|Maori All Blacks (32) 32|
|Tries: Z Sullivan, Stevenson, Weber, Grace Cons: Ioane 3 Pens: Ioane 2|
|Ireland (10) 17|
|Tries: Aki, Coombes Cons: Frawley 2 Pen: Frawley|
Ireland’s tour of New Zealand got off to a losing start as they were well beaten by a sharper, smarter Maori All Blacks in Hamilton.
The hosts dazzled in a one-sided first half in which they scored four tries to Ireland’s one to open up a 22-point advantage.
Gavin Coombes crossed after the break as Ireland improved but it was too late to seriously threaten the Maori lead.
The visitors also lost James Hume and Cian Healy to second-half injuries.
When the three-Test series against New Zealand begins in Auckland on Saturday it is expected that head coach Andy Farrell will field a completely different starting XV, with his regular starting players mostly rested on Wednesday.
Still the midweek defeat will go down as a major opportunity missed for a team filled with players that had caught the eye for their provinces during the season and were hoping to translate that form onto the international stage.
Their assignment was admittedly a difficult one against a Maori side who served an emphatic reminder of the enduring depth of rugby talent in New Zealand.
Ireland’s mainly inexperienced yet hugely exciting playing group were hoping to put their hand up on the international stage, but all of the fearless, eye-catching displays were delivered by those in black jerseys as the Maori played with an adventure and freedom that left Ireland reeling in a chastening first half which effectively ended their hopes of a win.
Blues full-back Zarn Sullivan was electric on a cold and wet night in Hamilton and a constant thorn in Ireland’s side in the air, in open space and with his left boot, which he used to launch a perfect 50:22 kick to give his side a six-metre line-out after 15 minutes.
From the set-piece the Maori moved the ball quickly and Sullivan was found again where his right-footed step created enough space for the game’s opening try.
There was brief reprieve for Ireland through skipper Bundee Aki on his return to Hamilton – where he won the 2013 Super Rugby title with the Chiefs – as a slick strike play saw Coombes send the centre through a gap and over the line.
That was as good as it got for the visitors however as from that moment on the Maori took over, with Shaun Stevenson finishing Josh Ioane’s scintillating break to put them back in control.
Constant Irish indiscipline at the breakdown did nothing to stem the tide as the hosts set up field position at will, with their lightning-quick ruck speed giving Ireland no time to set.
Co-captain Brad Weber sniped over on 35 minutes to extend the lead before Cullen Grace finished the try of the match with the last act of the half, touching down after Stevenson had slalomed through the middle of a broken field.
One can assume that the words exchanged in the Irish dressing room at half-time between coaches and players were neither kind nor flattering.
Whatever was said sparked a response as Ireland returned to the field with far more poise, driving themselves into Maori territory and working through the phases to find quick ball of their own.
An early second-half score could well have sparked hopes of a revival but they were repelled by a terrific Maori tryline defence that held Cian Prendergast and Nick Timoney up over the line in quick succession to preserve their lead.
Centre Hume, so impressive for Ulster in the 2021-22 season, had to be assisted as he hobbled off with a leg injury before Test centurion Healy was carted off with what appeared to be an ankle injury.
Ireland can at least take heart from a second half in which they kept the Maori scoreless and eventually broke their defensive resistance with Coombes driving over from close range to reduce the arrears, although with just 13 minutes left there was no feeling that the try would be the catalyst for late drama.
Maori All Blacks: Z Sullivan; Stevenson, Proctor, Poihipi, Garden-Bachop; Ioane, Weber (capt); Norris, Eklund, Lomax; Dickson, Walker-Leawere; Suafoa, Harmon, Grace.
Replacements: Thompson, Williams, Ainsley, Selby-Rickit, Howden, Perenara, Love, B Sullivan.
Ireland: O’Brien; Larmour, Hume, Aki (capt), Earls; Frawley, Casey; Loughman, Heffernan, O’Toole; McCarthy, Treadwell; Prendergast, Timoney, Coombes.
Replacements: Scannell, Healy, Bealham, Baird, Conan, Murray, Carbery, Lowry.