What an incredible 2013 finale for New Zealand. The team being dubbed the invincibles after an unblemished 100% winning record in 2013 were taken to the very brink by an inspired Ireland on Sunday.
The tentative attack and negligible defence of a week earlier against Australia was consigned to history as Ireland came within seconds of being the team to terminate the dream of a perfect 2013 and in the process become the first Irish team EVER to beat the All Blacks.
The quality of Ireland's performance against them, the completely different gear England discovered and the epic nature of South Africa's resistance in Ellis Park is what makes the achievement of 14 straight wins in 2013 so special.
Every time the All Blacks offer the haka challenge the opposition lifts their game like no other match. So far ahead of the world are they that every team treats the New Zealand match as a one-off final while the All Blacks have to keep their levels high enough to shrug off the galvanised opposition.
Joe Schmidt had country playing at the pace his great Leinster teams employed. In contrast France, Italy and Scotland - in particular - were leaden.
Quotes of the week
Against Ireland it appeared that the final hurdle would find them without enough left in their legs. I have seen it happen time and again at Cheltenham and England did just this to New Zealand last year.
But with an incredible combination of will, skill, determination and Ireland mishaps, they managed to fight back when they had been second best for most of the day and steal the glory from the hosts.
I am a fan of Jonny Sexton and he will not need telling that his usually easy kick to push Ireland into an eight point lead would probably have been the tipping point for New Zealand. The miss gave them hope and with their ferocious determination somehow they breached Ireland to level the scores.
It should have been a draw but Irish adrenaline gave Aaron Cruden a second shot at redemption. He bisected the posts with the cool that escaped Sexton. That was the difference. The big difference between this Irish performance and any other we have seen in 2013 was the speed with which they played and the numbers that hit breakdowns with accuracy and intent.
New Zealand was playing backwards for most of the game and the invincibles looked anything but. That they dug themselves out of a hole is probably the most perfect way for them to celebrate the year and the cruellest for Ireland.
But while the rugby nation has to be feeling inconsolable there is plenty of positives for Ireland to take long term. Joe Schmidt had his country playing at the pace his great Leinster teams employed. In contrast France, Italy and Scotland - in particular - were leaden.
If Ireland maintain that pace and precision, allied with the power of their Leinster ball carrying forwards, Schmidt will have them feasting at the peak of the European game very soon. This was the best European performance of the autumn by a mile. The bar for the Six Nations has been set by the Irish.
In global terms the Springboks' win in Paris ended an excellent year with only the All Blacks beating them. The nine point margin was no reflection of the complete control exercised against France. The one missing element was the ruthless capacity to turn pressure into points. It kept France in the game, if on the ropes throughout.
Right now they are well clear of the rest as the world's second best team. Scotland are not in that league and unless they generate more quick ball they will be struggling badly along with Italy in the second tier Six Nations. Quality and not quantity of possession is the keynote message from this month (Wales and Australia still to come). It is a lesson Europe must learn if it is to ever challenge the Southern Hemisphere for global ascendency.
That's the rugby for me. Fiji v the Barbarians Saturday and Bob Dylan at the Albert Hall Tuesday and Wednesday; looking forward to this week, hope you too have a good one.
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Hi Stuart, One of my persistent gripes with the modern game, is the length of time afforded to kickers when taking conversions and penalty kicks at goal. The Laws are, I believe, clear on this. In all other areas time wasting is penalised. With the TMO able to adjudicate and call in issues to the ref, a watch could easily be run on the kick, started at the point the choice to kick is made. The TMO could call in to the Ref when time is expired. Sexton is by some distance the biggest offender. Similarly the TMO could judge what is clearly a nonsense, which is the time from the call of 'use it'.
STUART REPLIES: Andrew, I agree with you 100%. Well stated.
Stuart, I agree with you in that Farrell should start at 10 but I think Luther Burrell has been hard done by... after watching Tigers vs Northampton he really stepped up in a club game with as close an intensity as an international as you will find; Joel Tomkins has looked impotent and has struggled to offload against international defences... what is your view on the squad's centres for the World Cup, when Tuilagi and Barritt are back?
STUART REPLIES: Jake, it's not just the personnel that is a problem. I think there is a cultural problem in what we want from our midfields. Ten years of English inadeqaucy with the ball in hand testifes to a longer term problem while the high quality of the defence even more strongly hints that attacking virtues and maybe mindset, comes a poor second to defence.
