Scorelines often don’t tell the full story of a game, and such was the case in Ireland’s 21-9 loss to New Zealand on Saturday. A 12-point margin indicates a reasonably comfortable win, but it doesn’t show how heroic in defeat Joe Schmidt’s team were. Ireland couldn’t have had a worse start, conceding an early try and losing three of their best players by the early part of the second quarter. Instead of throwing in the towel, they fought tooth and nail to stay within touching distance of the visitors for the majority of a brutally physical Test match.
New Zealand Cynicism
The unsavoury aspects of what New Zealand did on and off the field took away from their win. Off the ball incidents have long been a vital ingredient in their dominance, but they are normally overlooked because of the attractive nature of their style of play. Without stooping to sore-loser whinging, it’s hard not to think that the acts of foul play and Steve Hansen’s bully-boy antics in his post-match interview were a clear sign of a group who were desperate not to lose again:
There’s a valid argument that Johnny Sexton’s high shot on Beauden Barrett in the 14th minute warranted a yellow card and a penalty try, but the above incidents are characteristic of a team who are willing to lie, cheat and steal to get what they want.
Things happen during a rugby match that can’t be planned for, and incompetent refereeing performances and injuries to several important players are chief among them. It wasn’t just the over-lenient punishments handed out for New Zealand’s high tackles (the ones that were actually noticed) that Jaco Peyper got wrong; he allowed them to slow down Ireland’s ruck ball by going off their feet, the penalty for being offside when Ireland’s scrum was on its way over the try line should have received further sanction, and the TMO referral for Barrett’s ‘try’ was like something out of Laurel and Hardy.
There were offences committed in and around the tackle zone by Ireland that Peyper also missed (although they were more in the line of clearing-out beyond legality and trapping players in the ruck in order to create space rather than dangerous play), but the erroneous decisions that went New Zealand’s way were turning points.
Losing CJ Stander, Johnny Sexton and Robbie Henshaw in the first 22 minutes made an incalculable difference for Ireland. Stander is a game changer who broke tackles at will before being taken off. Ireland didn’t lack dynamism without him, but his absence still changed the complexion of their attack.
Even though Paddy Jackson has made strides over the last few seasons, losing Sexton was a blow. The Ulster out-half passed, kicked and changed the direction of the attack and made half-breaks, but he stood further behind the gain line than Sexton at times, making Ireland’s back line movements less threatening. He also had a habit of running cross-field when the New Zealand defence rushed up on him, and Ireland’s attack was a bit shapeless in the second half without Sexton there to bark out orders and grab the game by the scruff of the neck.
Henshaw’s injury robbed Ireland of their most powerful back, and they lacked directness in their three-quarter line as a result. Garry Ringrose came on and played admirably, but he doesn’t have the same level of physicality as Henshaw, and this altered the shape and style of attack that Ireland planned on using.
Putting aside the injuries, Ireland had a number of players left on the field who performed strongly. Rory Best, Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong are fast-becoming a leading front row unit in Test rugby. Best was influential in winning turnovers on the ground and distributing out wide, McGrath thundered into New Zealand players both sides of the ball, and Furlong’s athleticism and scrummaging ability are going to be crucial for Ireland over the next decade, and the Leinster prop is still years away from his peak.
Although they were under pressure in lineouts, Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner matched Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock in terms of impact and work rate around the park. Ireland’s back rowers outplayed their New Zealand counterparts again, with Jamie Heaslip producing one of the best performances of his career. Seán O’Brien looked like the wrecking ball/groundhog force of nature of old and Josh van der Flier was thorn in New Zealand’s side on the deck as well as a tearaway threat in the second half. The New Zealand loose forwards paled in comparison; Liam Squire was quiet, Ardie Savea exerted some influence at the ruck, but offered little with ball in hand, and Kieran Read was a passenger.
It was always going to be difficult for Conor Murray and Rob Kearney to replicate their efforts from Chicago. Neither played badly, but they didn’t reach the same heights as two weeks before. Despite this, there were impressive displays in the back line, even without Sexton and Henshaw.
