The All Blacks have shown what a difference a week can make, putting on a clinic to annihilate Ireland 60-0 in the third and final test of their New Zealand tour. It was truly a complete performance from the men in black, who controlled all facets of the game from start to finish in what was one of their most dominant performances in recent years.
While the great finishing and slickness of the backs was incredible to watch as the All Blacks cut the Ireland defence to bits, it was the men up front who really made the difference.
These men certainly made a dramatic turnaround from last week, at any rate. They looked to smash their opponents up front, putting in some bone-crunching tackles and flying into the rucks, looking to attack this area aggressively to ensure they won quality ball.
It was this physicality that ensured the All Blacks backs were constantly on the front foot, giving them fast ball and plenty of opportunities to attack. They were clinical in doing this, showing the flair that New Zealand teams are renowned for: throwing the ball around and putting each other into holes all over the park.
The Irish defence simply had no answer, leaking nine tries and failing to keep up with the furious pace set by the men in black.
The game was effectively over after 20 minutes, as the All Blacks shot out to a 21-0 lead on the back of some Aaron Cruden wizardry, throwing some unbelievable passes that looked to be near impossible to defend.
Cruden was getting the best of the men outside him, taking the ball to the line and allowing Sonny Bill Williams to cause havoc running off him. Williams also was outstanding in this period, having his best game in a black jersey by far and proving such a threat both with ball in hand and with the offload.
A fourth try not long after from another piece of genius from Cruden saw the score go to 26-0. But it came at a cost, as Cruden was forced to leave the field with an Achilles injury. It was a shame, as he was playing a blinder, but his absence made room for Beauden Barrett, who also was very good in his test debut.
Who was your man of the match?
From this point the All Blacks were forced to defend for a long period, as Ireland maintained field position and possession and continued to apply pressure. But the defence held strong, and in the end it seemed Ireland had no answer, unable to cope with the physicality and intensity of a flawless defensive effort. A further penalty goal to the All Blacks saw the sides go to the break with the score at 29-0 and a cricket score on the cards.
To their credit, the All Blacks didn’t fall away as so many teams do in this position. They buried their opposition, continuing to play in a similar way to how they started the game, looking slick on attack and flawless on defence.
There were many players who seemed determined to give the selectors a headache, putting their hands up and making genuine cases for being the No. 1 in their position.
One of these men was Sam Cane, who was simply outstanding on both attack and defence. His work rate on defence was phenomenal, making 20 tackles and coming up with some turnovers at breakdown time. At the same time, he showed good hands and was a valuable link man in the backline on attack.
While there are some outstanding young openside flankers coming through at the moment, very few of them possess the all-around game of Cane. At just 20 years old, it seems the long-term replacement for Richie McCaw has been found.
But McCaw showed he isn’t ready to give up his spot just yet, responding to the criticism he’s received over the past two weeks with an outstanding performance in his first game wearing the No. 8 jersey.
The pair was complemented well by Liam Messam, who started slowly but became more prominent as the game progressed and was outstanding in the second half with some strong defence and good hands on attack.
With Kieran Read and Victor Vito to come back, as well as Adam Thomson, the selectors will sure have a tough task ahead of them when they select their team for the Rugby Championship later in the year.
It was the work of those in the tight, though, that allowed these men to range and be so prominent, completely dominating Ireland at the breakdown while generally showing up okay at scrum and lineout time. Luke Romano was huge in his debut, carrying strongly and hitting rucks hard, while Andrew Hore too was particularly strong.
There is a similar situation in the backline, with no weak link in a clinical performance. Aaron Smith has emerged as a top talent at halfback, transferring his Super Rugby form to the international level, providing his backs with faster ball than they’ve had in some time.
Outside him, Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett both put their hands up, and having Daniel Carter in the No. 10 jersey will no longer be a given as it has been for so long.
It was because of them that the midfield of Sonny Bill Williams and Conrad Smith was so dangerous, each making numerous breaks and linking well with their loose forwards. Smith was once again outstanding on both attack and defence, showing that he is indeed one of the top and most consistent players in the world.
The back three were dangerous when in space, with Hosea Gear scoring a try that was reminiscent of a certain Jonah Lomu, while Israel Dagg and Ben Smith both proved slippery, each bagging a try.
The players now return to their Super 15 franchises, where the competition will resume with two rounds to go before the finals. They will then reconvene for the beginning of the Rugby Championship, where the All Blacks kick off their campaign against Australia in Sydney.
This will be a tougher test of their abilities, but if they can play the way they did in this game, you can rest assured the All Blacks will be a dominant force throughout the tournament.