New Zealand bounced back from their 40-29 upset loss in Chicago a fortnight ago with a grueling 21-9 victory over Joe Schmidt’s Ireland in Dublin on Saturday.
Tries from Beauden Barrett and a double either side of halftime from Malakai Fekitoa was enough to secure the All Blacks a hard-fought win at the Aviva Stadium, but naturally, a contest of that magnitude was always going to produce it’s share of winners and losers. And It did. And here they are.
New Zealand –
The All Blacks don’t like losing, no team does, but you could tell there was something different about this New Zealand side in Dublin. From Kieran Read staring straight ahead in the tunnel, to Malakai Fekitoa slamming the ball down for the All Blacks first score, this New Zealand side came out firing and were determined to avenge their first loss of the year a fortnight ago in Chicago.
Steve Hansen’s side were forced to work extraordinarily hard for every one of their scores and they were once again pushed by a resolute and confrontational Irish side.
But ultimately, as predicted, New Zealand were able to pull away in the second-half and made it 20 wins from their last 21 games.
With England toppling Fiji earlier in the day and New Zealand putting Italy to the sword last weekend in Rome, there was a healthy amount of skepticism about the competitiveness of international rugby heading into this weekend.
Australia may have squeaked by Scotland but there was a sense that this weekend could be a clean sweep for the Tier 1 Southern Hemisphere nations.
Then Italy went on to defeat South Africa for the first time in 13 attempts, Wales needed a last minute drop goal from Sam Davies to squeak by Japan, and once again Ireland were able to push New Zealand close in Dublin.
With all four Rugby Championship teams occupying the four semi-final spots at last year’s Rugby World Cup in England, there was a sense that there was a clear divide between the southern and northern hemisphere sides.
But with Ireland playing out another pulsating game with the All Blacks, and with Italy defeating South Africa and Japan pushing Wales to the death, international rugby was the big winner on Saturday.
Barrett was the deserving winner of the World Rugby Player of the Year award earlier this week and he displayed his full array of skills in New Zealand’s 21-9 win.
The Hurricanes playmaker raced away to score the All Blacks second try of the game showcasing brilliant footwork and speed, but his all-round performance was even more impressive.
The 25-year-old outhalf cleaned up Irish kicks with ease, put in a magnificent offload to TJ Perenara in the buildup to Malakai Fekitoa’s second try, and he also managed to put in a ferocious tackle on a Garry Ringrose hit up midway through the second-half.
Barrett was the difference maker for New Zealand in a game where the gap between both sides is becoming increasingly blurred.
Robbie Henshaw/Johnny Sexton/CJ Stander/The General Rugby Public
Ireland v New Zealand has all but confirmed itself as the most fascinating matchup in world rugby at present. Scheduling issues means that Eddie Jones’ England will have to wait until at least 2018 before they get their shot at derailing the All Blacks, but for the moment, this is the best possible matchup in world rugby.
In big games you want all your big players available. Unfortunately for Joe Schmidt, Ireland, and the neutrals watching, Ireland were robbed of three of their most important players before the 20th minute mark had even passed.
Robbie Henshaw went off with a neck concern after colliding with New Zealand flanker Sam Cane, and he was soon joined on the sidelines by CJ Stander (head injury) and Johnny Sexton (leg).
Ireland were able to bring on the likes of the highly capable Garry Ringrose, Josh van Der Flier and Paddy Jackson, but Schmidt and the rest of us watching would have much rathered an Ireland-New Zealand test match where Stander, Sexton and Henshaw were all replaced through a tactical decision as opposed to a series of replacements that were born out of necessity.
TMO + Jaco Peyper
The Beauden Barrett ‘try-no try’ debacle will undoubtedly steal the headlines but there were a number of incidents from this Test match where both referee Jaco Peyper and TMO Jon Mason came under fire.
The Sam Cane tackle on Robbie Henshaw, Malakai Fekitoa’s second try, his high tackle on Simon Zebo, Aaron Smith’s dubious yellow card, there were plenty of incidents for Mason and Peyper to control and their adjudicating was very hit and miss throughout the evening.
It was a tough night for Peyper and Mason who seemed to be at odds with one another at mutiple times on the night. They came to a consensus on Beauden Barrett’s disallowed try but were seemingly at odds over Johnny Sexton’s attempted hold up of Barrett. Peyper was inconsistent to say the least and many are wondering about the full extent of Mason’s 20/20 vision.
Came out firing by pointing directly at the Irish line after the conclusion of the Haka, but once again, was more bark than bite.
Yellow card was questionable but it’s the second game in a row where Smith has underperformed against Ireland. TJ Perenara played a pivotal role in Malakai Fekitoa’s game winning try and he’s putting a gigantic amount of pressure on Smith to retain his position in the All Blacks starting XV.
The Highlanders halfback has been the preeminent scrum-half in world rugby over the last few years, but his performances have taken a noticeable dip since returning from his one game suspension following an incident with an unnamed female at a Christchurch Airport in September.
Smith undoubtedly has both the pedigree and the talent to bounce back from his poor run of form, but with Perenara looming in the wings, it’s hard to tell if he’ll be given another chance to prove it.
Heineken Rugby Club celebrates and rewards real supporters who make the game what it is.