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Clawing For Every Last Inch: Jacob Stockdale fights his way over the whitewash to score a decisive try against New Zealand last November. Beating the All Blacks was the pinnacle of a hugely successful 2018 for Ireland, but they have had a drastic change of fortune since then. Their form in the pool stages of this World Cup was as mixed as what they produced in the Six Nations, and although a comprehensive rout of Samoa last week might signify that they are back in the groove, there’s still that nagging feeling that they have lost the ability to perform at a high level on a consistent basis. Time will tell if that is the case because on Saturday, they will face an All Blacks side who have hit fifth gear for this tournament. This isn’t the quarter-final that Ireland would have hoped for, but it’s the one that they’ve gotten, and if their aspirations of winning the World Cup were genuine, then they were going to have to factor in playing the reigning champions at some stage. It’s cards on the table now for Joe Schmidt and this Ireland team.

 

 

It’s been more than 20 years since Jim Telfer delivered that speech, but the reason that it’s still enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up is that it doesn’t have any of the passionate shouting or roaring that usually characterise pre-match talks. Instead, the revered Scottish coach explained to his charges in a calm and collected manner the task that was in front of them and let them decide if they were up to it, and Ireland’s players find themselves faced with a similar situation this weekend. They no doubt will have received detailed instruction from Joe Schmidt, Andy Farrell, Simon Easterby and Greg Feek all week, but ultimately, it’s up to them to go out on to the pitch and etch their names in the record books.

 

As for their head coach, Schmidt has spent the last four years building towards this fixture, and for better or worse, the result of it will define his tenure as Ireland’s head coach. For all of the magnificent wins that Ireland have eked out in Six Nations and Autumn Internationals, they have never once fulfilled their potential at a World Cup, and they couldn’t have asked for a better coach to give them the confidence and clarity of purpose required to get the quarter-final monkey off their back. That being said, he would have preferred to attempt to do so against the Springboks rather than a resurgent All Blacks.

 

It’s tough to imagine any country other than New Zealand coping with the player turnover that they underwent post-RWC 2015 as well as they did. Losing Richie McCaw, Dan Carter Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith all in one go would have crippled any other team, but New Zealand had able replacements in Sam Cane, Beauden Barrett, Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa. Although Fekitoa isn’t on the scene anymore and Barrett has been shifted to full-back because of injury and his own shortcomings, regenerating immediately after being shorn of four of the best players of their generation (plus Jerome Kaino and Julian Savea in the interim) was hugely impressive.

 

Initially, it appeared that New Zealand’s dominance would continue; Steve Hansen’s side dispatched a game Welsh team with little fuss over the course of a three-Test series and then won the 2016 Rugby Championship with room to spare. Problems arose after they lost to Ireland in November of that same year; there were several times where Barrett was unable to guide his team through tight matches and the decline of Kieran Read plus numerous changes in the back line made it seem as if New Zealand were losing their stranglehold on Test rugby. They’re still not the force of nature that they were pre-2015, but something resembling normal order has resumed.

 

Transition

When it became obvious that Barrett wasn’t going to become a complete 10 who could close out finely-balanced games after New Zealand’s loss to South Africa in Wellington in 2018, Damian McKenzie was brought in at 15 to take some of the responsibility off his shoulders. It worked a charm, with Barrett having the freedom to play his natural game and New Zealand getting the ball into the five-metre channel more frequently, on top of having two kicking options to play territory.

 

Unfortunately, McKenzie was ruled out of the World Cup through injury, but after a nervy start to his Test career, Richie Mo’unga has grown into the 10 jersey and Barrett has been moved to full-back, the change of position allowing him more room to manoeuvre and put his gliding style of running to good use. Ireland have shown themselves to be well-equipped to counter this type of play; one of the standout features of their victory over New Zealand last year was the manner in which Ireland dealt with the All Blacks’ counter-attack.

 

Up until a couple of years ago, kicking long to the predatorial New Zealand back three was guaranteed to result in a try for them, but Ireland looked fairly comfortable rushing up as a line and shutting the counter-attack down 11 months ago:

NZ Transition Attack 1 (v Ire 2018)

However, 2019 has seen the return of the trademark unstoppable New Zealand transition attack, and the All Blacks carved South Africa open in both the Rugby Championship and the pool stages of this World Cup by pouncing on turnover ball when the Springboks were in the middle of reorganising their defensive line:

NZ Transition Attack 2 (v SA RC 2019)

NZ Transition Attack 3 (v SA RWC 2019)

The constant reshuffling of their back line due to Julian Savea, Waisake Naholo, Nehe-Milner Skudder, Malakia Fekitoa and George Moala moving to Europe for big-money contracts, the introduction of, and then injury to, McKenzie, the decline of Ben Smith, the loss of form of Rieko Ioane didn’t help in this regard, but even with young tyros Sevu Reece and George Bridge, the All Blacks’ attacking play didn’t look as ominous as it used to.

