As far as July evenings in New Zealand go Auckland turned on a perfect night overhead, albeit Eden Park being a little slippery underfoot.
The Barrett brothers won an early kicking duel, but Ireland got the first meaningful field position, hitting the narrow channels with purpose and accuracy, before releasing Keith Earls for the opening try.
Ireland was up and about; a ferocious but accurate cleanout complemented by Johnny Sexton dinking short kicks into space.
Another kick through looked to have set up a gilt-edged try-scoring opportunity but Beauden Barrett stuck out an arm at exactly the right moment to snuff it out.
The All Blacks found their way into the match through their scrum and, entering the second quarter, finally got some continuity, space opening up on the left for Leicester Fainga’anuku to carry to the line before Aaron Smith picked out Jordie Barrett for the try.
As impressive as the finish was, it was a brilliant pass by Smith in the earlier phase, ripping a ball off his right hand to Sam Whitelock in centre-field, that beat Ireland’s rush, and opened up the line break.
Having weathered the early storm, the All Blacks upped their intensity in defence. Sam Cane crunching Tadgh Furlong felt like an important marker, and Ireland’s attack suddenly got loose; scrappy play under pressure leading to a runaway try for Sevu Reece.
The news only got worse for Ireland. In the lead-up, Sexton had slid into Cane, collected a head knock, and departed, not to be seen again.
Thirty-five minutes in and it was now the All Blacks’ turn to drop kicks into space; Beauden Barrett sliding through a perfect grubber for Quinn Tupaea to measure the bounce and dive over.
Shellshocked, Ireland left the back of their defensive ruck unattended, Smith waltzed through, chipped the fullback, then batted the ball backwards for Ardie Savea to finish.
With the ball having rolled forward over the try-line, TMO Marius van der Westhuizen was called upon. His verdict: “the ball clearly went backwards” seemed more conclusive than the facts supported, but, just like a forward pass situation, all that is needed is for the ball to travel backwards out of the hand.
That requirement satisfied, at 28-5 the All Blacks had capped as good a quarter of rugby seen from them in Ian Foster’s reign as head coach.
Ireland needed to respond straight after halftime, and did so. Sustained pressure and patience bought reward when James Lowe hit and spun to put Gary Ringrose in at the corner. At 28-12, the arrears were still substantial, but they were back in the game.
Not for long, as it turned out. Having missed out on an opportunity from a 5m scrum, another crisp pass from Smith set up an Ardie Savea special, his 16th try in Tests.
A brave Ireland came back again; Joey Carbery and Josh Van de Flier both looking to have scored but for Rieko Ioane taking the high road, then the low road, to do enough to spoil each of them.
By now the benches had started to empty, but the breakdown contest didn’t lose any intensity, albeit the best Ireland was fighting for now, was respectability.
At 70m, debutant Pita-Gus Sowakula shot off the back of a 5m scrum, his first instinct seemingly to hurdle his way to the line, before he remembered that – all because of him – the practice was outlawed earlier this year. It didn’t matter, he was hardly touched regardless.
Ireland’s late reward was Bundee Aki, off a nice angled run, squeezing across, to make the final margin 42-19. But their frustration was writ large by the seven minutes that followed, the visitors hammering away on the All Blacks’ goal-line, repelled time and again by a combination of resolute defence and a tiny bit of ill-fortune.
It was because of this that stand-in skipper Peter O’Mahoney seemed relatively bullish after the match; knowing that Ireland can command field position, and create try-scoring opportunities that, on another night, might just as easily be taken.
Hooker Dan Sheehan put in a terrific 80m shift, while Robbie Henshaw was all class in the backline. The building blocks are well in place, although to turn the series around, they will need a far more convincing set piece.
The home crowd, meanwhile, revelled in the All Blacks’ second quarter performance. Runners targeted the channel three men wide of the ruck, interestingly, straight off Smith’s pass, not off a tip pass from the first receiver.
The tactic – and why wouldn’t you take advantage of Aaron Smith’s ability to pass flat and wide at the gain line – served to disrupt Ireland’s line speed, as well as provide the home side with a faster, cleaner recycle.
If that was a surprise, the All Blacks’ scrum wasn’t far behind; clearly dominant all night when much of the pre-match punditry pointed to a potential weakness.
The Scott Barrett No.6 experiment worked out far better this time around, albeit Barrett blotting his copybook late in the match with a clumsy shoulder challenge on O’Mahoney.
There were other success stories. Quinn Tupaea, a popular choice at 12, was assured throughout, as was Fainga’anuku, who seems set for a long career in black.
But after a tentative start, it was the pack, as a unit, that laid the marker down for the rest of the series; combative where required, but still able to ratchet up the pace at crucial moments.
Afterwards, Sam Cane looked quietly satisfied, referencing some of the challenges faced by his team over the COVID period, clearly happy to be playing again at HQ. And what a fortress Eden Park continues to be, another match ticked off in a remarkable run of now 47 Test matches undefeated, since 1994.
A fascinating fortnight awaits. Andy Farrell will know his team isn’t as far off the pace as the scoreline suggests.
And Ian Foster, having seen off COVID and Ireland in one week, will now have to deal with the uneasy situation of having some fans start to wonder if they were too quick to write him off.