Heart Of Darkness

Ireland v New Zealand - Match Preview (Heart Of Darkness)
No Holds Barred: Robbie Henshaw cops a high shot from Sam Cane back in November of 2016. Two weeks after becoming the first All Blacks side to lose to Ireland, Cane and his teammates came to Dublin and played with a cynical, malicious brutality that the men in green weren’t prepared for. Joe Schmidt’s players have learned how to bare their teeth when the need arises since then, but if they are to pull off another famous win over New Zealand this weekend, they’re going to have to leave their conscience in the changing room.

 

“I went away to Spain with Jenny for a couple of weeks. I brought the (2007) World Cup with me. For a long time I couldn’t shake it off. A couple of days after I returned to training with Munster Deccie called me into his office. He produced a photograph from the Argentina match. Their number eight, Gonzalo Longo Elia, had me pinned to the ground and I had my arms outstretched so that the match officials could see that I was the victim in this incident. I  was so conscious of keeping my discipline that my first thought was to make sure I didn’t get a yellow card; in the past my first instinct would have been to throw a dig. Deccie said he never wanted to see me in that situation again. [. . .] The photograph did look terrible.”

-Donncha O’Callaghan. Joking Apart: My Autobiography (2011)

 

I read Donncha O’Callaghan’s autobiography six years ago, but the above passage has stayed with me because it’s so incongruous with the affable, mild-mannered persona that Declan Kidney has presented to the media throughout his coaching career. When a man like Kidney (the nicest of nice guys) stresses the importance of not taking a backwards step on a rugby pitch regardless of the consequences, you know it’s an integral part of the game.

 

It’s what Stephen Larkham meant when he talked about changing once you cross the white line; vision, tactics, skill and strength and conditioning are all crucial in rugby, but making it clear to the opposition that you’re not going to be walked on takes priority over everything else. Ireland didn’t play with the same sort of hard edge as New Zealand when the sides last met, but it is vital that they do so this time round. They’re still going to have to score several tries and defend as relentlessly as they did in Chicago two years ago, but if they let the All Blacks bully them with heinous cheap shots again, a loss is all but guaranteed.

 

“You Had To…..Kind Of Let The Devil In The Door”

Ever since Ireland played that second Test against New Zealand in 2016, it has become more apparent to me that when the All Blacks are put under intense pressure, they resort to feral acts of aggression to reassert their dominance. It was a major talking point in the aftermath of the previous meeting between these sides, and looking back at the things they did to physically impose themselves on Ireland in that game, you can understand why:

Cane High Shot

Fekitoa High Shot

Not much has changed in the interim, with violence from the All Blacks becoming a recurring theme of games where their opponents are genuinely competitive:

SBW Shoulder Charge

Taylor Knee

Crotty - Barrett High Shot

The New Zealand players say all of the right things in the media when asked about these incidents, but there’s no doubt that the ‘accidents’ shown above are indicative of a side who turn spiteful when they are in danger of losing. The question that has to be asked is: what do Ireland do when the All Blacks take the gloves off? All they can do is respond in kind.

 

It does mean running the risk of conceding penalties or getting carded, but if Wayne Barnes lets New Zealand away with the same offences that Jaco Peyper did two years ago, then Ireland have to ditch the rule book in order to hold their own. It’s not in the spirit of the game, but if the match officials won’t police the All Blacks properly, then Ireland have to adopt the same win at all costs mentality as Steve Hansen’s side. With the TMO reviewing everything that happens off the ball, there’s only so much that Ireland can get away with, but these things can be done subtly.

 

Peter O’Mahony and Johnny Sexton are past masters when it comes to niggle and there’s an understated toughness to Rory Best’s performances. Ireland’s leadership core are going to have to encourage the rest of their squad to follow their lead, because now that New Zealand know that Ireland are good enough to beat them, they are certain to engage in skulduggery again. Barnes will clamp down on this kind of behaviour from either side, but a sanitised contest is unlikely.

