By Aiden McLaughlin
The last time Ireland toured New Zealand in 2012, the three test series started with the men in black scoring 42 points at Eden Park. 10 years on, and after a disrupted build up that would have been unimaginable back then, Ian Foster’s team racked up an identical score in front of 48,195 supporters at the same fortress, to maintain an unbeaten record there that stretches back to 1994.
A lot has changed for both teams in the decade that’s passed, but even so, the All Blacks fielded three starters from that night in Aaron Smith, Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, while Ireland had their own trio of starters in Keith Earls, Johnny Sexton and Peter O’Mahony; Conor Murray and Cian Healy were also part of the Eden Park class of 2012 and took their places on the bench for this encounter.
Make no mistake, there was huge pressure on Foster’s men coming into this match. A disappointing end of year tour which had finished with back to back defeats to the Irish and France, had observers questioning the direction of the team, but this was a convincing, if not yet perfect, response to the critics and left the visitors with plenty of questions of their own as they head to Dunedin for next Saturday’s second test.
It was Andy Farrell’s men that deservedly struck first in the sixth minute with veteran Earls going over for the try after a sustained period of possession that lasted almost 20 phases. With Sexton unable to add the conversion, it was 15 minutes before the scoreboard saw more action, but then suddenly, it was in overdrive. Four tries, to Jordie Barrett, Sevu Reece, Quinn Tupaea and Ardie Savea, all converted by Barrett, saw a barely believeable half time score of 28-5.
By that stage, the home side had shown a powerful and organised defence that was forcing the Irish, who had the majority of possession in the first half, into making multiple mistakes that the All Blacks were quick to pounce on. In addition, the home side’s scrum was going well.
After the break, the Irish came back with a deserved try from centre Garry Ringrose. Joey Carbery, now on for the captain Sexton, added the conversion to bring the deficit back to 16 points, but that would be as close as the Irish got, as Savea added his second try after 53 minutes, and debutant Pita Gus Sowakula scored the All Blacks’ sixth and final try with nine minutes to go. Jordie Barrett maintained his 100% conversion rate on a night where, unusually, neither team attempted a penalty kick on goal.
Former Chief and midweek captain against the Māori All Blacks, Bundee Aki, got a late consolation try, but it was too little, too late.
In the post match press conference, Farrell was confident that Sexton would be cleared to play in the second test, despite failing his first HIA and coming off after 31 minutes, but time will tell. Although Carbery aquitted himself well, Sexton’s experience seems vital if the Irish are going to have any chance of levelling the series next weekend.
For Foster and skipper Sam Cane, there was satisfaction with the night’s work, but mindfulness that they will need to keep improving across all facets to ensure that the series victory is secured next Saturday night. They’ll also be hoping for a much less eventful build-up in the next seven days.
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