 

This can be chalked up to a mix of the aforementioned personnel changes and defences getting tighter, but New Zealand have adapted by using shallow cross-field kicks to get the ball into the weak point of blitz defences, namely the area in behind the edge defender’s outside shoulder. We saw this as early as 2016 when Barrett deftly chipped the ball in behind onrushing Ireland defenders:

NZ Shallow Kick 1 (v Ire 2016)

He did the same thing last November to take advantage of the space afforded to him in behind Keith Earls, and it made life difficult for Andy Farrell’s aggressive defensive system:

NZ Shallow Kick 2 (v Ire 2018)

This tactic was used repeatedly against South Africa four weeks ago, and even though it didn’t always lead to big gains for the New Zealand wingers, it asked questions of the Springboks’ defensive shape:

NZ Shallow Kick 3 (v SA RWC 2019)

NZ Shallow Kick 4 (v SA RWC 2019)

Garry Ringrose did a good job of back-tracking whenever Scotland put the ball in behind him in the first weekend of this tournament, and he needs to have his wits about him this Saturday because New Zealand excel at deciding to pass or kick based on what’s put in front of them.

 

Rocky Foundations

There has been a shake-up of the composition of New Zealand’s back row since their last World Cup triumph; Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read were the dream loose forward trio, and they haven’t yet been matched. Time has taken its toll on Read; he’s no longer the omnipotent presence who grabs games by the scruff of the neck, but more of a guiding hand who does the nuts-and-bolts facets of back row play efficiently. It’s a similar transformation to the one Jamie Heaslip underwent later on in his career, but without another commanding figure like McCaw alongside him, New Zealand’s back row don’t put their stamp on games the way they used to.

 

Liam Squire, Vaea Fifita and Shannon Frizzell never nailed down the 6 jersey with the opportunities they were given, and at 7, it was a case of having to choose between two polar opposites when deciding to pick Sam Cane or Ardie Savea. Cane is a past master of the less flashy aspects of openside play like tackling and rucking (and he brings a vital hard edge too) whereas Savea is an explosive ball-carrier who gets you moving forward but doesn’t put his shoulder to the wheel in defence as often as Cane does, and he can be prone to conceding penalties.

 

Hansen’s solution to this conundrum has been to start both. This leaves New Zealand short of a lineout option, but the performances of Cane and Savea in this World Cup have been remarkable, with Savea’s dynamic carrying complimenting Cane’s unglamorous breakdown work:

Savea-Cane 1 (v SA RWC 2019)

Savea-Cane 2 (v SA RWC 2019)

When you consider the disadvantage New Zealand are at in the lineout and maul without a traditional 6, and the influence of their flankers in open play, Ireland would be wise to play a set-piece focused game because it nullifies New Zealand’s strengths and exploits their weaknesses.

 

New Zealand are at a significant loss up front with the concerns over the fitness of Brodie Retallick. Himself and Sam Whitelock have been the premier second-row pairing in Test rugby for almost 10 years now, and Scott Barrett isn’t a like-for-like swap. Retallick and Whitelock together are the cornerstone of New Zealand’s pack and when one or both are missing, carrying an injury or short of match fitness, their team lose something more than two individuals.

 

Ireland’s famous victory over the All Blacks in Chicago may not have happened if either of them had been on the field, and the difference the two of them made when they were brought back in for the return fixture two weeks later cannot be quantified. In a team who have had to face bigger packs, Retallick’s capacity for dishing out punishment both sides of the ball is indispensable:

Retallick Physicality 1 (v SA 2017)

Retallick Physicality 2 (v Eng 2018)

New Zealand don’t have as much grunt in the close-quarters exchanges without Retallick; as athletic and industrious a player as Scott Barrett is, he doesn’t have the same power output or hard-nosed aggression as Retallick, and there is a noticeable change in New Zealand’s ability to withstand short-range pummellings when the Chiefs lock is not on the pitch:

NZ Def Close-In (v Aus 2019)

Without a 6’4″/6’5″ powerhouse blindside flanker, New Zealand lack bulk around the fringes of the ruck and in the maul with Retallick being only half-fit. This could make Ireland’s narrow carrying pattern highly effective, and if their maul functions anything like it did when they last met the All Blacks, then they should be in the ascendancy in that department.

 

“Got The Grit For It, Pilgrim?”

Under Hansen’s guidance, the current All Blacks are a different beast to the all-conquering juggernaut that won RWC 2015 with ease; they don’t have the same class in the forwards, but with Beauden Barrett deployed at full-back and Richie Mo’unga settling in nicely at 10, their back line have displayed the counter-attacking qualities that set them apart from everyone else in years gone by. They aren’t perfect (no team is), but there is more to the challenge facing Ireland this Sunday than the attributes of their opponent.

 

Expectation can be a heavy burden to carry, but I don’t think that Ireland would have earned so many feathers in their cap in this World Cup cycle if they weren’t up to the task that’s facing them. A first-ever win on South African soil, two wins over the All Blacks, a Grand Slam and a series win in Australia in the space of four years don’t happen by fluke, and while those achievements can never be taken away from Ireland, they also raised the hopes of a nation in terms of what they could accomplish in this tournament.

 

People were quick to write Ireland off after a poor Six Nations, a thrashing at the hands of England in the warm-ups and a shock loss to Japan, and the fact that they have never gotten past the last eight of a World Cup is a stick that is repeatedly used to beat them. But just because you haven’t done something before doesn’t mean you never will; up until 2014, I thought the notion of Ireland clinching a Six Nations title with a win over France in Paris was nothing more than a fantasy, and then, with the direction of the greatest rugby coach to have ever plied his trade in Ireland, this group of players went out and proved me wrong. Here’s hoping that they can prove a few more people wrong on Saturday.

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