 

The Belly Of The Beast

Predicting any team’s game plan is never easy; little details are changed on a match-by-match basis, but taking into account New Zealand’s defensive blemishes and their players’ strengths/weaknesses, we can expect to see classic Joe Schmidt tactics from Ireland on Saturday: aerial bombardment, lineout mauls and multiple phase sequences of one-out carries. Damian McKenzie and Ben Smith have been selected at 15 and 14 respectively to nullify the Ireland’s kicking out of hand, but on the left wing, Rieko Ioane isn’t known for being great in the air, and he’s bound to be targeted with box-kicks and garryowens all evening.

 

Once Ireland have obtained possession and field position using the boot, you can expect them to start working the New Zealand defence around the fringes of the ruck. This is where the opposition have caused them the most discomfort in recent years, and going by their performances in 2018, it’s worth targeting:

NZ Fringe Def 1 (v Fra - Test 2)

NZ Fringe Def 2 (v SA - Test 2)

NZ Fringe Def 3 (v Arg - Test 2)

NZ Fringe Def 4 (v Aus - Test 3)

This habit of leaving gaps close to the ruck is why Conor Murray has scored so many tries against New Zealand, and although his absence is a massive blow, Kieran Marmion is no stranger to sniping from the base of the ruck himself. Ireland have one of the most dynamic packs in the world (Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan, and CJ Stander are all strong ball carriers by anyone’s standards) and the narrow carrying pattern that was so effective against Australia is likely to be used again.

 

The drawback to this strategy is that attacking New Zealand close to the breakdown gives their back row openings to scavenge, so Ireland’s work on the floor is going to have to be first-rate until the final whistle. Peter O’Mahony has been playing like a man possessed on the ground in attack and defence this season, and the rest of Ireland’s forwards are skilled at the breakdown too, but they are going to have to play out of their skins to prevent the New Zealand pack from winning penalties on the deck.

 

In this regard, Sam Cane is a huge loss for the All Blacks. Even though Ardie Savea is an immensely explosive ball carrier, he doesn’t pose the same jackalling threat as Cane. In spite of this, the Irish pack are going to have to keep their concentration and energy levels high for the whole game because any let-offs in their rucking will lead to a penalty being awarded against them for holding on.

 

Ireland’s most resounding victories in this RWC cycle (v New Zealand in 2016, v England in 2018) have been a result of attacking their opposition for as much of the 80 minutes as they can, so it is essential that they retain possession. Accuracy and patience will be required to score the amount of points that they need to win this game because the All Blacks have developed a reputation for giving away numerous penalties in quick succession when defending close to their own line, with their opponents eventually turning the ball over and letting Steve Hansen’s side clear their lines.

 

This is an area where Ireland have faltered for as long as anyone can remember, with wasted opportunities costing them important games. Their clashes with Wales in 2015, 2016 and 2017, the Six Nations opener against Scotland in 2017 and the losses to England in 2014 and 2016 and more importantly, Ireland’s last Test against New Zealand, all had one thing in common: visits to the opposition red zone that weren’t taken advantage of. All four of the Irish provinces have had high error counts in their European games this season, which is worrying, and so too was the mistake-ridden performance against Argentina last week. Try-scoring chances can’t be squandered on Saturday, and in general, turning possession over against the All Blacks leads to them putting the ball through the hands quickly and making a line break in and around the 15-metre channel.

 

Risk Versus Reward

Beauden Barrett has been one of the shining lights of Test rugby for a couple of years now; his pace and distribution are too much for most defences to contend with, but it’s his willingness to take risks that sets him apart. Being audacious has its own merits, but his performances have been increasingly erratic since the latter stages of this year’s Super Rugby campaign, and when the daring acts of creativity don’t come off, it can be damaging for his team:

Barrett 1 (v Aus - Test 3)

Barrett 2 (v Arg - Test 2)

Barrett’s difficulties from the tee have already been documented, but on top having a low conversion rate with his place-kicks, he has a tendency to run himself and his team into trouble when the defence swarm on him:

Barrett 3 (v Aus - Test 3)

In the above example, Australia’s chase is aggressive and well-organised and a counter-attack isn’t on, but instead of cutting his losses and going to ground to set up a ruck, Barrett continues to push the boundaries in the hope that a hole will appear and ends up getting isolated from his teammates. His first instinct is to always try to conjure up a bit of magic, and while it’s the one trait that makes him an exceptional player, it also makes him fallible. Opposition defences are forcing him to run down blind alleys more and more regularly, and the amount of pressure that is put on him is going to be a significant factor in determining the outcome of this Saturday’s fixture between Ireland and New Zealand.

