Ireland’s 2016 Autumn Series presents them with two chances to achieve a first-ever win over New Zealand. The other two games in the series are not to be sniffed at either, and are actually important with 2019 in mind. Beating Australia would bump Ireland up in the IRB rankings (giving them a chance of a better World Cup pool seeding) and Canada are ideal opposition for giving wider squad members experience at international level. However, beating the best team in the world will no doubt be at the forefront of the coaches’ and players’ minds.
On November 24th 2013, every member of Ireland’s starting XV (and some of their bench too) played their opposite number off the park, with superhuman performances from Paul O’Connell, Cian Healy, Seán O’Brien, Conor Murray and Rob Kearney in particular. They demonstrated high levels of concentration and intensity, dominated the majority of the collisions over the 80 minutes, only to be sucker-punched at the death. It remains one of the most complete displays from any Irish team in the professional era and they will not only have to replicate their efforts of that day, but go a step or two further, to beat New Zealand.
Calling it an enormous challenge doesn’t do it justice, especially without Brian O’Driscoll or Paul O’Connell to guide them. Any other team would collapse after losing Richie McCaw and Dan Carter; the fact that New Zealand can go and beat Wales by an average margin of 24 points across a three-Test series and then follow it with a clean sweep in the Rugby Championship (including try bonus points in every game) without two of the best players ever speaks volumes about their quality and strength in depth.
Andrew Trimble explained the difficulty of facing New Zealand quite succinctly in an interview with Murray Kinsella back in August:
“The All Blacks are a side that can play 10 different ways and they’re not a side that’s easy to prepare for. It’s an even more daunting task when you’ve got to play them twice, so it didn’t surprise me or any of the boys that there was a lot of homework squeezed into two days.”
The key for Ireland is not to focus just on New Zealand’s intricate backline patterns, offloading, support play and counterattacking, because although they do those things better than anyone else, they can win games in any number of ways.
Taking other teams apart at tight isn’t a strength you would normally associate with New Zealand but they have had the upper hand at scrum-time over some fairly formidable opposition this year.
Dane Coles’ cameos out wide have been a popular topic of discussion among spectators recently. Being able to run and pass like a 13 are useful traits for a hooker to have but his lineout throwing and tackling are just as impressive. Temper used to be a problem, but being given a guaranteed starting berth seems to have had a calming effect, letting him cement his place as the top hooker in the game.
There has been a seamless transition between Tony Woodcock and Joe Moody at loosehead; and Owen Franks’ sustained excellence on the tighthead side hasn’t diminished. They made light work of the Welsh front row in June, milking them for penalties towards the end of the series:
It’s a trend that continued throughout the Rugby Championship, with New Zealand getting a shove on against monstrous South African and Argentinian packs:
The only time that New Zealand faltered at the coalface this year was against Argentina in Buenos Aires. The Pumas enjoyed two periods of ascendancy in the scrum when New Zealand were reduced to 14 men, going so far as to force a pushover try. Apart from this blemish, the New Zealand front row have been able to overcome even the most technically proficient of opposition.
Ireland have depth in the front row too, but there are tough selections facing Joe Schmidt. Like his opposite number Coles, Rory Best is one of the first names on the team sheet. His leadership qualities, work rate and ability to get low at the breakdown and apply pressure over the ball are going to be required against New Zealand. Sean Cronin is having one of his best seasons to date, with more accuracy in his throwing complementing the usual explosiveness in open spaces. Timing his introduction off the bench won’t be easy, especially if Best is showing no signs of slowing down.
Cian Healy’s return from ongoing injury problems has been timely. Jack McGrath developed into a world-class player in Healy’s absence and although the decision as to which one of them starts isn’t easy, having both in the matchday squad is the best scenario Ireland could hope for.
