New Zealand 46-14 Ireland: Emotional farewell for Rory Best as Irish succumb to All Blacks might
Legendary Ireland hooker Rory Best bowed out of international rugby with the grace and dignity you would expect from one of the true gentlemen of the modern game.
After 124 Test matches the Ulsterman leaves the stage, cheered to the Tokyo Stadium rafters, gratified yet, ultimate competitor he is, hurting from the 46-14 schooling the men in green took from the masters in black.
Pre-tournament many may have had this down as a potential final, with Ireland carrying the northern hemisphere torch against the three-time world champions they have beaten twice in the past three years.
In the end the hope this could be a cracker was burst within the first ten minutes as the All Blacks did what All Blacks do and bossed the situation from word go.
In a Sliding Doors parallel word this could have been Scotland’s last-eight date. After watching the formidable Kiwis shut down a side who humbled Gregor Townsend’s men in the first Pool A match you felt a silent sigh of relief the hosts had deprived us of that fate with their spell-binding 28-21 win in Yokohama.
For the All Blacks it’s on to a blockbuster semi with a surging England, for 37-year-old Best it’s the end of a long and winding road. He expressed sadness that it was the last time he’d pull on the green jersey “except as a supporter”.
His position in the Ireland team, never mind his role as captain, was called into question, especially after a wobbly performance in heavy defeat to England at Twickenham in the warm-up matches, and the emotional rollercoaster he’s been through was unloaded after he was unable to lead his side to a first knockout-stage World Cup win.
"Tired, sore, upset,” said the hooker as he reflected on his last international appearance. He can take pride to be among rugby’s centurion club. He may not have got a Lions Test but neither did our own great John Jeffrey so that’s a club he should be proud to join too.
“You focus on what has just gone,” said Ireland coach Joe Schmidt who now departs the job. “We have a lot of characters in that dressing room and it's not often you get one that is deadly silent. There are big men in tears and that is what happens when you put your heart and soul into something.”
Hotly-anticipated, this turned out a mismatch from early doors as an Ireland team many suspected was over the hill despite entering the tournament as the world’s top-ranked team capitulated under the ferocious force of the All Blacks.
Tries from Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett gave the holders a clearly unassailable 22-0 lead by half-time.
More tries from Codie Taylor, Matt Todd, George Bridge and Jordie Barrett made Robbie Henshaw's score and a penalty try meaningless.
"I don’t have an excuse or a reason for it,” continued Schmidt. “You can’t afford to give the All Blacks points. It was a bit flat, on the back of having a few niggles. We were not sure of the team until Thursday. I thought we needed to get off to a good start and if we didn’t we would be a bit vulnerable."
On the subject of Ireland dropping off the form they had shown in the previous couple of years and confirming what many suspected was a bridge too far for this team, the outgoing coach added: "When you hit a high there is always a little bit of a drop. We work with human beings. We didn’t produce the performance on the night.
"We weren’t as regenerated as we would have liked to have been. The error count makes it incredibly tough and I don’t have a reason for that but there is always anxiety… guys who overreach and you don’t get the performance you are looking for.
“We could have played really well and they could still have gone over the top of us. They are stifling, made it hard for us to breathe. When we did have opportunities to breathe we gave them oxygen back. You have to be nailed on against them and we weren’t nailed on.”
On Johnny Sexton’s decisions to go for touch instead of kicking a penalty in the early chapters of the game the coach responded: “Sometimes you get points and sometimes you don’t. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
So Ireland are out but Schmidt remains proud of what they have achieved, despite falling short when it really mattered.
"There’s no team we haven’t beaten. We have beaten the All Blacks at a neutral venue [Chicago in 2016]. It’s our performance tonight we’re really disappointed with. I have huge respect for the All Blacks.
“We would love to have got into the top four. That is the one thing that continues to remain elusive. Heartbroken would not be far away from how I feel and how the players feel.
"After the November series we wanted to make sure this was our target and maybe it consumed us too much and we got distracted from the focus.”
Scorers: New Zealand: Tries: A Smith (2), B Barrett, Taylor, Todd, Bridge, J Barrett. Cons: Mo'unga (4). Pen: Mo'unga.
Ireland: Tries: Henshaw, penalty try. Con: Carbery
New Zealand: B Barrett; Reece, Goodhue, Lienert-Brown, Bridge; Mo'unga, Smith; Moody, Taylor, Laulala, Retallick, Whitelock; Savea, Cane, Reid. Subs: Coles, Tuungafasi, Ta'avao, S Barrett, Todd, Perenara, Williams, J Barrett.
Ireland: Kearney; Earls, Ringrose, Henshaw, Stockdale; Sexton, Murray; Healy, Best, Furlong, Henderson, James Ryan, O'Mahony; Van der Flier, Stander. Subs: Scannell, Kilcoyne, Porter, Beirne, Ruddock, McGrath, Carbery, Larmour.
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wal)