Rugby Union: All Blacks combine flair with flexibility

Ireland 15 New Zealand 63
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The Independent Online
A third of the way into the All Blacks abbreviated tour and the opposition are already running out of superlatives. "They displayed power, pace, vision and control," Brian Ashton, the Ireland coach, said. And he was only referring to the haka.

When New Zealand finished their obligatory war dance (something else they stole from the Maoris) it was noticeable that some of the Irish players crossed themselves. The All Blacks don't need a psychological advantage, but it doesn't stop them taking it. It is only a matter of time that somewhere along the line someone is going to echo the sentiment of Bobby Jones when he first clapped eyes on Jack Nicklaus: "He is playing a game with which I am not familiar".

Even so, it was a familiar enough result for Ireland who have conceded the staggering total of 165 points in the last three matches with New Zealand. Damage limitation evaporated in the second half when the All Blacks, who went on to surpass their previous highest score of 59 against Ireland, set in Wellington in 1992, significantly changed tack.

Although the tourists led 27-15 at half-time, the Irish had upset their rhythm and caused them far more problems than had been anticipated. The ultra-professional All Blacks are committed to not just winning but winning with a creamy head on the top but when they indulged in some over-elaborate three-quarter movements they played into Ireland's hands.

When Keith Wood scored his second try, displaying a remarkable turn of foot in the process, it all stemmed from a thunderous tackle in midfield by Mark McCall. Ireland were leading 15-11, Lansdowne Road was going bananas and the All Blacks had to regroup and rethink.

Ireland were extremely unfortunate not only to find themselves behind at half-time but also to lose the inspirational figure of their captain Wood, prevented from reappearing in the second half by an ankle injury. At the same time, John Hart, the All Blacks coach, was telling his men to cut out the airy-fairy stuff and get back to basics.

They proceeded to concentrate on driving rucks and mauls, using Frank Bunce in the customary role of battering-ram and began to wear down Ireland with recycling on a scale not seen since the Tour de France.

In addition, Andrew Mehrtens was masterful at stand-off and his 33 points took his aggregate to 307 from 19 Tests, an average of more than 16 points per game.

"They're much better than the Springboks," Wood, one of the heroes of the Lions' tour to South Africa, said. "And they're much craftier."

Today the All Blacks will spend more time studying a video of the England- Australia match at Twickenham than their victory over Ireland. "I would think that England's best chance of stopping New Zealand would be to produce a Lions-style defensive performance," Wood said.

"One of the reasons we beat South Africa is that they were incapable of modifying their tactics. It seems the All Blacks can adapt to any style, any time."

On any other day and against any other opposition, two tries and 15 points might have been respectable, but there was an air of inevitability about the second-half outcome.

Ashton, who is on a six-year contract, became accustomed at Bath to unparalleled success. With his adopted country he seems resigned to taking one step forward followed by a beating of the retreat. The All Blacks' expectancy is now at such a high it is poles apart from the limited ambition of the opposition.

"We competed for about 30 minutes," Ashton said. "Kicking the ball down the throat of Christian Cullen didn't help."

Nor did they have the rub of the green. Two of the All Blacks tries came from blatant forward passes.

Nevertheless, as Kevin Nowlan, who showed some fine touches on his debut, said: "We did all right in the first and second phases but it was the third, fourth, fifth and sixth that finished us."

Ireland: Tries Wood 2; Conversion Elwood; Penalty Elwood. New Zealand: Tries Osborne 2, Wilson 2, Ieremia, Marshall, Mehrtens; Conversions Mehrtens 5; Penalties Mehrtens 6.

IRELAND: K Nowlan (St Mary's College); D Hickie (St Mary's College), R Henderson (Wasps), M McCall (London Irish), J McWeeney (St Mary's College); E Elwood (Galwegians), C McGuinness (St Mary's College); N Popplewell (Newcastle), K Wood (Harlequins, capt), P Wallace (Saracens), P Johns (Saracens), M O'Kelly (London Irish), E Halvey (Shannon), E Miller (Leicester), K Dawson (London Irish). Replacements: R Nesdale (Newcastle) for Wood, h-t; K Maggs (Bristol) for McWeeney, 62; D Erskine (Sale) for Halvey, 62; B O'Meara (Cork Constitution) for McGuinness, 75.

NEW ZEALAND: C Cullen (Manawatu); J Wilson (Otago), F Bunce (North Harbour), A Ieremia (Wellington), G Osborne (North Harbour); A Mehrtens (Canterbury), J Marshall (Canterbury, capt); C Dowd (Auckland), N Hewitt (Southland), O Brown (Auckland), I Jones (North Harbour), R Brooke (Auckland), T Randell (Otago), Z Brooke (Auckland), A Blowers (Auckland). Replacements: C Riechelmann (Auckland) for R Brooke, 55; J Kronfeld (Otago) for Blowers 64; S McLeod (Waikato) for Bunce 70; J Preston (Wellington) for Mehrtens 74.

Referee: A Spreadbury (England).

Jonah Lomu has been picked to play for the All Blacks against England A at the McAlpine Stadium in Huddersfield tomorrow.