Some days are always going to live long in the memory of Irish supporters: Brian O’Driscoll’s hat-trick against France in 2000, the destruction of England in 2007, the Grand Slam decider against Wales in 2009, the derailing of Australia’s World Cup in 2011, the last stand against South Africa earlier this year, not to mention a few more in between. November 5th 2016 ranks high above all of those, not just because Ireland made history, but because of the nature of their victory and the sheer quality of the opposition.
Ireland didn’t scrape a three-point win in atrocious conditions or survive off favourable bounces/refereeing decisions; they went out and attacked the best team in international rugby for 80 minutes and dominated them in every facet of play. Turning down two kickable penalties in the first 10 minutes was a statement of intent. Teams normally take any early three-pointers that come their way against New Zealand to settle the nerves, but Ireland backed themselves to convert these opportunities into tries.
A lack of width in Ireland’s game plan has been a talking point since the World Cup. They exhibited no fear of playing expansive rugby against New Zealand, though, varying their attack and passing accurately and confidently along the line from everywhere, and the deftness of their handling limited New Zealand to three scrums in the entire 80 minutes:
Ireland have built up seemingly insurmountable leads against New Zealand plenty of times before, only to unravel in the second half. There was an all too familiar feel between minutes 50 and 65 when New Zealand scored three tries. Ireland looked to be collapsing, but they ignored what must have been excruciating physical and mental fatigue and went on the offensive again.
The use of the switch-back play that created Henshaw’s try epitomised Ireland’s approach to this game. It’s a move that has bore fruit for Leinster (v Scarlets in January 2013) and Ireland (v England in 2015) in the past, but employing it with five minutes left on the clock when history is at stake showed just how positive Ireland were in setting about their task.
Steve Hansen was incorrect in his post-match comments when he said that Ireland learned how to close out games, because they were actually quite adventurous in going for the jugular with that final try. The easy thing to do would have been to keep the ball in the scrum and play for the penalty, or purposely collapse it to have the reset eat up another minute or two, but Ireland were clear-headed enough to know that there was enough time left for New Zealand to score twice.
The collective effort by Ireland has been the main talking point in the media, but the individual displays were unforgettable.
Great captains lead from the front and Rory Best is no exception. He made tackles all over the park and threw himself at defenders with no regard for his own safety. He also dealt with the unenviable task of organising Ireland’s fringe defence when New Zealand were motoring through the phases about as well as anyone possibly could.
Owen Franks is rarely made to look anonymous but Jack McGrath’s force of nature performance eclipsed him. New Zealand journalists won’t mistake him for anyone else again after seeing the sheer brutality of his ball carrying and competitiveness in the tackle:
If Tadhg Furlong continues this vein of form and stays injury-free for the rest of the season, he will start all three Lions Tests next summer. Scrummaging, tackling, rucking and carrying in-close to international standard are good qualities for any tighthead prop, but chasing a kick 50 metres and being one of the first players to arrive and make a hit is a huge bonus.
Ireland’s replacement front rowers made telling contributions. Although he was partly at fault for Scott Barrett’s try, Cian Healy made his presence felt with a bulldozing carry, and Sean Cronin put in an important tackle around the ankles on Aaron Cruden to prevent a counterattack when a second New Zealand surge threatened. Finlay Bealham’s nudge on the tighthead side for Robbie Henshaw’s try has been analysed in-depth, but the knock-on he forced from Charlie Faumuina after New Zealand made several metres from a maul was just as crucial.
Donnacha Ryan faded somewhat in the second half, but he was a domineering figure at lineout time, putting pressure on the New Zealand throw by imposing his big frame at the front. He was prominent in the loose, rag-dolling every New Zealand ball carrier that was misfortunate enough to be within his reach. Ultan Dillane’s explosive cameo was vital in Ireland wrestling back control of the game in the final quarter:
Devin Toner’s performance should put to bed any doubts over his mobility. As per usual,
he was one of Ireland’s primary lineout targets, but he also covered a lot of ground to distribute, put in big tackles and destructive clear-outs, and he hurled himself at the New Zealand defence with ball in hand.
It’s normally the New Zealand back row that turn up everywhere, but none of them matched Ireland’s loose forwards. CJ Stander did all that could be expected of him: devastating tackling, dynamic carrying, pinching ball on the floor and lineout jumping:
Jordi Murphy’s selection was met with little in the way of positive reaction, and despite getting injured early, he fully vindicated his place in the starting XV. He carried strongly, tackled everything that moved, and his clearing-out was efficient. Josh van der Flier picked up where Murphy left off, finishing the game with the second-highest tackle count for Ireland. It’s a strange thing to say, but Ireland didn’t miss Peter O’Mahony or Seán O’Brien, such was the impact from their flankers.
