Agnew: Irish win brings hope

In victory Ireland was as gracious as All Black coach Steve Hansen was in defeat, Ivan Agnew says. Image / Wikimedia Commons.

Irish eyes had reason to smile in Chicago on Sunday when they recorded their first ever rugby test win over the All Blacks in 111 years, not long after the Chicago Cubs won the world baseball series for the first time in 108.

Miraculous stuff. And fully deserved too, as All Blacks coach Steve Hansen readily acknowledged after the Irish forwards dominated the lineout and breakdown and, along with their backs, tackled like demons.

Furthermore, halves Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton outplayed Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett whom most of us regard as the world’s best.

It was Murray who beat Smith in scoring a vital try. And it was he who made the tackle in the All Blacks in-goal to force a scrum that led to the Robbie Henshaw try that clinched the 40-29 result.

Ireland repulsed the usual last quarter New Zealand charge because they didn’t sit on their lead but kept trying to add to it through to the final whistle.

In victory they were as gracious as Hansen was in defeat.

Not only did they dominate lineouts in the absence of the injured Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock but they easily won the turnovers, were tactically superior and kicked more accurately.

Injuries which sidelined midfield backs Ryan Crotty (hamstring strain) and George Moala (torn elbow ligaments) didn’t help the All Blacks cause but could not be offered as an excuse against determined foes.

Crotty is expected to recover for the last test against France but Moala is out of the tour.

With the exception of Ben Smith and Sam Cane, few All Blacks lived up to their reputations against Ireland though replacements PJ Perenara and debutant Scott Barrett each scored outstanding tries.

Now that the All Blacks bubble has burst and their record tier one streak halted at 18 tests, the return game in Dublin on Sunday week has become an eagerly-awaited contest by fans from both nations.

Having done it once, the Irish will have self-belief, even should Retallick and Whitelock return to lock the All Blacks scrum and fix their lineout.

But they can expect a much-improved performance from their opponents’ backs, especially if fiery halfback PJ Perenara and gifted centre Anton Lienert-Brown get starts.

It is also a test that will also be watched with avid interest by 2017 British Lions and Ireland coach, Warren Gatland, who would be wise to follow the Joe Schmidt formula that bought the Irish victory.

He could also do worse than bring with him to New Zealand Ireland defence coach, Andy Farrell, whose tacklers leg-ironed the All Blacks in Chicago almost as effectively as gangster Al Capone’s tommy guns mowed down a rival gang in the same city on Valentine’s Day during Prohibition.

Meanwhile while the Kiwis attack still lacks snap, their defence deserved praise in restricting the Kangaroos to two tries in their 14-8 Four Nations rugby league loss in England.

Having set up Jordan Rapana’s try with a kick and gather, Shaun Johnson almost scored another when he straightened nicely to cross in the final seconds, only for multiple defenders to stop him from forcing the ball.

More straight running from the talented halfback, instead of over doing the kicking game, would bring Johnson and his team richer rewards.

Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author