Once he started using his feet and pace instead of his size, Ringrose was effective with ball in hand, getting Ireland onto the front foot more than once, and he put in bigger hits in defence than expected, looking right at home against the strongest opposition in trying circumstances. Jared Payne distributed well and ran good decoy lines throughout, and he held onto the ball and made yards after massive hits from New Zealand defenders.
Simon Zebo made several metres with ball in hand, turned up at first- and second-receiver to good effect, and found space in behind the New Zealand defence with deft kicks. Andrew Trimble was intelligent and immense in contact yet again, saving two certain tries, and he offloaded accurately too.
The Missing Cutting Edge
The most frustrating aspect of Ireland’s performance was their inability to convert promising attacking positions into tries. It was a recurring theme in the Six Nations, and to a lesser extent in South Africa, and it cost them victory once again.
A lot has been made of their perceived lack of creativity, and while they didn’t cut the New Zealand defence to shreds, Ireland did create 11 try-scoring opportunities, 5 of which were a result of multi-phase attacks involving pull-back passes, offloads, wraparounds, two-out passes, use of the inside ball and exploitation of the blind side.
If a few balls had gone to hand, Ireland would have gotten the win, and nobody would be talking about a dearth of invention behind the scrum. Ireland’s effort and resolve against New Zealand couldn’t be doubted, but there’s no question that inaccuracy proved to be the difference between winning and losing:
A big factor in Ireland’s failure to convert pressure into points was their lineout not providing them with clean possession to work with. As expected, the restoration of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock to their starting XV made New Zealand much more competitive on the opposition throw, and they forced Ireland to make do with messy ball out of touch:
It’s not that Ireland’s lineout was predictable. They varied their options, both in terms of who and where the ball was thrown to, and Best and Cronin’s darts were accurate (bar one overthrow each), but New Zealand’s defensive lineout is of the highest quality. They disrupted 3 of Ireland’s throws, 2 of which occurred inside their own ten-metre line when the outcome of the game was hanging in the balance.
Systematic Defensive Errors
It wasn’t only in attack where Ireland weren’t precise enough. Conceding three tries against New Zealand would be viewed as a success under different circumstances, but in hindsight, each of them could have been avoided.
Both of Malakia Fekitoa’s scores came from Ireland allowing New Zealand to hold onto the ball and string several phases together, with yards gained on each one. Ireland’s line speed in this game was mixed; for a large part of it, they were quick off the mark, hard-hitting, and competitive on the ground (even through the final quarter), but in the build up to Fekitoa’s tries, there was an element of reactive defending:
Beauden Barrett’s try in particular will have galled Andy Farrell because of how easy it came for New Zealand. Barrett is a nightmare to defend against when he has front foot ball to run onto from first-phase, but the fact that he raced over the try line without a finger being laid on him will not go down well. His ability in those situations has been evident throughout all of this year, so it’s not like Ireland weren’t prepared for the threat that he poses. Considering how quickly Ireland reacted to Barrett kicking into the space behind the outside edge of their midfield defence, they could have done more to pressurise him when he kept the ball in hand.
Signs Of Progress
There’s no doubt that Ireland took a huge leap forward in their two Tests against New Zealand. They achieved a historic result, gave younger players experience against the world champions, and were genuinely competitive across both games, but with 4 line breaks and 9 visits to New Zealand’s 22, the second Test was a missed opportunity. What happened in Chicago, along with Nigel Carolan’s Under-20’s side beating the Baby Blacks in June, would suggest that Ireland’s fear of New Zealand is a thing of the past. The chance to get back-to-back wins over them won’t come around again for a long time, though.
There’s plenty left to play for in this Autumn Series for Ireland, but with the possibility of so many key players injured, beating Australia is going to be challenging. Joe Schmidt’s team selection will be as much about picking whoever’s left standing than anything else. Nonetheless, there are areas where change wouldn’t necessarily weaken Ireland. Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner have had high workloads in recent weeks, and Ultan Dillane showed against Canada that he’s ready for a Test start against sterner opposition. Bringing in Peter O’Mahony at 6 would put pressure on a shaky Australian lineout, and given his recent form, Keith Earls is deserving of a role in a bigger game. As unfair as it sounds, the result of the Australia Test will go a long way towards deciding how successful this series was, and rotation could make the Wallabies second-guess the tactics that Ireland will employ on Saturday.