By Daniel Gilhooly - New Zealand Herald.
All Blacks 34 Ireland 23 The All Blacks suffered a serious case of the season opening-test rugby yips before beating a gallant Ireland 34-23 at Waikato Stadium here tonight. The Irish went within a whisker of pulling off their first defeat of the All Blacks in 100 years of trying but couldn't hold on under the weight of New Zealand possession and the boot of first five-eighth Luke McAlister. He finished with 19 points and helped preserve an undefeated record against Ireland which now extends to 19 tests but could easily have ended in front of 30,000 people at Waikato Stadium. The dogged Irish tackled themselves to a virtual standstill and took advantage of a cavalcade of All Blacks mistakes to open up a 16-8 halftime lead. They still had an eight-point advantage with 25min remaining but the hosts snatched the lead in the 71st minute and came home strongly. The match bore close similarities to the 2002 test in Dublin when Ireland led 16-7 at halftime but were eventually overrun 40-29. Playing into the wind, the All Blacks dominated possession, winning a swag of phase possession but failed to break down an organised and passionate defence That pattern continued into the second half as the All Blacks combinations continued to creak in their first test of the season. They lacked patience, often throwing risky passes while also struggling with their own lineout throws against an Irish pack dominated by seven players from European club champions Munster. The Triple Crown champions were superbly led by captain Brian O'Driscoll, while lock Paul O'Connell and No 8 Denis Leamy outpointed their New Zealand opposites. However the Irish scrum was often back-pedalling and the sheer number of tackles they had to make eventually told. The All Blacks couldn't have hoped for a better start to their season, sending winger Doug Howlett over in spectacular style after just 41 seconds. Fullback Mils Muliaina busted the Irish defence 20m out from his line, found second five-eighth Aaron Mauger who sent Howlett over in the right corner. However, the lead wasn't long-lived, with O'Driscoll scything through a gap in the ninth minute to score after some clean, long passing off a lineout. First five-eighth Ronan O'Gara scored the first of his 13 points with a conversion and a penalty soon afterwards to put the visitors 10-5 up. McAlister knocked over his first kick from three attempts, a penalty in the 21st minute, but O'Gara responded with two of his own before the break. Late in the half the All Blacks lost halfback Byron Kelleher to an apparent head injury, replaced by Jimmy Cowan. They struck back four minutes after the break through a neat backline try to Muliaina, after a break from winger Joe Rokocoko. However, that seven-pointer was matched soon afterwards by the visitors when a rare visit to the All Blacks' quarter saw winger Andrew Trimble score from a smart overhead pass by O'Gara. Two McAlister penalties midway through the half pulled the deficit back to 21-23 and a third gave them the lead with 9min remaining. Centre Ma'a Nonu pounced on a loose ball to send replacement lock Troy Flavell over soon afterwards to seal the win, prompting an emotional reaction from Flavell, playing his first test in four years. McAlister added another penalty before one of Ireland's best, hooker Jerry Flannery, was sinbinned for a late tackle on Muliaina. In his first test as captain on home soil, Richie McCaw said their performance was hampered by failing to get enough players in support behind the ball, while they started throwing too many offloads. "After halftime we said we had to get it tighter, and I guess for a little bit of that second half we did. "The big thing was composure and thinking about what we had to do next. There's no point in worrying about what's happened, and the boys responded. For Irish standout O'Driscoll, the loss was hard to swallow. "I think it's very disappointing that we fought for so long, but gave away some silly points in the last quarter. "It was a big thing this week to believe that we could do it. We knew if we put in a good performance we're capable of beating any side in the world, including the All Blacks. "(But) we made some unforced errors, turned over some sloppy ball, missed some first up tackles and you can't do that. You get punished when you play against New Zealand like that."