Ireland are in New Zealand looking for the most difficult challenges according to head coach Andy Farrell and they were no match for their first against the Māori All Blacks at Waikato Stadium on Wednesday night.
The visitors were humbled 32-17 after trailing 32-10 at halftime, the Māori delivering a reality check to a nation with high hopes ahead of Saturday’s first Test against the All Blacks at Eden Park.
The Irish, effectively a B team ahead of the first Test but with confidence high after beating the All Blacks three times in their past five encounters, were out of it by halftime as the Māori put on an attacking masterclass high on ambition and skill.
While they remained scoreless in the second half, their four-try first-half blitz was enough.
They were irresistible during that period and weren’t perturbed by the slippery conditions, although the rain, which fell constantly in Hamilton throughout the day, had eased by kick-off.
The inclement weather may have accounted for the disappointing crowd of 9253.
In the best traditions of Māori rugby, they ran the ball at every opportunity, scoring four tries to two and leaving the Irish chasing shadows, with outside backs Zarn Sullivan, Connor Garden-Bachop and Shaun Stevenson especially influential, along with co-captain Brad Weber.
The victory will rate among the best ever for the Māori, and probably ahead of their last truly significant ones against Ireland in Rotorua and England in Napier back in 2010.
Ireland, who paid their respects to former Māori wing Sean Wainui by presenting a jersey via skipper Bundee Aki before the haka, which was collected by the late Wainui’s family, had their first setback after 90 seconds.
Loosehead prop Jeremy Loughman left for medical attention and was replaced by Cian Healy, likely to play a part in the first Test on Saturday, before Loughman returned, only for Healy to limp off in pain in the second half. Centre James Hume also left the field injured.
The blows kept coming, and the visitors, who arrived in the country a week ago, found it increasingly difficult to cope with the Māori All Blacks’ speed of thought and feet.
Sullivan, after a spicy early bust-up, was in everything – scoring his side’s first try following good work by Josh Ioane, the excellent Billy Harmon and Weber and while Aki responded by strolling through a giant hole in the Māori defence, it was only a temporary reprieve.
When Ioane ghosted past Aki and timed a perfect pass for Stevenson to beat Ciaran Frawley to the right corner the Māori were in the ascendant, with Weber’s try from a quick free kick and Grace’s from Stevenson’s break and Harmon’s excellent ball skills, pushing the score out to what for Ireland was an embarrassing halftime margin.
The break couldn’t come quickly enough for the visitors, who were limited on attack and struggled as soon as the Māori broke the first tackle. They found it difficult to match the enthusiasm from the home side and had no answers when the Māori All Blacks’ generated quick ball.
That their renowned set piece was quickly under pressure will be something else for Farrell to mull over ahead of the highly anticipated three-Test series and final match against the Māori in Wellington on July 12.
An untidy third quarter from the Māori will provide coach Clayton McMillan with his own food for thought. They were on defence for the majority of it, narrowly dodged a couple of close calls on their line, and finally cracked when No.8 Gavin Coombes, one of Ireland’s best, went over.
In what was an anti-climactic finish for the majority of the crowd, the Māori failed to score in the second half - replacement first-five Ruben Love coming closest when his penalty from close range hit a post and then missing with a dropped goal attempt from straight in front.
But by then the damage had been done; a famous victory for the Māori and the Irish left in no doubt about what they might face over the next three weeks.
Māori All Blacks 32 (Zarn Sullivan, Shaun Stevenson, Brad Weber, Cullen Grace tries; Josh Ioane 2 pens, 3 cons)
Ireland 17 (Bundee Aki, Gavin Coombes tries; Ciaran Frawley pen, 2 cons)