It’s on the tighthead side where Ireland could be in trouble. Mike Ross’ absence from the squad was surprising as he is still the best technician available to Ireland. He lacks mobility, though, and that would likely have been a weakness against a team who run their opposition ragged. His omission opens up the door for Tadhg Furlong, whose performances against South Africa were a revelation. He made his presence felt in the loose as well as driving The Beast backwards in scrums in the second Test.
The severity of Furlong’s hamstring problem is not clear, and if he isn’t fit to play, the other options’ lack of experience could be costly. John Ryan has been the form prop in Ireland this season, but he is untested at this level, and Finlay Bealham made little impact off the bench in Johannesburg.
Ireland’s locks put in remarkable performances against stellar opposition in June. Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit are considered by some to be over-rated, inferior versions of the players that came before them, but in truth, they are highly impactful bruisers who can do damage to any team at tight and in the loose. Ireland’s post-O’Connell engine room will have to lift themselves to another level against New Zealand, because at this moment in time, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock are the best second row pairing on the planet.
Ever since making his debut against back in 2012, Retallick has established himself as the best tighthead lock around. His aggressive carrying in-close saps the energy out of opposition forwards and his tackles and ruck hits can be felt through a television screen. He’s not just a strongman, though. He has an excellent understanding of when to charge into contact and when to shift the ball on and his first-rate handling skills see him frequently used as the distributor in New Zealand’s tactic of passing two-out. A lot of players that fall into Retallick’s category tend to be flat-footed and cumbersome when carrying the ball into space but the Chiefs lock is an exceptional athlete to boot:
Whitelock is the more agile out of the two, often seen jumping in the middle or at the tail of the lineout or handling the ball as the second or third man out from the ruck. With his exemplary skill levels, athleticism and spatial awareness, New Zealand can move him into the back row if they are hit badly with injuries during a game:
Devin Toner has improved with every game since becoming a regular starter three years ago, but Iain Henderson’s shoulder injury is a massive blow. Ireland are lucky that they have a like-for-like replacement in Ultan Dillane. How well their post-O’Connell engine room fare against the New Zealand locks will give them an idea of how much they need to improve before 2019.
Ireland’s lineout functioned better than expected under South African pressure in June, with an 87% success rate across the series, but the New Zealand defensive lineout is a different prospect. The Springboks crowd the space at the front with Etzebeth to pressurise the throw whereas New Zealand try to anticipate where the ball is going to and then get their most spring-heeled forwards into the air to disrupt:
This is one of the reasons why Peter O’Mahony should start at 6 for Ireland. His ability to jump anywhere up and down the line takes the focus off his second rowers, reducing the risk of disruption on Ireland’s throw.
Ireland’s forwards are also going to have to carefully choose the point of attack when it comes to lineout mauling. New Zealand are adept at sacking opposition drives before they really get motoring. They sometimes concede penalties in doing so, but the alternative is expending energy trying to stop a bigger pack from grounding them into the dirt. Instead of the standard catch-and-drive, Ireland may be better served transferring the ball to a different pod once the lifter is brought to ground or using peel-moves at the tail.
Denying Them Quick Ball
Ireland could do worse than take a page out of England’s book going into these games. Eddie Jones’ team competed on the ground in June in every way possible (often illegally so) to prevent Australia from having quick ball: jackalling, counter-rucking, sticking their boot through the middle of the ruck. Any team that want to play ball-in-hand rugby depend on quick, clean possession. By denying Australia this, England made a potent attacking side look pedestrian and the Wallabies ended up playing right into the hands of Paul Gustard’s defensive system by going from side to side.
Competition on the ground is also important for Ireland this November because it limits New Zealand’s opportunities for getting their forwards into wider channels. If Kieran Read has to bury himself in rucks to ensure that his team secure possession, he can’t destroy Ireland’s defence out near the touch lines. One of the better features of Ireland’s performances against South Africa was their ability to effect turnovers in the tackle and on the deck. The Springbok forwards carried the ball too upright and didn’t arrive to the ruck quickly enough, allowing Ireland to carry out several rip and choke tackles and to force penalties on the floor over the course of the series.
