Barometer

Ireland’s Peter O'Mahony is tackled by All Blacks Kieran Read and Codie Taylor 19/10/2019
Rude Awakening: Peter O’Mahony is stopped dead in his tracks by Codie Taylor and Kieran Read in Tokyo Stadium at the last World Cup. Just as Ireland being obliterated by New Zealand in Japan in 2019 was confirmation that they really had deteriorated since the start of that year, tomorrow’s clash with the same opponent will be the true test of how good they actually are under Andy Farrell & co. The England, US and Japan games this year were hugely positive for Ireland with regards to proving that they are growing into a new game plan, but facing one of the Big Three is the ultimate trial by fire.

When Ireland toppled the All Blacks in 2018, no one could have envisaged their spectacular collapse against the same opponent the following year. Two years on from that sobering defeat, they are in a strange semi-limbo state where they are trying to change, but don’t yet have a clear idea of where they stand, having not yet faced Rugby Championship opposition in this World Cup cycle even though they did encounter some formidable English and French teams in the same timeframe.

Taking into account their RWC and Lions tour successes, and their recent victory over the All Blacks, South Africa are unquestionably top of the pile at the moment, but New Zealand are still a world class outfit. Their loss to the Springboks at the end of The Rugby Championship came down to the finest of margins, and their World Cup semi-final exit two years ago was at the hands of an England side who had reached their peak under Eddie Jones. Their territorial play and set-piece work may have regressed, but they are no less proficient at carving teams open with top-drawer handling and incisive running lines.

In spite of all of the selection debates, youthful exuberance will have to wait for now; Andy Farrell has picked a squad of tried-and-trusted players to go out and beat one of the best teams in the world, and throwing inexperienced players in the deep end for a fixture like this is a recipe for disaster. The current All Blacks are flawed compared to their forerunners, but whether Ireland have the confidence and wherewithal to go after them at this stage in their development is something we won’t know until tomorrow evening.

Nullifying The Counterattack

The trap that many teams fall into against New Zealand is giving up multiple kick-returns to them in a row in to clear the ball due to fatigue following a period of fast-paced attack. The All Blacks thrive in these scenarios, and you can see them set up for them by rushing several players into their backfield so that the receiver has options on both sides, like in the below example:

Kicking centrally to New Zealand with a jagged chase-line as Tonga do above is fatal because it plays right into their hands; they want an open, free-flowing game with the pitch split into two to attack, so Ireland would be best-served by angling all of their kicks out of hand towards the touch-line tomorrow, be they box-kicks, garryowens or low-punt clearances.

Given that Jordie Barrett is 6’5”, Will Jordan’s experience playing at 15 and the fact that Sevu Reece isn’t exactly poor in the air, Ireland aren’t likely to dominate the aerial contests. They would be better off following the example set by Australia earlier this year by landing the ball in the 15-metre channel, wating to smash the New Zealand receiver as soon as they come back down to earth, and then piling in at the breakdown so that they can’t work with quick ruck ball:

This strategy will hem New Zealand towards the touch-line so they don’t have the full width of the pitch to attack with the chase-line far away, and more importantly, it will take the tempo out of New Zealand’s attack, the latter of which is critical to Ireland being competitive. South Africa managed to do just that at the start of last month, and Ireland will have to as well, as the All Blacks run away with games if their opponent doesn’t get a stranglehold on them early.

Cutting The Pipeline

Ian Foster’s selection of Rieko Ioane at 13 for this fixture is a curious one, especially with how well Ireland motored in attack against Japan, and the complex, unpredictable nature of what they are now doing with the ball. The logic behind it is probably that Ioane brings a strong physical presence, and therefore a good option for shutting down Ireland’s power plays, but they have been changing up how they use the ball and are no longer as reliant on big midfield crashes to get into their rhythm.

As demonstrated by their performance against Japan, Ireland are throwing multiple support runners (all running different angles) at the opposition defence, so predicting who and where the ball is going to is not as easy as it was when Joe Schmidt took a different (and at the time highly successful) systematic approach, and Ioane is not a renowned defensive reader.

Whatever about that part of his game, though, where Ioane’s selection could cost the All Blacks dearly is how it effects the flow of their attack. When playing at 13, Ioane acts as a strike-runner midfielder, running surge lines onto the ball at pace from his 10 or 12, and bursting through tackle attempts from the opposition:

As accomplished as Ioane is at imposing himself on the opposition defence with his carrying, the fundamental aspects of his midfield play aren’t as polished as they need to be at the very top level, particularly his distribution. It’s not really a surprise when you remember that he is a converted winger, and he is capable of passing; he can produce brilliant moments of skill, but not consistently for 80 minutes against an aggressive defence.

We saw an example of this in Round 5 of The Rugby Championship, when the Springboks rushed up into his face off a midfield scrum, forcing him to rifle a short inside pass with too much velocity, causing Beauden Barrett to juggle it before being hauled to ground, thereby killing the movement:

There were plenty of instances of quality defence from Ireland against Japan, and while there’s no question that they are a different class of opponent to New Zealand, there’s no reason why the same tactics couldn’t work again. Below are two clips of Ireland executing a superb midfield blitz against a dangerous Japanese backline:

Like the All Blacks, Japan are almost impossible to stop if they get the ball beyond outside centre cleanly, but Ireland snuffed out the danger expertly, and will be hoping to disrupt Ioane’s passing with this kind of suffocating defence.