Hi Stuart, I can only imagine that Lancaster chose the paceless Tomkins as a placeholder for Tuilagi this autumn (because, at least, he's familiar with Farrell and Ashton); and, presumably, Flood was in the squad ahead of Burns and Ford for a similar reason - and experience. However, suppose Tomkins is the best of the rest: better than Joseph, Trinder and Burrell. Would it then be better to experiment with picking a spare international-class winger/full-back at outside-centre (e.g., Foden)? Similarly, since Flood has the experience to be successfully drafted into a World Cup squad at short notice, would it have been more useful to provide experience to Burns/Ford this autumn (and coming Six Nations)? Finally, given Ugo Monye's world-class pace and power, why has Lancaster been so willing to invest more in the lesser potential of Ashton when England are desperately short of those attributes at the back?
STUART REPLIES: Blimey Mike, a lot to think about here. Start with the contention that Ugo Monye is world class; he's not. He is a real star at a certain level but lacks world class finishing ability, same as Dave Strettle. Injury hurt Stuart Lancaster's wing plans. In the centre Joel Tomkins is not better than certainly Burrell or Trinder and the Six Nations squad will reflect this, I guess. As for the Flood issue I agree Stuart Lancaster could have been a little bolder in a few areas but these matches are not trials for the Six Nations but the key matches in the World Cup build up so you can understand the manager's desire to pick the team he thinks can win matches now.
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Shane Mcginley says...
Stuart...........it was easy to spot the team (or most of them) who's last game was against the all blacks. Like Australia against ireland the Leinster boys were battle hardened and i think the game against the all blacks is the template the irish boys will now play with.roll on the 6 nations. BOD will be missed by the rugby world and not just in ireland.
Posted 22:18 7th December 2013
Pretoria Saffer says...
great performance by Ireland - I think it is just the belief that they could really beat NZ that lacked in the end. They played the right game and come world cup they'll be very competetive along with France,Wales and England. I think that a heavy , wet world cup might help the Northern hemisphere and to an extent South Africa to close the gap on NZ. But for now - they are pretty much invincible.....
Posted 06:42 2nd December 2013
David Gibbons says...
I think the biggest problem for England and Wales against the likes of NZ, Austrailia and South Africa is the off loading game isn't there to the degree the southern Hemisphere teams do. It the part of the Rugby League game the Northern Hempishere countries need to bridge the gap and take the oppotunites. The times where they will give a knock on or concede a penalty holding on within the red zone when a try is there to be taken is amazing... New Zealand are great off loaders however there are numerous times it goes to the floor... it will that 1 time it goes in the hands and there away. They back there defence to force the opposition to kick to touch for them to go again if the off load fails... and the start again 40-50 metres out. The likes of England and Wales need to be a little more daring in that last pass... but also back themselves to force the kick to touch and Hartley and Hubbard hit their jumper to keep the pressure on... rather than allow the likes of Ritchie McCaw to constantly turn over the ball at the ruck with our players getting isolated going on 1 man wrecking ball missions...
Posted 13:36 30th November 2013
Niall Flannery says...
It was a great game and being an Irish supporter I think I speak for all when I say we were the better team and the reason why we lost is not because of the invincible New Zealand although not many have that self-belief - its the Irish, their natural ability to self-destruct - this Irish group of core players should of won many a six nation over the past decade but when the pressure is really on they crumble.
Posted 13:40 27th November 2013
Mac James says...
I have to disagree Stuart. Ireland did not deserve to win based on that performance. You do not win games by playing all the rugby in the first hald and just defend your lead in the second. Sport does not work like that. Theres no doubt that Ireland blew NZ away in the first 40 but people tend to ignore the 17-0 to the ABs in 2nd half where Ireland either were worned out by thier first half efforts or just mentally battered by the ABs onslaught in the second. As for the missed penalty? Not sure why everyone focused so much on this when the first Irish try was clearly lost before they actually grounded the ball. The commentators agreed he had lost controll of the ball, I thought he had dropped it but the TMO seemed to be looking at something else!
Posted 12:53 27th November 2013
Kevin Mitchell says...
Conrad Smith didn't tour and Cory Jane has just returned yet the AB's do not have a centre or wing issue. Therefore is this anEngland , squad or management issue.The injury excuse is no excuse for a country that has more money , more clubs and more players than any other.
Posted 17:49 26th November 2013
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