On Saturday morning, Ireland beat New Zealand, in New Zealand, for the first time ever. It was the second Test of a three Test series. In the first Test, the All Blacks had won convincingly, on the scoreboard at least, and the commentator was ringing alarms bells about how badly this series could turn out for Ireland.
It was lazy commentary, in my view. He was commentating on the score, and not the game. In the game itself, Ireland made a few critical errors, and seemed to switch off for ten minutes or so in the first half. NZ also got away with some stretching of the laws of the games. They usually do. Most teams do, to a degree, but NZ are perhaps the most adept at getting away with it. They are also more adept than most teams in the world at punishing sides for mistakes, and clinically taking any chances that are presented, and they did this, and scored some good tries.
But aside from the lapses which cost Ireland a couple of tries, they caused NZ problems with the variety of their attack, scored three tries of their own, and were held up over the line on another couple of occasions. The final scoreline of 42-19 didn’t so much flatter NZ as it was harsh on Ireland, but was a true reflection of the ability of each team to take their chances.
In the second Test, Ireland were out of the traps quickly and scored first, as they also had the previous week, but this time didn’t cough up easy tries. What the first half was most notable for, however, was a lack of discipline from New Zealand. They had one player red-carded for a head collision with Garry Ringrose, which certainly looked accidental, but fundamentally was due to bad tackle technique. They had another player yellow-carded (which entails ten minutes in the sin bin) for connecting his shoulder with Mack Hansen’s face, and—frankly—he should also have seen red.
Ireland went on to win the game 23-12, quite deservedly, for an historic first ever win on New Zealand soil.
And although I was overjoyed with this result, I found myself wondering later if it was really worth it. As I saw Garry Ringrose departing the game, and various other players from both sides going off for head injury assessments (HIAs) throughout the game, I wonder at what cost are rugby match victories being bought?
The number of HIAs in this game was far from unusual. It’s a common occurrence in every rugby match—every international match at least. And so I have to ask—is it worth it? I love sport. I love rugby. But are the long-term effects on the players a price worth paying for sporting success/gratification in the short-term?
Jonny Sexton, an experienced and world-class player who seems to be pivotal to Ireland’s success, failed an HIA during the first Test and was taken off. He was declared fit for the second Test, and murmurs abound as to whether he should have been, given the time it takes to recover from a concussion. I wonder, personally, if the decision to play him was taken in the best interests of his health, or Ireland’s chances, or sponsors’ wishes.
In the middle of a Test series, that—because of Ireland’s win—has now taken on a greater degree of importance for both teams than it might have if New Zealand were 2-0 up, it’s perhaps hard to step back and look at the bigger picture. But the bigger picture, in this case, is the long-term health of guys who are repeatedly taking knocks to the head, and the long-term prognosis for that is not good. And the long-term importance of this series is, honestly, not that great. Sure, the squad that won the second Test will probably get together again for a commemorative dinner in ten years’ time. And if Ireland go on to win the series, the team will “always be remembered” for that accomplishment. In a sporting context, it would be an immense achievement, and worthy of being lauded. I just wonder if—because of the inherent violence of the sport—the result is worth the price being paid.
Because I fear NZ’s response in the third Test, with the series on the line. The “series” is not a Championship, there probably is some random silverware at the end of it, but it’s a bilateral series, and so—in the context of the global game—not that important. However, for New Zealand—a team and a country that is not used to losing—another defeat would be potentially catastrophic for the team coach and management. The ABs have now lost three out of their last four Test matches, to Ireland, France, and now Ireland again.
I fear not their sporting response, although it’s not impossible they will go up a gear and play Ireland irrepressibly off the park. This is what we have come to expect from the All Blacks over the years.
I fear the violence of their response. New Zealand are not sporting losers. The desire to win, and the desire to not lose a series to Ireland—a team who until only a few years ago they had never lost a game to—could provoke an ugly reaction.
In early November 2016, Ireland beat the ABs for the first time ever, in Chicago. Two weeks later, New Zealand came to Dublin, and “beat Ireland up” in a return fixture, featuring off-the-ball cheap shots and a high degree of thuggery. They prevailed on the scoreboard as well, which they may well have done in any case, but I lost a degree of respect for them that day.
I seriously hope that the final game of the series will be a fitting sporting climax—two excellent teams pitting their skills and wits against each other for eighty minutes. But I fear that instead we might see a cynically violent response, even more head injuries, and the very definition of a pyrrhic victory, for either team.