Time for Ireland to shape up
November 16, 2008
O'Leary escapes the clutches of New Zealand skipper Richie McCaw during yesterday's clash at Croke Park © Getty Images
Tomas O'Leary has demanded Ireland start realising their potential as they pick through the ruins of yet another failure against the All Blacks.
Any remaining shreds of self-belief that were evident in the Irish camp before the 22-3 defeat were swept away when New Zealand ran in their second try six minutes after half-time. Graham Henry's grand slam-chasing tourists hardly broke sweat as they continued their 103-year mastery of Ireland with a typically clinical display.
After three narrow defeats in their last three meetings, yesterday's result felt like a step backwards for a side that genuinely fancied their chances of toppling the best in the world. Argentina are the next assignment for Ireland, and O'Leary - who produced a solid full debut amid an evening of mediocrity - has warned a significant improvement is essential.
"I don't think anyone could be satisfied with that performance," said the Munster scrum-half, winning his second cap. "We didn't play any rugby and we have to learn what went wrong in time for Argentina, which has become a massive game now. I'm disappointed, because I felt like we prepared well against New Zealand.
"I definitely expected more from us - we're capable of much better. That's a positive for the future. But it's no good talking about how we good we are or about potential. We need to produce."
With the last batch of precious ranking points - before the World Cup draw is made - on the line against Argentina, Ireland can ill-afford to slip up at Croke Park next Saturday. Scotland - who host Canada next weekend - are snapping at their heels at ninth in the table, with both teams having one match left.
The rankings determine the seedings for the 2011 World Cup, to be announced on December 1, and Ireland are desperate to avoid the type of perilous group that contributed to their misery last autumn. Argentina sealed their demise in the final pool match, and Ireland must improve on yesterday's error-strewn display if they are to prevail against the Pumas.
The penalty try conceded in first-half injury time was justifiably highlighted as a crushing blow to their victory hopes, but they could not feel wronged by the decision. With the interval beckoning at 3-3, Tommy Bowe deliberately palmed a loose ball over the touchline just moments before Richie McCaw was set to pounce for the try.
The battalions of fans who jeered the decision, made by the TMO, had clearly failed to bring their law books - and Bowe was also shown a yellow card for what referee Mark Lawrence described as "cynical" play. Trailing 10-3, Irish hopes were left hanging by a thread - and when the All Blacks mixed grace and power to strike twice early in the second half, it was all over.
Ma'a Nonu finished a slick back-line move orchestrated by Joe Rokocoko in the 47th minute, and shortly afterwards Brad Thorn flattened the hapless Bowe at full tilt to bulldoze over. "We came under a lot of pressure in the first half and wanted to hold out until half-time," said O'Leary. "What happened was a double blow really, because Tommy got the yellow card on top of the penalty try - which I thought was harsh. For all that, we were still in the game at half-time but never got into it in the second half. We should really have been able to recover from that blow."
Ireland could take small comfort from the knowledge they had succumbed to the All Blacks' strongest line-up, containing more than 600 caps and the irrepressible McCaw and Dan Carter. But key players in the hosts' ranks failed to deliver, and captain Brian O'Driscoll accepts his side were a distant second best.
"On paper they were hugely experienced. It was a compliment they field strongest team," he said. "They were as clinical as any time I've played against them. You give them opportunities, and they take them.
"That 10 minutes after half-time was pivotal. We had to score next, and they were the ones to score."
New Zealand coach Graham Henry predicts greater things to come from his All Blacks, who face Wales next Saturday before concluding their tour against England a week later.
"We should get better. The guys haven't played together for a while, so the guys should keep moving up the graph," he said. "We should play better - but whether Wales allow us to do that we'll have to wait and see. We'll improve as the tour goes on."
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