Turnovers won’t come as easily against New Zealand because their forwards’ body positioning in contact and ball protection at the ruck are second to none. They drop their shoulder well before contact is made, hold the ball around their midsection (giving the tackler limited access to the ball), and then drive their legs aggressively (forcing the tackler to focus solely on bringing them to ground as opposed to stealing the ball). If the offload isn’t on, the supporting players then clear beyond the tackle zone and set the guard almost before the ball carrier has even hit the deck, making competition on the ground next to impossible. There are times when it borders on illegal, but it’s one of the reasons why they’re so good at holding on to the ball for long periods:
This is where Ireland’s back row selection is crucial. The O’Mahony-O’Brien-Heaslip combination still looks to be the most balanced one available, even taking into account the two flankers’ recent injury problems. They have gelled together brilliantly in the past and their scavenging is too important for either of them to be left out. That’s probably unfair on CJ Stander, considering he was Ireland’s best performing forward last season, but he’s too similar to Seán O’Brien to select them in the same back row and he would be the ideal impact substitute.
Out of the above-mentioned players, O’Brien is most likely to break down at some point before or during the series, so it’s worth taking a look at Ireland’s alternatives at openside. Tommy O’Donnell is a viable candidate, having impressed against Wales, France and Scotland this year but Schmidt has always been reluctant to select him. Jordi Murphy has had some decent games at club level, but still looks like more of a jack of all trades than a natural groundhog/link man.
It would be a big ask for Josh van der Flier to start opposite Sam Cane, given his inexperience. The Chiefs captain’s performances this year have been phenomenal (especially in the latter stages of the Super Rugby season) and just like the man who wore the black 7 jersey before him, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s two or three of him on the pitch.
Pressure On 9
The other reason why Ireland need to slow down New Zealand’s ball is the embarrassment of riches that they have at scrum-half. Aaron Smith is certainly going to be one of the focal points of Ireland’s defensive system heading into this game. He and Conor Murray are very different players but there is one trait that they share: composure under pressure. It doesn’t matter how many opposition forwards Smith has breathing down his neck, his passing and decision-making remain peerless for the most part.
Being consistently world-class doesn’t mean that he’s invincible. The Lions provided Ireland with the template for nullifying Smith in their semi-final clash with The Highlanders back in July. They counter-rucked aggressively, forcing him to work with messy, slow ruck-ball as well as piling his forwards back on top of him. When the South African team were in possession, they isolated him from his teammates and sent their biggest forwards running directly at him. Losing several collisions took a lot out of Smith; he was slow to arrive to rucks and then paused for a second or two to catch his breath before throwing a laboured pass. It was an uncharacteristically lethargic performance from the world’s best 9, but it demonstrated that he is human.
Although Smith is certain to start both of New Zealand’s Tests against Ireland, they wouldn’t lose much by giving TJ Perenara the 9 jersey. The Hurricanes scrum-half’s passing isn’t as crisp, but he’s a live wire in attack and a stronger tackler than his size would suggest. He tore it up at club level this year, whipping the ball away from the base of the ruck at the speed of light and darting through gaps at the side before the pillar defenders had time to set themselves. If Ireland’s forwards are running on empty when he’s introduced to the game, he could easily make a mess of their fringe defence.
New Zealand’s resources at scrum-half are in sharp contrast to Ireland’s, a position where they are alarmingly threadbare. Conor Murray will have to play as much of the 80 minutes as possible, because his backups are largely unproven. Kieran Marmion will definitely be on the bench, as Luke McGrath has a long way to go before being ready to play against a southern hemisphere team. While he has consistently performed well at Connacht, Marmion’s international experience amounts to a handful of substitute appearances.