Jamie Heaslip showed unbelievable endurance in this game. Throwing a reverse pass in a high-pressure situation after 75 minutes of running in wider channels, defending in just about every position and directing his troops in a Test match of that intensity takes incredible skill and application, and the number eight delivered.
There has been a debate as to who is the best scrum-half in the game for a couple of years now, with the majority of people leaning towards Aaron Smith. Conor Murray’s dominance in Chicago should go a long way towards settling that argument, because he was the best player on the park. Every pass was accurate, almost every box-kick was inch-perfect, every decision was correct, and the snipe for his try was the stuff of legend. It was as close to flawless as possible, and it’s hard to remember a time when Aaron Smith was outplayed to such an extent. Ireland still lack depth at 9, but as long as Murray’s fit, they have a fair chance of beating anyone:
In my preview of this game, I made the point that Ireland could do with a healthy dose of the dog and watching Murray get up TJ Perenara’s nose was heartening in that regard:
It’s not often that a player gets to atone for past mistakes. Johnny Sexton’s first successful penalty exorcised the demons of 2013 and was one example of his brilliance in the latest in a long line of commanding performances in green. He had the confidence to stand flat on the gain line, run straight and hard, pass quickly and accurately, and direct operations, regardless of where Ireland were on the pitch.
Two missed place-kicks and the garryowen out on the full that led to Perenara’s try will annoy Sexton, but he was a dominant force until his substitution. Joey Carbery displayed maturity and confidence beyond his years with fine passing and a delicate touch-finder, allaying any fears that Ireland were going to fall apart when Sexton departed.
Ryan Crotty’s injury meant that Robbie Henshaw didn’t get to measure himself against the best centre in the southern hemisphere. Given how he performed over the course of the game, he probably would have outplayed the Crusaders midfielder. The Demented Mole did a detailed analysis of Henshaw’s class after the World Cup, and at this stage, it’s not much of a stretch to suggest that he might just be the best 12 out there, as he can do everything expected of modern inside centres: distribution, straight-line running, outside breaks, kicking and defensive leading.
Jared Payne’s selection at 13 was fully justified by his performance. His distribution and strength in contact were first-rate and his decoy unders lines off Sexton and Henshaw fixed New Zealand defenders, creating space further out for Zebo, Trimle and Kearney to exploit:
Garry Ringrose’s time will come, but Ireland’s defence would not have been anywhere near as effective without Payne’s reading of the game and organisation.
Simon Zebo has had limited opportunity to showcase all of his talents at Test level for some time now, but he brought everything to the table. His finishing ability, aerial dominance, kicking skills, and dazzling footwork were highlights, which is high praise, considering that he was playing against a team that had Julian Savea, Waisake Naholo and Ben Smith in their ranks:
Andrew Trimble’s footwork before contact was good and he created a line break for Murray early on with a well-executed offload. His blitz defending saved Ireland from conceding certain scores, with the crunching hit on Liam Squire the pick of the bunch. There have been question marks over his pace but he didn’t seem to have any shortage of it on the kick-chase.
Recurring injuries have denied Rob Kearney of the chance to display his best form in recent seasons, but this game was a timely reminder for his critics of why he was considered one of the best full backs on the planet back in 2009 and 2012. He was peerless in the air, hard-running on the counterattack, and a line-breaking threat in phase play:
Ireland’s defensive strategy of not putting many numbers into the ruck seemed questionable during the game, as it gave New Zealand quick ball. In hindsight, it allowed Ireland to have more players out in the defensive line to rush up in packs on the next phase. Having the confidence to trust that type of defensive system against any team is one thing, but to execute it successfully against a team like New Zealand shows remarkable character, fitness levels and application:
A string of injuries left New Zealand with a lot of players out of position in the final quarter, but Ireland’s line speed and intensity in the tackle forced several handling errors from a team that are renowned for being able to catch and pass like backs from 1 to 15. It’s not just the players that deserve credit. Andy Farrell has done some terrific work with this team since the start of the South Africa tour, instilling an insatiable hunger for quick reorganisation and aggressive tackling into them.
Even taking into account the fact that he was out of position, watching Ireland’s pack repeatedly outmuscle Jerome Kaino, one of the most physically imposing players in Test rugby, was awe-inspiring. Patrick Tuipulotu played like a man out of his depth and even the iconic Kieran Read looked looked underpowered. Liam Squire was the only New Zealand forward who showed what he is capable of with a couple of decent bursts out wide.
