Blacks edge Christchurch epic

RYAN VREDE reports on a 22-19 victory for New Zealand over Ireland in which Dan Carter settled a compelling Test with a last minute drop goal.

What a contest, a proper Test match if you’re a purist. What a fitting return for Test rugby to the earthquake-ravage city and how fitting that a son of the city was the difference. Carter slipped back in the pocket with the scores tied in the death, but missed his first attempt, which fortuitously was touched by an Irish hand. He got another chance from the resultant scrum and made no mistake to steal a win that at times looked unlikely.

Ireland’s turnaround after their 42-10 defeat in the first Test was astounding. They would have hoped for a victory, believed it would happen at stages of this match, but they gave a far better account of themselves against the world champions.

Ireland’s challenge lasted 10 minutes last week. Not so a seven days later. Indeed they looked a side transformed, building their assault on the tryline on powerful phase play. The Blacks struggled to blunt them at the gainline early on and as a result the tourists were able to control the flow and tempo of the match.

A period of sustained pressure made it inevitable the Irish would be first on the board and they took the lead after a multi-phase move had depleted the defensive line, scrumhalf Connor Murray sniping around the ruck fringe to score. Jonathan Sexton kicked the conversion then added a penalty for a comfortable lead.

The Blacks responded well, bossing possession and territory, but seldom getting the momentum they needed in the tackle to trouble Ireland’s defence, which was significantly improved from the woeful effort in Auckland. The Blacks’ potency in this facet of play has undoubtedly been diluted by the absence of Jerome Kaino and (the retired) Brad Thorn. Furthermore, Kieran Read’s impact was patently compromised by a niggling injury. He was replaced at half-time, further undermining the Blacks’ punch in this department.

Taking nothing away from Ireland, their physicality and accuracy on defence was immense. Whether they could sustain that effort through 80 minutes, while crafting more scoring opportunities, was going to be decisive to the result. You have to combine excellence in the latter and the former to beat the Blacks, and they so nearly did.

Carter banked three penalties before half-time, and even though the Blacks trailled by a point going into the break, the strength of their first half showing suggested they would eventually erode Ireland’s resistance. This sense would have been reinforced when Aaron Smith grounded after a rolling maul in the second minute of the second half and Carter landed the touchline conversion to start the third quarter in the manner they would have hoped.

Sexton, however, kept Ireland in touch with a three pointer, and to their credit Ireland upped the ante to keep the Blacks honest. But they lacked that something special to unhinge the host’s defence, their lateral attacks comfortably repelled by a physical and organised effort.

Carter and Sexton traded penalties but with 15 minutes to play the Ireland pivot kicked his side level and set up a tense finish. The Blacks’ cause was complicated when Israel Dagg foolishly flattened Rob Kearney in a poor aerial challenge. Dagg was sin-binned but Sexton missed the long-range penalty.

The Blacks have built their reputation partly on their resilience in the face of pressure, and, having denied the Irish, worked their way into the 22m to set Carter up for the drop. Piri Weepu’s poor pass forced him to attempt one with his less favoured right foot. When the kick drifted wide you expected the scores to end level. But referee Nigel Owens awarded a 5m scrum to the Blacks after spotting a touch from an Irish player. Carter is not a man to spurn a second opportunity and he sent a capacity crowd into delirium with a swing of his left foot.

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