Richie McCaw and Mils Muliaina marked their record breaking 93rd, test caps for the All Blacks with a 38-18 win over a spirited Irish side at the new Aviva Stadium today. This makes both men the most capped test All Blacks of all time, surpassing the previous record held by the great Sean Fitzpatick.
The win was far from convincing; however, as the All Blacks were made to work for the full 80 minutes and trailed the Irish as far as 38 minutes into the game, after having conceding the first try of the game to Ireland blindside Stephen Ferris, who found the gap in the All Blacks defence after a good build up.
But this didn't last as the All Blacks struck back right on the break through Anthony Boric, who was able to expose Ireland close in, after rushing up and creating a gap for him to saunter through five metres out from the line.
Tries to Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock almost straight after the break saw the lead extended to 33-13 and the game appeared safe at this point, as the Irish defence began to fold.
But they didn't give in and were rewarded for their efforts through a Brian O'Driscoll try, after a great pick-up, took the score to 33-18, before Kieran Read grabbed his second right on fulltime to see the All Blacks home 38-18.
It was an impressive performance from both teams, making for a very exciting game. The Irish team that had been written off prematch, delivered a spirited performance and showed that they were well up to the task of containing an All Black attack that has troubled the world's best this year.
Their line speed was fantastic, restricting the All Blacks room to move the ball and consequently shutting down the midfield threat that had been talked about so much in the build up. In fact, Ma'a Nonu was rather anonymous in the first half, as the Irish had no problems at all stopping him with ball in hand.
Their attack was good too, taking full advantage of the limited opportunities they had. A backline move that saw Tommy Bowe into a gap midway through the first half looked to have the All Blacks scrambling, but were saved by a timely charge down by Mils Muliaina.
Despite this, the All Blacks were simply too good.
You just can't win a game when you have as little ball as what Ireland did.
The All Blacks hammered away at the Ireland line for the best part of 30 minutes in the first half and, while never crossing the line, this undoubtedly took its toll as the All Blacks crossed for three tries in the next 20 minutes of action.
It was arguably their best performance of their end-of-year tour so far, as they displayed the same intensity they showed during the Tri-Nations and were much more accurate in everything they did, playing a more intelligent game than in past weeks.
Out wide they were dangerous, through the rampaging Hosea Gear who again proved to be a handful for the defending team. Mils Muliaina too, was slippery in his record breaking test, while Cory Jane made a passable return from injury.
Conrad Smith was once again a brick wall on defence, making some truly brilliant tackles, taking care of Brian O'Driscoll well, while his midfield partner Ma'a Nonu had a quiet first half before becoming more prominent in the second half before he was replaced.
Last week's golden boy, Sonny Bill Williams, didn't display the same flare, but never put a foot wrong and was strong on defence, effecting multiple turnovers.
Daniel Carter kicked his way to within two points of Jonny Wilkinson's record for the most points in test match history, while also distributing well and taking more sensible decisions close to their own line.
Andy Ellis and Alby Matthewson were both solid at halfback, but may have been better to look to run more as the Irish defence was spread wide for the most part of the game and their were definite gaps close in.
The loose-forward trio was outstanding as always, Kieran Read in particular stood up and had a strong game, while McCaw and Jerome Kaino both put in some bone-crunching hits on defence.
Tom Donnelly left the field with an injury towards the end of the first half, but strong performances from his replacement Sam Whitelock along with Anthony Boric saw the All Blacks lineout dominate, while both were effective around the park.
The front row finally showed their worth with a dominant performance in the scrums. Owen Franks, in particular, was outstanding as he had the Irish in all sorts of problems five metres out from their own line.
The fact that the All Blacks were able to win by 20 points when Ireland played as well as they did was a testament to how good this All Black side really is. Ireland could have just as easily let the All Blacks score any number of tries early on, as many others have done this year, and let the game get away from them. But they didn't. They made the All Blacks try and try again, but ultimately it was too much and the continued pressure took its toll.
The All Blacks now have a Grand Slam within their sights with just a win over Wales next week required to achieve their fourth. Ireland, meanwhile, will host Argentina in their final encounter before the Six Nations in February.
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