Agnew: Ireland boosts Lions’ belief

The British and Irish Lions will tour New Zealand next year.

Ireland’s two outstanding rugby tests against the All Blacks should dispel fears that next year’s British Lions and Ireland tour of New Zealand will be a disaster for the tourists.

Sure it is a tough, embracing three tests and matches against our five Super Rugby franchises, as well as a Maori All Blacks team which will need to improve dramatically on its recent poor form. But Ireland went beyond hope to offering confidence with their historic 40-29 triumph in Chicago and their gutsy 9-21 loss in Dublin.

Only the sheer brilliance of Beauden Barrett and a magnificent defence saved the All Blacks’ bacon on Irish soil last Sunday when Ireland comprehensively won the battle for the ball and retained it for long periods.

Having scored one himself and helping set up Malakai Fekitoa’s two tries, Barrett put his stamp on this test as easily the All Blacks star performer.

He also denied Ireland what seemed like a certain try with his ball-and-all tackle on rampaging flanker Sean O’Brien.

It was a game that also confirmed Fekitoa’s growing confidence following another two-try effort against Italy in Rome despite being sin-binned for a careless tackle on Simon Zebo.

Tough Sam Cane suffered a similar fate following his head clash that ko’d Robbie Henshaw. Although it wasn’t deliberate, the loss of Henshaw and fellow five-eighth Johnny Sexton was a crushing blow to Irish hopes after both had starred in the Chicago win along with halfback Conor Murray.

Hence it was left to the Irish forwards to carry the attack to New Zealand, with prop Tadhg Furlong a powerhouse and flankers Sean O’Brien and Josh van der Flier absolutely brilliant.

With the penalty count going 14-4 against them, the All Blacks do have off side and high tackle discipline issues which need to be addressed. But once again they showed they have tremendous character.

Furthermore with Aaron Smith only a shadow of the classy player who performed so well at home, PJ Perenara is currently the team’s best halfback both on attack and defence.

As such, he should start in next Sunday’s final test against France.

Of the newcomers, none have impressed more than Anton Lienert-Brown who made 15 tackles in the Dublin test and whose slick passes have set up so many tries throughout the season.

Liam Squire is another success story with his strong running and bone-crunching tackles and Beauden Barrett’s not so little brother, Scott, has made a fine debut at lock.

Taken on tour as an apprentice, third brother Brodie should benefit from the experience when he plays with Beauden for the Super Rugby champion Hurricanes next year.

Fears expressed in this column about the Kiwis lack of structure were once more realised with their pathetic 34-8 Four Nations rugby league final loss to the Kangaroos.

I share Richie Barnett’s concern about the coaching staff and agree with his claim that this was the poorest performance from a Kiwis side in a Four Nations series.

At their best, the forwards bash and barge okay but too often die with the ball and seem devoid of practised moves.

Ditto the backs who too often drift sideways at half pace instead of accelerating straight onto the ball, committing tacklers and putting teammates through gaps.

What a sad slump from their glorious 2014 Four Nations triumph!

Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author