Sexton injury adds to Ireland woes in crushing defeat by New Zealand

Ireland had high hopes, New Zealand creeping concerns. In the end, a familiar tale unfolded. This particular Ireland team might not be accustomed to such heavy defeats, but rugby observers of any experience will know well scorelines that read: New Zealand 40-plus, someone else a lot less.

Worse still for Ireland, who must now regroup after this six-try hammering, Johnny Sexton left the field in the first half, the game still in the balance, with a head injury. Given World Rugby’s latest press release and Sexton’s history with concussion, he must observe at least 12 days’ stand-down, so will miss the second Test next weekend.

The All Blacks came into the match on the back of two consecutive defeats, one of them to Ireland, their third against the tourists in five Tests. Hence those strange vibes beforehand. They also had to prepare without their usual coaching team, hit by an outbreak of Covid. None of it seemed to matter.

It was almost reassuring to see that nothing has changed. What unfolded was classic All Blacks. Ireland felt early on they were at least their opponents’ equals – and with good reason. For 20 minutes they were. New Zealand like to let you feel that way. Then they pounce. Or the opposition unravel. It amounts to the same thing. Trailing 5-0 after the first quarter, the All Blacks scored four tries in the second. In the midst of it all, Sexton took his leave.

It had all started so well. That confidence Ireland bring, now that they are comfortable with their place among rugby’s elite, is well-placed. They tore into New Zealand as if the match were in Cardiff or Edinburgh. And, as so often in those places, they came away with an early try. Excellent it was too. Lovely passes by Garry Ringrose and Hugo Keenan set up Keith Earls to finish after five minutes.

The All Blacks appeared rattled. Then again, sometimes you wonder if they look that way on purpose. They were less so by half-time. They struck first a minute into the second quarter. A loop out of Ireland’s playbook released the new cap Leicester Fainga’anuku down the left. He was stopped just short, but Jordie Barrett picked a line and converted.

The next stage in the classic narrative of matches against the All Blacks is for the newly chastened hopefuls to continue to play as if they can win. Ireland did so. Then, typically, our would-be challengers make a mistake. Ireland did that too, their handling creaking under pressure, and Sevu Reece scooped up the loose ball on his 22 to run 80 metres to score.

Sexton left the fray at that point. Ireland fell apart. Jamison Gibson-Park, so lively throughout but now without his captain alongside, overplayed by trying to break from a defensive ruck. New Zealand turned him over, Beauden Barrett chipped, Quinn Tupaea dotted down.

The All Blacks scored their fourth just before the break for a 28-5 lead, more points than Ireland have conceded in a first half for a decade – the last time they were here. Ardie Savea touched down the loose ball after Aaron Smith’s break.

If that was ugly, Savea’s second, which confirmed the win in the 53rd minute, was a thing of wonder. Any doubt that lingered owed much to Garry Ringrose’s smart finish a few minutes into the second half, after Ireland had sent penalties to the corner twice. So Savea took the ball, beat Ringrose on the outside and slalomed through what was left of Ireland’s defence.

In the final 10 minutes, another debutant, Pita Gus Sowakula, burst from the base of a scrum to bring up the 40. Bundee Aki’s try three minutes from time was consolation for him at least, born just a few miles away.

The more things change the more they stay the same. Let it be known, New Zealand still take some beating on home soil.