Spine-tingling All Blacks raise the bar far too high for Ireland (and everyone else?)

Rugby

TOKYO – The All Blacks don’t need to be reminded of their defeats; they wear them, carry them around in their daily lives.

Nor do they overreact when they win, it’s all part of the journey. But even Steve Hansen took time to single out Kieran Read’s performance and their attacking play as they swiped aside Ireland 46-14 and returned to familiar surroundings in the semifinals. Gone were their two recent defeats by this same Ireland team, in Chicago in 2016 and Dublin last year. But they most certainly hadn’t been forgotten.

The old adage went that you didn’t win the sport’s biggest prize by playing expansive, free-flowing rugby. Instead you’d play the corners, in a paint-by-numbers style and it worked. But this lot want to cast that aside as an anachronism. This class want to win their third World Cup on the bounce playing rugby with handling of such precision it gives you shivers down your spine. Where Australia foundered earlier in the day, New Zealand thrived.

The highlight reel for this game will come in a succinct, try-focused version around their seven scores. But the real beauty lies in the intricate detail of the small flicked passes of their forwards, and then the pinpoint sweeping cross-kicks of their backs. It’s like those late 19th century pointillist paintings where a series of small dots end up producing something so iconic, perhaps originally a little jarring, that it takes you a little time to work out the significance of what you’re seeing and only hits home when you stand back and appreciate what you’re seeing.

It says something when you come to accept Dane Coles’ wondrous offload for George Bridge’s late score as being part of the new norm — he’s a front-row forward for crying out loud, but the old union of those push-and-shove merchants has just been shoved further back in the sport’s history.

For Ireland, the heavy defeat drew a line under the Joe Schmidt era. It should be remembered for the two Six Nations titles and one Grand Slam and that pair of wins over the All Blacks to end a 111-year hoodoo, but there will be the asterisk of two World Cup quarterfinal exits next to his six-year tenure. “Those scars are deep,” Schmidt said.

Their wins in 2016 and 2018 against New Zealand were performances where their discipline and handling were faultless; both let them down tonight in Tokyo where they seemed to lose all sense of catch-pass and their set piece got a similar going over. Three missed kicks to touch — even accounting for Richie Mo’unga’s contortionist act that somehow kept one first-half boot in play — is unacceptable. “When we gave ourselves opportunities to breathe, we gave them oxygen back,” Schmidt said afterwards.

Back in November after Ireland beat the All Blacks in Dublin on that memorable chilly evening, it looked as if Best would play his last match in the final of this tournament. Ireland were the team to beat at that stage, 10 months out from the start of the World Cup; Hansen left Dublin after seeing his New Zealand side lose and said he’d keep a close eye on how Ireland would cope with being seen as the world’s best side.

Throughout 2019 for Ireland there was a growing sense of dread they had peaked a year early, with the crown on top of it all the defeat to Japan in the pool stages. “It’s not perfect, we work with human beings and when you reach the height…” Schmidt said, and then highlighted how they tried to mix things up in the Six Nations to keep things fresh but was left “heart-broken”.

It was no way for Ireland’s great servant Rory Best to say farewell to the game. On his 123rd and final appearance for Ireland and in the sport, he allowed himself a brief smile as the crowd roused themselves from the hurt of defeat to cheer him one final time, but this will hurt him. He deserved better, but equally, and he’ll be the first to say this, the sport does not understand sentimentality.

For the All Blacks, this is just another part of their ‘Te Taura Tangata’: a flax rope representing their genealogy with three interwoven strands of black, silver and red representing the heritage, the silver fern and their blood. There are other coloured strings of various shades woven into it with blue signifying a win over Argentina, white for England and so on but the black threads, 106 of them, represent the defeats. Ireland have their 2016 and 2018 contributions, but the green will be added again now.

During the week Hansen and Kieran Read were asked whether it had dawned on them that Saturday’s match might be their last as coach and captain; Hansen is leaving the All Blacks after this World Cup while Read is retiring from international duty. Both sent the question back where it came from. Instead, they spoke about the importance of earning the right to stay in the tournament and ensure they were here for another week. For some teams — and you sense this is what happened with Ireland — it would lead to desperation. But for the All Blacks, it comes as familiar territory. Their passes and offloads stick, rather than being spilled agonisingly forward.

To a man, the All Blacks were sensational. Their back-row put in another performance for the ages with Read unsurpassable. How foolish those folk must feel who criticised him in the wake of their defeat to Ireland last year. He is not a boisterous, chest-thumping captain in press conferences, but in his own quiet way, he inspires his other teammates to ensure they keep this journey going. “He came back from a back injury, copped a lot of flak from people about his form but he’s gone to a higher level at this World Cup,” Hansen said of Read.

Then you have the seamless partnership at half-back where Aaron Smith — who scored two sniping tries to start the onslaught — knows exactly where his comrade Mo’unga is. From the back you have the world’s best player Beauden Barrett controlling things while their wingers slot in with ease.

But all possess the same skillset. Read is expected to offload at the right moment and with the same accuracy as Sonny Bill Williams. Sam Cane, again brilliant, needs to be able to catch-pass just like Jack Goodhue. And from that you have this perfectly oiled machine, so eager not to go home.

England now await for the All Blacks. Eddie Jones said after their quarterfinal win over Australia earlier in the day his team are still looking to peak. They will need to do that next weekend if they are to stop New Zealand from reaching yet another final. They will cause the All Blacks far more problems than Ireland did, but when you factor in the All Blacks’ last defeat in a World Cup came back in 2007 and how rugby’s landscape has changed immeasurably in that time, it is remarkable at how they continue to evolve and push the game’s boundaries while maintaining and fulfilling the unquenchable demand for success.

With the clock ticking towards 80 minutes, there was a juxtaposition of contrasting fortunes on the big screen. Hansen was stood up, shaking hands with his fellow coaches. Job done. Schmidt was sat, staring into the ether, aware his time was up. Job over. There’s still a chance Schmidt might come back one day to coach the All Blacks — his stock is rightly high in that part of the world and he leaves Ireland as their most successful coach. But this will hurt him. The sport hasn’t granted him the fairytale farewell he so wanted, and has chased for six years.

For Hansen and Read, it’s going to take something truly remarkable to stop their march towards their third title in as many World Cups. But they’re doing it their own way, ripping up the playbook for knockout rugby. It remains to be seen if the rest of the world can match it, or will be left playing catch up, again.

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