Defensive display shows All Blacks still best

1:12 PM GMT

DUBLIN, Ireland — Irish fans will be familiar with the script that unfolded at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday evening.

Their team worked tirelessly for 80 minutes, but just as it looked as though they would find a way through the All Blacks defence, a hammer blow was struck at the other end. Normal service was resumed.

New Zealand were made to graft for this win. Faced by a vociferous crowd, and a determined opponent, this victory will be remembered as much for the 144 tackles made by those wearing black as for the finesse added by fly-half Beauden Barrett.

It was Barrett who picked off Ireland when the opportunity arose, with the timing of a world champion boxer. He set up his team’s first try and scored the second – naturally, he also had a hand in the third.

But this was a performance built on resilience and character. The All Blacks lost a wealth of experience following the 2015 Rugby World Cup, but the current incarnation are proving just as daunting an opponent in only their first year together.

This could well become an important result in the evolution of a record-breaking side.

“Two weeks ago this team suffered their first loss, that created a bit of adversity,” coach Steve Hansen admitted after their Dublin win. Today was all about seeing how they’d stand up to that. So, to come out on top 21-9, three tries to none and defend for long periods of the game, I think they answered a lot of questions re their character.

“While it wasn’t always pretty I think there’s plenty for us to learn and get better on. To be at this point of the year, after losing 818 caps, you’ve got to be reasonably happy. Pretty good year so far.”

A “pretty good year” is obviously a sizeable understatement for a team who prior to stepping on the pitch in Chicago had set a new benchmark for consecutive Test wins. But it is telling that Hansen believes they can still get better.

The All Blacks’ performance in Dublin was far from perfect. They conceded 66 percent possession and 69 percent territory, and the pressure that Ireland were able to exert was highlighted by the fact that they had to play a quarter of this match with 14 men as Aaron Smith and Malakai Fekitoa saw yellow.

But it is in adversity that the size of someone’s heart can be measured.

Ireland’s Garry Ringrose tackled by New Zealand’s Ardie Savea.┬áBrendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images

“We had to defend,” All Blacks captain Kieran Read said. “As Steve said the character of the men really showed up. The way we defended, we had to work bloody hard.”

After 15 minutes it had seemed that they wouldn’t have to work all that hard. In defence anyway. The determination of those wearing green in the stands of the Aviva Stadium to witness yet more history was palpable.

We are now used to seeing players running out amid the crescendo of fireworks, of course, but this seemed a little different. There was a collective will to ensure that the result in Chicago would not prove a one-off.

Unfortunately, for the majority of the 51,000 fans in attendance, there was an equally powerful assertion from the All Blacks that Ireland would not become only the second team in 10 years to secure back-to-back wins against them.

After an early Irish surge, the crowd fell silent as Barrett drilled a cross-field kick into the grateful arms of Fekitoa to score the game’s opening try. Just over 10 minutes later, he had added a second himself following consultation with the TMO.

There was consternation from the home support, but while Barrett’s try was still being debated as they departed into the night, the All Blacks’ first score was the beautiful result of some hard work on the training pitch.

“Our kicking game was better,” Hansen said. “Although it wasn’t as great as we’d like it to be. To win big Test matches, particularly against sides who are good defending sides, you’ve got to be able to kick the ball to space, you’ve got to be able to pass it there or run it there. It’s as simple as that.”

Simple it definitely wasn’t but New Zealand have proven that any talk of their demise was greatly exaggerated. France will find out next weekend exactly how much they learned from this bruising Test match.

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