Chinks In The Armour
The last time these two sides met, New Zealand had a tendency to fan out too far in defence once they brought the ball carrier to ground, leaving space around the ruck and Ireland didn’t need a second invitation:
It’s a weakness that they have eradicated almost completely from their game since. Wales tried to have a go at them in-close in the first June Test but they got hammered backwards by a combination of good organisation, aggressive line speed and high intensity in the tackle from the New Zealand pack:
Australia received similar treatment when trying to test the New Zealand defence near the ruck in August:
Argentina made good yardage through the middle in Hamilton back in September and South Africa had some decent pick and go’s in Christchurch the following week, but it wasn’t enough to curb the hosts’ dominance. Allied to their set-piece prowess, taking New Zealand on at tight probably isn’t the best option. Their biggest defensive shortcomings at present seem to be further out.
The international retirements of Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith has seen New Zealand bed in a new 10-12-13 axis. Personnel changes in this area can bring problems. If the players in these positions aren’t singing from the same hymn sheet, their team’s backline movements can end up being quite stilted. The attacking instincts that New Zealand players have mean that this hasn’t been an issue, but their defensive positioning and organisation is something that Ireland could take advantage of. How well a midfield combination function as a unit is one of the most important factors in the efficiency of their team’s wide defence. If 10 and 12 are too narrow, the 13 and the winger are under pressure to cover too much ground. If they push too far out, there’s space close to the edge of the fringe defence for the opposition to capitalise on with a scissors movement or a pass back inside to a trailing support runner.
Beauden Barrett, Aaron Cruden, Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa are not newcomers to Test rugby. Barrett has won 46 caps since coming off the bench during New Zealand’s 60-nil annihilation of Ireland back in 2012; Cruden was basically New Zealand’s first-choice out-half in 2013 and 2014 due to Carter’s injuries; Crotty won 15 caps before the start of this year; and Fekitoa was Steve Hansen’s go-to man if either Nonu or Smith weren’t fit to play in 2014 and 2015.
Notwithstanding their abundance of Test caps, these players are relatively inexperienced as combinations. Prior to this year’s June Series, Cruden, Crotty and Fekitoa had only been on the pitch together once, for about 6 minutes against Australia back in August of 2014 and Barrett has only forced his way into the starting XV during this year’s Rugby Championship.
As individuals, they are all excellent players. Barrett is the form 10 in Test rugby at the moment and his wide array of talents has been on show at both club and international level this year: outstanding distribution, incisive running lines and taunting kicks in behind opposition wingers. He’s a class act and was the driving force behind New Zealand’s second-half comeback against Ireland in November 2013. His place kicking leaves a lot to be desired, but he’s a competent tackler and it wouldn’t be of much benefit to Ireland to run directly at him.
Like a lot of out-halves, Cruden is a regular target for opposition forwards. His bravery somewhat makes up for what he lacks in size but he’s still not likely to win collisions:
Having CJ Stander, Seán O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip and Robbie Henshaw run at him would be ideal for creating momentum for subsequent phases.
The absence of Nonu deprives New Zealand of one of the most influential midfielders over the last 8 years. The expectation was that they would struggle to fill that void with a player who would have the same influence on games. Instead, Crotty has stepped up and grabbed a hold of the 12 jersey with both hands, producing sublime performances game after game. His decision-making, running lines, pace, strength in contact, skill levels and spatial awareness are all well above international standard and he has that ability to always be in the right place at the right time, either intervening to keep the ball alive or getting on the end of a try-scoring movement.
Fekitoa is also partial to inflicting misery on defences. He’s incredibly strong for a midfielder and has searing pace. His distribution has improved hugely since bursting onto the international stage and it’s going to be demanding for Ireland to contain him for however long he’s on the pitch. Both Crotty and Fekitoa have plenty of experience playing at 12 and 13, so they frequently switch positions in New Zealand’s attacking patterns.
Anton Lienert-Brown’s selection in New Zealand’s starting XV during the Rugby Championship added another dimension to their attack. He has no shortage of strength or gas, but his distribution and running lines are the most predominant features of his game. Knowing when and how to change the angle of the attack is vital for any centre and he consistently displays expert judgement in this regard, as well as a sixth sense for where his support runners are.
