Henry's men give lie to idea of All Black second string

Ireland 7 New Zealand 45
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The Independent Online

The message from one member of last summer's British and Irish Lions coaching team to another was very clear: the All Blacks are better than ever.

After all the tosh that had been sloshing around in Dublin bars and rugby clubs last week, that the New Zealand head coach Graham Henry had selected a second-string side, came the reality.

A fag paper would struggle to find a gap between the team which thrashed Wales the previous week and the one which demolished Ireland on Saturday - "If they staged the World Cup right now," said one disconsolate Irish fan, "the finalists would be this week's team and last week's."

Ireland's head coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, would probably agree, and his words should certainly serve as a warning to his erstwhile Lions colleague Andy Robinson.

"This New Zealand side is definitely more slick," said O'Sullivan, after his team stretched their wretched record against the All Blacks to 18 matches without a win - they drew 10-10 against Ian Kirkpatrick's tourists in 1973. "From what I have seen today they have definitely gone up a notch, compared with the sides we met on the Lions tour. Last week they played very well when they won in Wales, but today they went up another level. They are a very balanced side, skilful, and one where everyone knows exactly what he is doing."

Henry admitted that his hungry team, who inflicted the second-heaviest home defeat on Ireland, had given him the sort of selection headache every coach wants to have.

Steve Hansen, the former Wales coach who is now one of Henry's assistants, did nothing to dispel the long black cloud that hangs not just over the northern hemisphere but over the 2007 Rugby World Cup as well.

"The key thing is how high these players want to go," Hansen said. "It is not for us to take them there, it is a matter of them taking themselves. They've got to drive their own bus. The competition for places will force them to keep on improving or they won't get on the team." England, and Robinson, have been warned. But while it can be said of New Zealand that when they are good they are very good, Robinson and his men should be aware that when the All Blacks are bad things can get a little torrid.

In addition to the alleged spear tackle by Ma'a Nonu on Gordon D'Arcy, there was also the questionable tactic of using decoy runners, usually a lock and a front-row player, and sometimes a third forward, to screen the All Black ball carrier and his intention from the opposition by inserting themselves into the back line and running lines which momentarily obscure the ball. It is tantamount to obstruction but the referee Jonathan Kaplan was clearly unmoved.

Hansen said: "Unless you are blocking someone it's not obstruction." They were, though, blocking someone's view of the ball. The pity of it is that these All Blacks do not need to resort to such stratagems. They are gloriously gifted.

Superlatives do not approach describing just how good New Zealand were, collectively and individually, on a blustery autumn afternoon in Dublin. Their handling was scintillating, nothing short of perfect. It is near impossible to recall a single dropped ball or a poor pass, particularly when not under pressure, which was most certainly not the case with Ireland.

At times Ireland's carelessness knew no bounds. And as spirited as they were when attacking the black-shirted wall that was the New Zealand defence - and the tourists were given a few frights - they invariably lost possession, quite often before contact.

The All Blacks' power and pace from No 1 to No 15 was jaw-dropping, exemplified by the 18st loose-head prop Tony Woodcock when he thundered up the middle in the first quarter before sending out a perfect pass to his support runner Jason Eaton, the impressive debutant lock. And while Joe Rokocoko may still be the most lethal finisher in the world, with 30 tries in 28 Tests, Sitiveni Sivivatu is beginning to push his cousin close. His two tries took his tally to eight in five appearances.

An All Black Grand Slam is a secondary aim, although they are now halfway there. Henry's stated aim on this tour is to ensure that New Zealand have the personnel to go into the next World Cup in France with talented cover in every position. This performance confirmed that the former Auckland headmaster has achieved that already.

Ireland: G Murphy (Leicester); T Bowe (Ulster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), S Horgan (Leinster), A Horgan (Munster); R O'Gara (Munster), P Stringer (Munster); M Horan (Munster), S Byrne (Saracens), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets, capt), J O'Connor (Wasps), D Leamy (Munster). Replacements: R Best (Ulster) for Byrne, 75; S Best (Ulster) for Hayes, 64; M McCullough (Ulster) for O'Kelly, 64; N Best (Ulster) for Easterby, 75; D Humphreys (Ulster) for O'Gara, 75; G Dempsey (Leinster) for Murphy, 80.

New Zealand: L MacDonald (Canterbury); D Howlett (Auckland), M Nonu (Wellington), A Mauger (Canterbury), S Sivivatu (Waikato); N Evans (Otago), P Weepu (Wellington); T Woodcock (North Harbour), K Mealamu (Auckland), J Afoa (Auckland), J Eaton (Taranaki), A Williams (Auckland), S Lauaki (Waikato), R McCaw (Canterbury), M Tuiali'i (Canterbury). Replacements: A Hore (Taranaki) for Mealamu, 64; S Taumoepeau (Auckland) for Woodcock, 64; J Cowan (Southland) for Weepu, 64.

Referee: J Kaplan (South Africa).