 

I’m not trying to paint Barrett as a Quade Cooper-type flawed magician; he wouldn’t have won back-to-back World Player Of The Year awards if he wasn’t a phenomenal player, but he’s not quite as rounded as his predecessor. Saying that a player doesn’t do any aspect of out-half play as well as Dan Carter is redundant, but I think it’s the main reason why the current All Blacks side lose more games than the one that had a monopoly on Test rugby from 2010-2015. In a different lifetime, Barrett would have been a second five-eighth because when you assess his strengths and weaknesses, 12 seems like a better fit. He’s a sensational passer and runner but not a natural tactical kicker or game manger, and those are all traits that come to mind whenever I imagine a typical second playmaker.

 

The Super Rugby game between the Crusaders and the Hurricanes back in May brought to light the problems with starting Barrett at 10. The wind and the rain that night meant that running rugby wasn’t on the cards, but Barrett still attempted to play with width and the Crusaders fed off his mistakes. Richie Mo’unga, on the other hand, adapted to the conditions and played one-out, kick-heavy rugby, and in general manged the game expertly. It’s no coincidence that New Zealand’s comeback against the Springboks in Pretoria began when Mo’unga came off the bench to slot in at 10 and Barrett shifted to full-back. Mo’unga did the simple things well, didn’t try anything overly flashy and got New Zealand into the right parts of the field, allowing them to convert pressure into points.

 

That’s not to say that Mo’unga is a boring 10; he constantly plays flat to the gain line, puts the ball out in front of his support players and is adept and tearing defences open with his pace and footwork, but he does the more mundane tasks that are asked of his position better than Barrett. At some stage, the New Zealand management are going to have to consider giving Mo’unga a run of games in the starting XV because Barrett’s inability to do the nuts and bolts stuff that Johnny Sexton or Owen Farrell do as a given has been the difference between his team winning and losing lately. Ireland have gotten a decent return from pressurising opposition pivots in the past (Duncan Weir, George Ford, Elton Jantjies, to name a few), and there’s no doubt that putting the squeeze on Barrett will be the cornerstone of their game plan for this match.

 

Mythbusters

New Zealand’s aura of invincibility has been shattered in this World Cup cycle and the relative vulnerability that they are currently experiencing can be traced back to Ireland’s famous victory over them in Chicago. Up to that point, they looked to be unbeatable, pushing on from their victorious RWC 2015 campaign by winning a three-Test series against Wales and a Rugby Championship with ease, until Ireland knocked them off their pedestal. Since then they have lost to the British and Irish Lions, Australia and South Africa, had close calls with Argentina (on three separate occasions), Scotland, France, the Springboks (twice), the Wallabies, England and a draw with the Lions to boot.

 

That’s 13 Tests in the space of 3 years where they have been challenged, which is hard to fathom when you remember that prior to the start of 2016, they were only ever challenged twice a year at most. They’re still an extremely difficult team to live with for a full game (it’s worth noting that they trounced Australia in the first two Bledisloe Tests this year – the same Australian side that Ireland scraped a series win over in June), but there’s no denying that they look more human now than in years gone by.

 

A lot of that has to do with Barrett’s aforementioned issues with game management, place-kicking and consistency of skill execution, and the New Zealand coaching ticket haven’t yet come up with a means of compensating for his shortcomings. Last year, I wrote about how the flaws that the current All Blacks have were exposed by the Lions, and contrary to what I thought would happen, those flaws are ever-present. They’re not as good at digging themselves out of a hole as the McCaw/Carter edition of the All Blacks were, and if Ireland can build a big early lead like they did in Chicago and display enough street wisdom when the visitors start fighting dirty, it wouldn’t be a shock if New Zealand crack again.

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