15. Rob Kearney: 9
A performance of steel, grit and determination exhibited by his sprint down the line for Ireland’s 3rd try which put them 19-0 ahead inside 20 minutes, an opening quarter that no-one could have possibly envisaged. Kearney topped the stats with 114 metres gained and his defensive work deserves mention too.
14. Tommy Bowe: 7.5
New Zealand being incredibly strong in the wide channels it was always likely to be a difficult afternoon for both Irish wingers, but Bowe still managed to contribute to Irish efforts with a couple of fine restart takes and one interception inside his own 22 as the All Blacks threatened to break through Irish lines.
13. Brian O’Driscoll: 8
O’Driscoll looked devastated when forced to sit in the stands after once again putting his body on the line for Ireland. Up to that point he’d led by example in his last throw of the dice against the All Blacks, scrapping his way through All Blacks line, but the fairytale ending we’d hoped for didn’t materialise.
12. Gordon D’Arcy: 8.5
Some of D’Arcy’s tackling was exemplary, and his work-rate no less than any other player on the field, including forcing a turnover from New Zealand scrum-half Aaron Smith as the first half drew to a close. D’Arcy visibly had nothing else left to give at the final whistle, everything was left out there.
11. David Kearney: 7.5
They won’t get any tougher than that. This was his first start for Ireland, but Kearney acquitted himself well despite a couple of defensive misjudgements in an environment like nothing he would have experienced before.
10. Johnny Sexton: 7.5
Passed a late fitness test to start at out-half but probably wasn’t 100%, despite reassurances from Parisian chum Ronan O’Gara. Sexton defied that though, playing 75 minutes, and impressed particularly in defence making a number of important tackles. However, he pushed that kickable penalty wide, albeit under immense pressure. A kick that would have put Ireland 8 points ahead with just minutes on the clock.
9. Conor Murray: 9
A great performance running Sean O’Brien close for man-of-the-match, Murray’s passing was accurate and while his box kicks were occasionally inconsistent, he more than made up for that with superb support play, an impressive tackle count (12), a couple of turnovers and also a crucial defensive intervention stopping Israel Dagg from grounding the ball. He took his try well, and orchestrated Irish attacks in the first half.
8. Jamie Heaslip: 8.5
Perhaps motivated partly by criticism of his own recent performances, but more so by the challenge of his opposite number, Kieran Read, Heaslip raised his game to match all that New Zealand could offer. Not only was he a prominent ball carrier with nine carries, but with an impressive 21 tackles Heaslip topped both these statistics.
7. Sean O’Brien: 9
Man-of-the-match, O’Brien set the tone for the Irish challenge early on and followed that up with a dominant display in the back-row. It was his drive which put the All Blacks on the back foot before Rory Best crashed over. He made 19 tackles, second only to Heaslip in that area, and was ever present at the breakdown, even outshining Richie McCaw on the day. His physicality in the tackle contributed to Rob Kearney’s breakaway try. O’Brien deserved to be on the winning side.
6. Peter O’Mahony: 8.5
I’d be amazed if he had any voice left after the anthems. O’Mahony was visibly fired up for this fixture and alongside O’Brien contributed to the blistering pace at which Ireland started the game. His counter rucking at the breakdown was particularly effective as Ireland looked to disrupt the All Blacks at every opportunity.
5. Paul O’Connell: 8.5
Luke Romano’s illness meant that O’Connell faced Retallick and Whitelock, probably the best lock pairing in world rugby right now. But the Ireland captain rose to their challenge, winning his collisions and providing a safe pair of hands in the lineout on the six times he was the target. O’Connell made 12 tackles, and was another disruptive force at the breakdown winning one turnover and never letting New Zealand settle.
4. Devin Toner: 7.5
One of three players in the pack that George Hook described as too ‘lightweight’ for international rugby prior to kick-off – the others were Heaslip and Ross – Toner’s improved performance against the All Blacks suggests that last weekend’s poor display was a blip in an otherwise impressive season so far. He was more of a presence physically, and but for an unnecessary block on a New Zealand prop which invited more pressure on the Irish line in the second half would have scored higher.
3. Mike Ross: 8.5
Under pressure to put in a solid game after a disastrous Australian match, to his credit Ross was much improved in the scrum and even found some energy in the loose making 11 tackles and making small inroads into the New Zealand defensive line each time he carried.
2. Rory Best: 7
It was a huge shame when Rory Best had to withdraw after only 15 minutes with a suspected broken arm, but he still managed to make an impression in the short time he had on the field scoring Ireland’s second try, his eighth in 70 internationals.
1. Cian Healy: 8.5
An early nuisance at the breakdown, Healy also carried well in the opening stages beating two All Black defenders during the course of the game, and memorably putting Richie McCaw on his backside (see below). Only O’Brien and Sean Cronin carried more metres in the pack, his loose game benefitting from Irish stability in the scrum, to which he contributed.
Sean Cronin got the most minutes of the bench, replacing the unfortunate Best. One lost lineout was a minor black mark on an otherwise impressive display. Known for his quick feet Cronin carried 19 metres, more than any other forward. Unfussy Kevin McLaughlin replaced O’Mahony on 56 minutes, and put in a good shift in the back-row carrying 11 metres and making important tackles in the later stages.
In the backs, Luke Fitzgerald made an impression at 13 after the pitch-side medical team deemed O’Driscoll unfit to continue. By that stage it was all New Zealand but we saw enough to suggest Fitzgerald could be looked at as a potential successor in that jersey, perhaps in the Six Nations. Jack McGrath, Declan Fitzpatrick and Mike McCarthy also had minutes in a much improved tight five, while Ian Madigan replaced Sexton with five minutes remaining, just in time to see the All Blacks steal victory and stun a rugby nation into silence.
By David Blair (@viscount_dave)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images