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Ireland handed emphatic tour-opening defeat by Maori All Blacks

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

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Just days out from the first of their three highly-anticipated tests against the All Blacks, Ireland have been put to the sword by the Maori All Blacks in the opening match of their New Zealand tour.

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Granted, it was very much a second-string side fielded by head coach Andy Farrell, one that featured five uncapped players and nine others with fewer than 10 test caps, but they were severely outclassed by a dominant Maori All Blacks side in Hamilton.

Running out 32-17 victors in front of 9,253 spectators at FMG Stadium Waikato, the Maori All Blacks ran rampant, scoring a selection of beautiful tries to overshadow the sloppiness that came with playing on a slippery surface, which plagued both teams.

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Maori All Blacks press conference
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Maori All Blacks press conference

Nevertheless, the attacking prowess of the Maori All Blacks proved too strong for the inexperienced Irish, few of whom expect to feature in Saturday’s test at Eden Park on the basis of their collective performance further down State Highway 1.

By contrast, there are some who certainly put their hands up for higher honours from the Maori All Blacks camp, one of those being one-test All Blacks first-five Josh Ioane.

Having not played for the All Blacks since his test debut three years ago, Ioane will have put himself on notice with a strong showing in the No 10 jersey in which he mostly kicked well and looked sharp with ball in hand.

He wasn’t the only ex-All Black to have caught the eye, either.

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One-test No 8 Cullen Grace carried his superb Super Rugby Pacific form into the international arena, while outside backs Zarn Sullivan and Shaun Stevenson showcased their brilliance as attacking and kicking threats.

Sullivan was among the first of that contingent to thrust himself into the thick of things when the Maori All Blacks debutant was rewarded for a stunning 50/22 by crashing over just moments after his side’s subsequent lineout near the quarter-hour mark.

That broke the three-all deadlock caused by penalty exchanges between Ioane and rookie Irish playmaker Ciaran Frawley, but any Maori All Blacks celebrations were short-lived when Ireland pulled back a try of their own with almost immediate effect.

Ripping through the home team’s defence with some deft line-running from a set piece move, Ireland captain and former Chiefs star Bundee Aki slid between the posts on his old home track, with Frawley’s conversion edging the tourists into the lead.

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That was about as good as it got for Ireland in the first half, though, as a shanked shot at goal by Ioane from point-blank range midway through the opening stanza appeared to light a fuse within the Maori All Blacks.

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Landing a long-range penalty shortly after his initial mishap, Ioane then sliced through the heart of Ireland’s defence to set Stevenson away for a blistering try from well inside his own half.

Stevenson replicated and matched his teammate’s attacking brilliance on the stroke of half-time when he charged through the middle of the park to link up with Billy Harmon, who fed the ball to Grace to score on his Maori All Blacks debut.

Those tries sandwiched the one scored by co-captain Brad Weber, who capitalised on some set piece dominance at the scrum and lineout by sneaking around a ruck to dot down near the posts.

Taking a seemingly insurmountable 32-10 into the break, the Maori All Blacks were forced into making a multitude of tackles on their own goal line to open the second half as Ireland enjoyed a wealth of possession and territory.

However, Farrell’s men failed to make the most of their dominance as two-test flanker Nick Timoney was held up over the line, while a spillage from an attempted tap-and-go deep inside the opposition’s half encapsulated the frustrations endured by Ireland.

A solitary try to two-test No 8 Gavin Coombes proved to be the only source of second-half consolation for the Irish, whose efforts couldn’t be salvaged by their vastly-experienced bench, headlined by Conor Murray, Cian Healy, Jack Conan and Joey Carbery.

Of that quartet, Healy provided the most memorable moment when he was carted off the field by a medical cab with what looked a potentially serious knee injury near the final 10 minutes.

That added insult to injury for Ireland in an outing that will have alarm bells ringing for Farrell and his colleagues just three days until their series-opener against the All Blacks in Auckland.

Alternatively, the commitment of the Maori All Blacks to exciting attacking play and imposing defensive physicality has them well-placed to sweep Ireland in Wellington on July 12 as their century-old winning run against the Emerald Isle remains intact.

Maori All Blacks 32 (Tries to Zarn Sullivan, Shaun Stevenson, Brad Weber and Cullen Grace; 3 conversions and 2 penalties to Josh Ioane)

Ireland 17 (Tries to Bundee Aki and Gavin Coombes; 2 conversions and penalty to Ciaran Frawley)

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