With regards to general defensive strategy, Ireland should look to execute choke/grapple tackles and rips in contact, as they will be presented with numerous opportunities to do so. The New Zealand forwards go quite high into the tackle so as to get their hands free after contact, which can be to their own detriment at times:

Deep Impact

Long sequences of one-out forward carries remain kryptonite for New Zealand, despite the harsh lessons they learned in this area against Ireland in 2018 and England in 2019. It’s not that their forwards are underpowered or not interested in putting their shoulder to the wheel when they don’t have the ball, it’s just that the pattern of the games they play at club level don’t prepare them for heavyset SA/northern hemisphere packs who retain the ball for extended passages for the purpose of bludgeoning them.

Super Rugby/NPC games are characterised by width in attack and frequent line breaks, and this is reflected in the All Blacks’ lack of comfort when dealing with opponents who try to hammer them in-close repeatedly with long one-out carrying chains at Test level:

Ten years ago, New Zealand players were vastly superior on the floor, and could rely on poach turnovers to get them out of trouble when the opposition were putting the squeeze on them, but improvements in fitness, mobility and breakdown technique in the rest of the major nations has closed the gap in this phase of play.

The problem for Ireland is that while these tactics were brutally effective under Joe Schmidt a couple of years ago, they aren’t anymore for various reasons that have been dissected ad nauseam by pundits and analysts. Without retreading old ground, Andy Farrell and Mike Catt have made it explicitly clear their desire to get Ireland to be more adventurous with ball-in-hand, and they have made huge strides in doing so.

As tempting as it might be to revert to type for the sake of a massive, morale-boosting victory, Ireland need to continue to evolve. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to expose this frailty in the New Zealand defence; they can use their two-out passing patterns but angle the ball-carrier back infield with trailing support runners in order to 1) keep moving away from repetitive, grinding carrying sequences and 2) exploit this weakness in the All Blacks’ defensive tendencies, a ploy that bore fruit in their biggest win to date in the Farrell era:

If Ireland can shatter the New Zealand pack in phase play by doing the above, and also maul them and lean on them for as long as possible in scrums, the physical fatigue that follows will hinder their skill set, thus making their all-court attack markedly less potent.

There is scope for Ireland to exert themselves physically further out, too. As gifted a handler as Anton Lienert-Brown is, defence is not his strong suit. At 6’1” and 96 kg, he’s not diminutive in stature by any means, but he doesn’t have a natural instinct for defensive duties, and is prone to giving up side-on, soak tackles:

Ireland made it their business to get Henshaw running at Nick Tompkins regularly in their clash with Wales in last year’s Six Nations, using clever decoy runners to fix the inside defence so that the Saracens outside centre was isolated when Henshaw careened into him:

Considering how profitable this manoeuvre was, it would be no surprise to see a repeat of it with Bundee Aki carrying out the same battering ram role. First-phase scrum attacks would provide Ireland with the greatest chance of getting this mismatch between Aki and Lienert-Brown because the All Black forwards won’t be able to get up in time to take up defensive positions wider out, but the lineout could create similar openings.

If Ireland can generate front-foot ball with their maul and force the All Blacks to commit forwards to this area, or alternatively use maul feints to briefly tie them up before quickly moving the ball into midfield, then Lienert-Brown won’t have any heavy artillery to assist him with his defensive responsibilities. Ireland must be careful to avoid throwing long-range passes when doing this, however, as New Zealand are always alive to the possibility of an intercept.

Zero Margin For Error

As impressive as Ireland have been lately under Farrell, inaccuracy has been a hallmark of their displays since he took the reins, last week notwithstanding. Whether it be the profligacy against France this year and Wales in the Autumn Nations Cup last year, the high error count against Scotland back in March, or the self-destructive ill-discipline against France last year, Ireland have put together only three performances under their new head coach that could be described as complete.

There are mitigating factors, of course; as mentioned earlier, they are trying to be a more exciting team in terms of how they attack, and it doesn’t help that Farrell’s immediate predecessor was a coach who placed a premium on hyper-accuracy, but Ireland can’t afford to make a lot of mistakes tomorrow. New Zealand haven’t lost their knack for punishing turnovers with extreme prejudice, and bar the England, US and Japan games this year, we have seen more than a few defensive blips from Ireland since the start of 2020.

There is no doubt that Farrell will have Ireland’s intensity levels through the roof when they step out on to the Aviva turf tomorrow, but they have to be as clinical as their halcyon 2018 year if they are going to knock the All Blacks over. It wouldn’t be the end of the world if they did lose; their growth under their new head coach has been stunted by COVID after all, but not having beaten southern hemisphere opposition in three years is bound to play on the mind at some point, and a statement win over one of the Big Three would put them right back in the category of RWC contenders again.

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