scores level before proceeding to be the cause of a scuffle up. He is skating on thin ice, and one must wonder how many more chances he will be given.
The looseforwards were good, with Adam Thomson and Kieran Read both especially good. Sam Cane too had an outstanding debut off the bench, while Richie McCaw’s hands let him down for the second week in a row in an unusually below-average performance.
The backline had little chances, but Aaron Smith, Daniel Carter and Conrad Smith were all enterprising and had good games. Sonny Bill Williams did little and still shows some Rugby League habits on defence, looking to wrap up his man rather than put him down. Out wide, Julian Savea saw little ball and looked dodgy under the high ball.
So there’s plenty to work on, and the All Blacks now know they will need to bring their A game next week in Hamilton. Credit must go to Ireland, proving worthy opponents and playing arguably their best-ever game on New Zealand shores.
But that win still eludes them, and it will take a performance similar to this one if they are to have a shot at it next week.