Ireland’s defence wasn’t perfect, and George Moala’s try in particular will have come far too easily for the management’s liking, but they kept the most dangerous back line in the world relatively quiet. The tactic of standing Rory Best and Josh van der Flier at 10 off defensive lineouts paid dividends, shutting down any potential line breaks down that channel from Julian Savea or Waisake Naholo. It’s been years since a New Zealand back three had so little influence on a game and their entire squad’s error count was unfathomable. Even the gifted Beauden Barrett wasn’t immune to the malaise that spread throughout his team:
The Devil Is In The Detail
In wasn’t just passion that won this game for Ireland. The finer points of their performance were significant, and they played with intelligence too. For all the well-deserved praise that Joe Schmidt and Andy Farrell have received in the media, Simon Easterby’s contribution to what Ireland have achieved seems to have gone largely unnoticed. Ireland have never been so secure on their own ball, such was the consistent speed and ferocity of their clear-outs:
The structure of Ireland’s maul was also superb. Their forwards formed together as tight as possible immediately after the lifter came to ground. There was minimal splintering as the maul progressed and they never lost the run of themselves, staying controlled and patient as they advanced:
Ireland were prepared for New Zealand doing everything in their power to stop their maul and they subtly changed the point of attack for the drive that led to Jordi Murphy’s try. The bulk of the New Zealand pack gathered together directly in front of Toner and pounced as soon as he came back to earth. Ireland transferred the ball just far enough to the left that the hyper aggressive New Zealand counter-maul missed them completely and put the remaining forwards at a numerical disadvantage:
Without taking anything away from what Ireland have achieved, it must be said that variables outside of their astonishing performance did play a part in this game. The absence of Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Luke Romano left New Zealand depowered in the scrum and rudderless at lineout time. Ireland had the ascendancy in a number of scrums and looked like they might have been better served keeping the ball in and forcing the penalty, but their intent was to move the point of the attack. New Zealand’s counter-mauling, so effective up until now, had no answer to Ireland’s drive.
Ryan Crotty’s injury forced New Zealand to play two 13’s in midfield from an early stage, and several other players were out of position in the second half, which inhibited their handling in wider channels. There were times where they had Ireland stretched and looked close to breaking free down the touch line, but a poor pass or a knock-on ended the movement.
Kieran Read was right to question his team’s attitude in his post-match interview as they hamstrung themselves with gross indiscipline all game. Ireland scored 12 points while Joe Moody was in the sin-bin and the Crusaders prop could arguably have gotten a second yellow card for clotheslining Rob Kearney.
Some of the twelve penalties conceded by New Zealand can be attributed to shrewdness on Ireland’s part. Conor Murray intentionally rifling the ball at Coles to earn a penalty was streetwise, but a player of Coles’ experience shouldn’t be surprised at that sort of thing happening when he loiters on the wrong side. If it was South Africa or Australia he was playing against, there would no doubt have been more of an effort to get back into the defensive line.
Ireland also purposely trapped New Zealand players in rucks and then produced convincing theatrics to force Mathieu Raynal to blow his whistle. There’s a valid argument that these penalties should have gone against Ireland for cynical play, but New Zealand players are supposed to have unmatched rugby intelligence ingrained into them from childhood. Their inability to try and adapt to what Ireland were doing to them was symptomatic of low concentration levels.
Joe Schmidt has received stinging criticism since Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of Argentina last year. The manner of that defeat, the mid-table finish in the following Six Nations, his choice of tactics, and his use of the bench in this year’s series defeat in South Africa have all been heavily scrutinised at different points over the last thirteen months, as well as the selections for this fixture. There have even been those who have suggested that Ireland would be better off without him.
Beating New Zealand is not the first miracle that Schmidt has performed with an Irish team, but even Leinster’s second-half comeback against Northampton doesn’t come close. The critics who undervalue back-to-back Six Nations wins would do well to look at Ireland’s much-improved record against the southern hemisphere sides in the last three years. Ireland are extremely fortunate to have Schmidt’s services until 2019, and if they have better luck with injuries in Japan, they may just make history again.
If Ireland don’t repeat the dose next Saturday in the Aviva, their supporters won’t be too displeased, but with Peter O’Mahony, Seán O’Brien, Iain Henderson and Paddy Jackson back in their squad, anything is possible. The world champions will play like wounded animals, and even though Schmidt’s team won’t get an armchair ride in the set-pieces when New Zealand’s starting locks return, you wouldn’t bet against Ireland’s favourite adopted Kiwi at the moment.