Head coach Graham Henry and team captain Richie McCaw were happy men after New Zealand recorded a hard fought 21-11 win over Ireland in wet and windy conditions in Wellington.
Tries in either half from Sitiveni Sivivatu and Ma’a Nonu, allied to 11 points from Dan Carter’s left boot, saw the All Blacks to a morale-boosting first win of the season as they managed to banish some of the memories of their World Cup exit at the hands of France.
Speaking at the post-match press conference, coach Graham Henry said: “I’m just proud of the guys, the way they played. They were difficult conditions to play in, the game became a lottery at times.
“Our players don’t play in those conditions very often, probably once a year. It’s very difficult to get used to playing in those conditions. I’m proud of the way they hung in and did the job.
“The guys showed a huge amount of heart and character. Nobody got hypothermia, and that’s a big positive!”
With a Test match against England to come before the start of the Tri Nations Series, Henry dubbed the Wellington win as ‘a good start to the season.’
Asked about what he made of some of the individual displays, Henry pointed to the centre combination of Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu, who had a big influence on the result with Smith making the initial break for Sivivatu’s try and Nonu got that 64th-minute touchdown which effectively decided the game.
“They didn’t get many opportunities, but the ones they got they took. Both were pretty happy with the try that Conrad set up which was a bit of magic, and Ma’a running from the 22 to score was a pretty special occasion which got the team home.
“So I think the two centres were particularly pleased. It was very difficult to try to keep yourself focused in those conditions when you’re shaking like a leaf and wondering whether you’re going to get through the next five minutes.”
How his forwards coped with a very experienced Ireland pack was also another plus for Henry.
“We had to get dominance up front otherwise we would have got second. It’s a pretty young pack…the two props, the number 8 and perhaps (Ireland) play in those conditions more often than we do.”
One of the All Blacks forwards to stand out was captain Richie McCaw, whose hard work and smart rugby saw him come up with some important plays during the 80 minutes.
The number 7 was pleased he and his forward colleagues had fronted up in such trying conditions.
“Even when we were 11-all early in the second half there was no panic. There was composure there and belief in what we were doing,” McCaw admitted afterwards.
“Those were all the positives that allowed us to get the result that we were after. There were times with our kicking when we lost the battle but we managed to get the field position we needed late in the game.”
Showing great determination and enviable ball-handling skills, the All Blacks forwards nearly ‘out-Munstered’ what was a Munster-dominated Irish pack during the second half.
“All the forwards relish it when they get told to look after the ball and see what they can do,” the skipper added.
“We managed to hold onto it and build some pressure and particularly in that second half when we managed to capitalise on field position and possession.
“When we knew it was going to be wet we empahsised that the big boys were going to have to get stuck in – most of the big boys enjoy doing that.
“We had to do well as a pack, we had to get parity up front. I think the guys have shown so far this year that they have been performing in the various packs they have been involved in.
“So we just wanted to make sure we got that together and got our systems right.”
All Blacks forwards coach Steve Hansen had special praise for both McCaw and powerful prop Neemia Tialata, whose ball-carrying and efforts in the scrum and at the breakdown saw him have a big influence.
“Richie is like everybody else. He’s copped a wee bit of flak in the media. The last time he played for the All Blacks he got beaten and the All Blacks don’t like getting beaten so he’s obviously come out and wanted a big performance and he’s had one,” Hansen explained.
“Neemia was outstanding really. He has been under pressure from a number of quarters and he has worked hard since the Hurricanes finished their season. He clearly got himself a little bit fitter and has come out and played really well.”