Jake Brigance: “I can’t be you, Lucien.”
Lucien Wilbanks: “Don’t be me. Be better than me.”
-A Time To Kill (1996)
When Ryan Crotty went over in the corner against Ireland in November of 2013, the general consensus among Irish supporters was that the chance to beat New Zealand was gone forever. Brian O’Driscoll was never going to make it to RWC 2015, and even if Paul O’Connell did, it was hard to imagine Ireland finally knocking over the All Blacks without their record-breaking outside centre. They were the last of Ireland’s ‘Golden Generation’, a group of players who were believed to be the best collective that Ireland would ever assemble, but Saturday night proved that the current Irish squad have gone above and beyond their predecessors, because they have done things that the three-time Triple-Crown-winning team never did.
Ireland have beaten New Zealand before, but going out and dominating the All Blacks in every department for 80 minutes is something that Irish supporters wouldn’t think of in their wildest dreams, but at the weekend, Joe Schmidt’s team did exactly that, and when you look back at what they have done over the last 12 months (a November clean sweep, a Grand Slam and a series win in Australia), it’s difficult not to get carried away and think about what they might achieve in Japan next year.
The fact that New Zealand were held tryless has been discussed a fair bit in the aftermath of this game, and while I can remember that happening at least twice in recent times (v Australia in 2014, v the Lions in 2017), I can’t ever recall their attack getting stuck in first gear like it did at the weekend. Aside from a handful of line breaks through counter-attacks in the second half, they didn’t generate any sort of momentum, and Ireland were patient and organised in defence for the entire contest.
They may have been caught out once early on by a Beauden Barrett chip-kick, but overall, Ireland’s defence ticked all of the boxes in terms of what you can do to shut the opposition down; their line speed was aggressive from the pillar to the touch line, they deployed a shooter in the outside centre channel, their intensity in the tackle was through the roof and they slowed New Zealand’s ball down at every opportunity, and the net result was that the All Blacks were made to appear blunt and pedestrian with ball in hand for the majority of the game, rarely stressing Andy Farrell’s system:
It’s unfair to single out individuals for praise when the whole team plays to their full potential, but Devin Toner produced a career-high performance. He remedied Ireland’s lineout issues from the previous week, but his prominence in the loose was better than spectators thought he was capable of. Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are considered the chief second row pairing in Test rugby; technically proficient in the set-piece and devastating around the park, but Toner, along with the phenomenal James Ryan, was faster off the mark and more physical in open play:
Ireland have turned in plenty of remarkable defensive displays in the past (the 26-3 win over Wales in 2014 comes to mind), but this was undoubtedly the greatest defensive performance any Irish team has ever manufactured. It helped that Andy Farrell has experience in beating the All Blacks, but the resolve Ireland’s players showed off the ball on Saturday bordered on superhuman.
Ireland struggled to string multiple phases together in attack against Argentina, but they didn’t have the same problem at the weekend. Before the game, I would have preferred if Ireland focused their attack on the spaces close to the breakdown, but they chose to attack the All Blacks everywhere across their defensive line, and to good effect, too.
New Zealand have been the masters of multi-phase rugby for years, but it was Ireland who held on to the ball for long periods, putting their opponents under intense pressure through bruising close-in carries, decoy runners, tip-on passes, switch plays and slick handling in the backline. The point and direction of the attack were varied superbly, and Ireland played New Zealand at their own game by dragging their defence out of shape:
Ireland’s forwards getting over the gain line with every carry (James Ryan, Cian Healy, Tadhg Furlong, Josh van der Flier and CJ Stander stood out in this regard) set a platform for their backs to work off, and they took advantage of it. Johnny Sexton and Garry Ringrose alternating as distributors and runners prevented New Zealand from loading their defence against one or the other, Bundee Aki was powerful and elusive, Jacob Stockdale made big gains whenever he touched the ball (not to mention scoring the match-winning try), Keith Earls tormented All Black defenders with his footwork and pace and once again, Rob Kearney silenced the critics by demonstrating that he still has the capacity to break the line.
Not long before Stockdale’s try converted Ireland’s supremacy into points, they suffered a dose of the wobbles at the start of the second half, where fundamental errors handed the ball over to a New Zealand team who are normally ruthless in these scenarios:
Fumbling the ball is uncharacteristic for Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander’s control at the base of the scrum is a strength of his, and despite both being world class on Saturday, it was a cause for concern when they started making rudimentary mistakes like the above. These types of mistakes can become contagious and spread throughout teams quite easily, and when a few of them occur in a row against the All Blacks, more often than not, it’s game over.
Australia were torn apart in the second half in the first two Bledisloe Cup Tests this year when they repeatedly gave the ball to the All Blacks through knock-ons and turnovers on the floor, and it looked as if the same was going to happen to Ireland. Joe Schmidt’s side have a habit of not pushing on after building a decent lead, and after failing to make the most of their scrum dominance in the first half, an All Black comeback was on the cards.
Ireland held on, however, and managed to get themselves out of jail through two instances of brilliant covering from Peter O’Mahony and Rob Kearney, and although there was an element of Ireland riding their luck in both moments, incredible determination was required to even be in a position to intervene in either situation:
Two monumental turnovers from O’Mahony kept Ireland in the game in this period as well, and even though any one of these decisions or outcomes could have gone against Ireland on a different day, the home team exhibited tremendous heart not to give up when they were put to the test.
Swarming On Them
As the second half progressed, it became clear that Ireland weren’t going to put the amount of tries on the All Blacks that they had hoped for (largely due to Wayne Barnes’ leniency towards New Zealand conceding penalty after penalty to stop their try line from being breached), so they had no option but to pin the All Blacks down in their own 22 by kicking the ball in behind them:
This tactic being used repeatedly, along with Stockdale’s try coming from a chip in behind that was probably pre-planned, means that Ireland’s coaching ticket and video analysts recognised that there was space in behind the New Zealand wingers to be exploited, but as they say, a kick is only as good as its chase, and Ireland were unrelenting in the manner that they hunted after balls that were put in behind the All Black front-line.
Being willing to put effort into the less glamorous aspects of the game is a sign that a team are switched on, and that was definitely the case with Ireland on Saturday. The All Blacks, true to form, attempted to run the ball from deep when forced into their own red zone, and Ireland hunted after them with missionary zeal, scragging New Zealand players into touch to keep the pressure on:
As competitive as I expected Ireland to be on Saturday, I thought that the absence of Conor Murray and Robbie Henshaw would end up costing Ireland the game. They were sensational in the Chicago Test and without them, another victory over the All Blacks was unlikely, but Kieran Marmion, Luke McGrath and Bundee Aki stepped in and played exceptionally well. It’s frightening that Ireland can beat the number one team in the world minus two players who have been their most consistent performers for the last four years.
Joe Schmidt has talked about strengthening Ireland’s depth in order to allow them to cope with injuries, and the work he has done in this area is starting to bear fruit. They weren’t far away from beating Australia in Brisbane in June with Cian Healy, Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong, Seán O’Brien, Josh van der Flier, Dan Leavy, Johnny Sexton and Garry Ringrose not in their starting XV, and being able to beat southern hemisphere giants with a couple of star players unavailable or on the bench is something hardly any other team can do. Any amount of misfortune could befall them between now and November 2nd, 2019, but it’s impossible to deny that Ireland are contenders for the Webb Ellis Cup next year.