Ireland’s rush defence in midfield shut down Damien de Allende and Lionel Mapoe in June, but neither of those players are particularly good handlers of the ball and they didn’t function well as a unit in that series. Once Ireland stopped de Allende from getting over the gain line, the danger was averted. Defending against the New Zealand centres won’t be that simple, because if they give too much attention to one, the other will bolt.
Attacking brilliance aside, the New Zealand midfield have been caught out in defence more than once. They were too narrow in the earlier part of this year’s June Series, affording Wales a lot of space in the five-metre channel:
In this example, Fekitoa and Crotty both rush up onto Jonathan Davies, forcing Julian Savea to join the defensive line from the backfield in order to mark Liam Williams. While having the two centres blitz Davies didn’t leave New Zealand outnumbered, it did put Savea under pressure to stop a dangerous runner by himself. It was a poor tackle by the winger, but he would have been better off having one of his centres right alongside him to close down the space that Williams had to work with.
It wasn’t just the backs that did damage out wide for Wales. They also got change out of the New Zealand defence by standing Taulupe Faletau on the wing:
Using forwards in wider channels is not a tactic that Schmidt has been fond of employing at Test level, but Ireland’s loose forwards aren’t strangers to tearing opposition wide defences asunder:
Defensive organisation in midfield has remained a problem for New Zealand since they played Wales, with Australia troubling them out wide in the first Bledisloe Cup Test:
In the above example, New Zealand overload the blind side with 2 defenders against 0 Australian attackers. On the openside, Kieran Read and Dane Coles are left to cover the midfield. Even though both players are comfortable operating wide out from the ruck, it’s too much to ask for them to defend against most of the Australian backline. It should be Crotty and Fekitoa who defend that space but Crotty stands too far wide in an attempt to mark Tevita Kuridrani (top of picture) and Fektioa hovers around the blind side after getting up from the previous ruck (bottom of picture).
By standing so far out and pointing his shoulders towards the touch line, Crotty gives himself no chance of being able to turn and make a covering tackle if one of the Australian backs decides to cut back infield. Israel Folau does exactly that, bursting through a gap between Read and Coles, and while their scramble defence recovered the situation and won a turnover on the deck, the outcome could have been worse for New Zealand.
South Africa and Argentina also got a return from running at New Zealand out wide during the Rugby Championship:
New Zealand’s defence isn’t porous (they’ve only conceded 11 tries in their last ten Tests), but like every other team, they have bad habits that resurface when they’re under pressure: narrow alignment, reactive tackling, and they tend to caught short on numbers on the open side when they’ve been taken through a few phases of quick ball by the opposition.
These are flaws that Ireland have the players to exploit, even with the injuries to Stuart McCloskey and Stuart Olding. Robbie Henshaw has recovered well from a knee injury in recent weeks while Luke Marshall’s hard running is difficult for tacklers to contend with. Garry Ringrose has been getting closer to an Ireland call-up with every game, but the Canada Test looks to be the most suitable opportunity to blood him.
Although they have options in midfield, it’s still unclear as to what Ireland’s best centre pairing is. Henshaw is the only certainty, having been one of Ireland’s best performers over the last two years, but who starts alongside him will be determined by Schmidt’s choice of full back. The Ireland coach has demonstrated a strong preference for Rob Kearney in the past, even when his form has dipped. However, with New Zealand’s defensive weak points in mind, he may decide to keep Jared Payne at 15, after seeing him attack the edges of the Springbok defence from full back so effectively:
The injury crisis that struck Ireland’s wingers last season has returned, but there are still some quality players for Schmidt to choose from. Andrew Trimble showed good form in the Champions Cup and Simon Zebo was an influential figure against Glasgow. Keith Earls’ unavailability for the Chicago Test is a loss, but for the time that he was on the pitch last Saturday, he was tenaciously competitive.
Schmidt will be inclined to choose Zebo and Trimble, but it may be time for Craig Gilroy’s inclusion in the starting XV. The Ulsterman has been evading tacklers with pace and footwork since the start of the season. He wasn’t great under in the air against Bordeaux Begles but he showed in the second June Test against South Africa that he can adapt to Ireland’s game plan.
Kick-chase has been one of the foundations of Ireland’s recent success and despite the criticism they received for it post-World Cup, it’s still a worthwhile tactic. They profited greatly from sending bombs down Lwazi Mvovo’s wing a few months ago:
Ireland could do the same to Waisake Naholo if they are accurate enough. For all the threat that he brings with ball in hand, the Highlanders winger is suspect in the air. He was exposed more than once under the high ball against Wales:
Julian Savea had the same flaw in his game a couple of years ago and going by recent evidence, it hasn’t been fully corrected yet:
The problem with Ireland using the high ball is that they have fallen back into the habit of kicking too long. This is one of the reasons why they lost the June series against South Africa and, as Wales learned the hard way, kicking errantly to New Zealand is suicide. They counterattack better than anyone else and Wales piled pressure on themselves by kicking straight to their back three without having a good chase:
In this example, Israel Dagg, Julian Savea, Waisake Naholo, Kieran Read and Ryan Crotty all make the effort to drop into the backfield in the time that it takes Dan Biggar’s kick to reach Beauden Barrett. All of them have spaced out evenly between Barrett and the left touch line at varying depths, offering the option to strike the defensive line at different points.
If Ireland are to avoid this scenario, their kicks will have to be either contestable up-and-unders or clearances that go far into the stands; aimless downtown kicks will lead to a New Zealand try within 2-5 phases with the players they have in their back three. Savea was below par against Wales in June but he’s steadily moving back towards his best with every game; Naholo requires the same amount of stopping as a freight train; Ben Smith is an automatic starter in any team; and Dagg’s return to form couldn’t have come at a worse time for Ireland.
Johnny Sexton went into the last fixture between Ireland and New Zealand with serious doubts over his hamstring and fatigue levels. It didn’t stop him from playing close to his best, but his team really need him at 100 percent this time around. New Zealand normally dominate territory through running the ball back and superior kick-returns. Keeping them in their own half and taking their wingers out of the equation would be the first steps towards controlling the game.
Sexton’s kicking out of hand (among other things) will go a long way towards determining how competitive Ireland are. The issue with this is that there are still concerns surrounding Sexton’s injury and match fitness. He’s only played 259 minutes of rugby this season due to a hamstring niggle and going into a game against New Zealand undercooked could be a disaster.
There aren’t many sides who would be confident heading into a series against a team who have unparalleled quality on their bench, as well as in their starting XV. When New Zealand bring energisers like Charlie Faumuina, Luke Romano, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ardie Savea, Liam Squire and Lima Sopoaga into the game to keep the leg drive and forward momentum going in the last quarter, the missed tackles become all too frequent. The best that anyone has been able to do recently is front up to them for 60 minutes, but then they switch on the afterburners when their opponents are gasping for breath.
Whatever about performance levels or strategy, the most important factor for Ireland heading into these games is mindset. In the build-up to the 2014 June Series between New Zealand and England, someone made the point to me that the main reason why England have a better record against New Zealand than Ireland is because they don’t fear them. It was something that stuck with me and from the first whistle in Eden Park, England hammered into New Zealand hard and low in the tackle, stood on them at rucks, and carried the ball with venom.
It was clear that they had nothing but disdain for the men in black, which contributed towards them being competitive for the first two games of that series. Australia, too, cut their losing deficit by almost half between the first and second Bledisloe Cup Tests in August by getting in the faces of the New Zealand players, pushing and shoving them after breaks in play.
Fear can be a powerful motivator but being afraid of New Zealand has only gotten Ireland so far. They would do well to put aside the fear of 60-nil and learn to hate New Zealand, hate the fact that they’ve never beaten them before and hate the fact they will be confident of two more wins, even if they are hard-fought.