Amidst the collective joy that hammering England at the end of the Six Nations generated, there was still a nagging doubt that that victory had more to do with Eddie Jones’ side playing poorly in that tournament than any progress on Ireland’s part. It was a Championship that brought more bad than good for Ireland, with dominant wins over Italy and England being overshadowed by scratchy performances against Wales, France and Scotland.
The previous year had been mixed in terms of performances and results as well, and while the July series brought a morale-boosting landslide win over a US team, that result was immediately preceded by a nervous win over Japan. Yesterday’s superb victory over the All Blacks is cast-iron proof that Ireland have turned a corner under their new coaching ticket, and the enthralling manner of their performance showed that they are in safe hands heading towards RWC 2023.
Ireland set their stall out early with a ferocity in contact against the New Zealand pack that made you wonder if it could be sustained for 80 minutes. Their offload count plummeted from the Japan fixture, but their aim was clear: to impact the All Black forwards in contact and let them know they were in for a fight:
Despite laying down a physical marker in the opening stages, Ireland didn’t get bogged down with bludgeoning New Zealand. The variation with ball-in-hand that we saw against Japan was there again (late hits to Johnny Sexton notwithstanding), and the point of attack constantly changed, putting the New Zealand defence under duress:
A significant factor in Ireland’s attack functioning so well was the balance that Garry Ringrose brought at 13. The Leinster centre has been ravaged with injury since bursting on to the scene for Ireland in 2016, and in an ever-changing rugby landscape where big midfielders are becoming more and more popular, there have been question marks over his place in this Ireland team, especially given the synergy between Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw.
Yesterday demonstrated that there is value in having a big/little combination in the centres, as on top of his crucial interventions in defence, Ringrose used his agility and turn of pace to change the direction of the Irish attack expertly, targeting soft shoulders and stepping between defenders:
Going Against Type
The first half followed an all-too-familiar pattern of Ireland’s clashes with the better teams; they created try-scoring opportunities only to waste them, with the scoreboard not reflecting their superiority in territory and possession or their dominance in collisions around the pitch. The fact that they were five points down at half-time could easily have taken the wind out of their sails, but they regrouped and persisted with the same tactics while improving their accuracy levels.
This culminated in a brilliantly-taken close-range score for Rónan Kelleher off the back of some patient multi-phase attack that proved to be a serious momentum shift in the game:
With the game on a knife-edge, Ireland showed incredible self-belief by not going into their shell and playing one-out rugby, but instead continuing in the vein of sowing their full range of attacking moves and not being afraid of using interplay between forwards and backs to exploit space:
Kicking was always going to be important in the second half, as the All Blacks were bound to realise the need to get a foothold in Irish territory, and Ireland handled the aerial exchanges extremely well. There were plenty of instances where Ireland won kick-tennis contests, but the below 50:22 box-kick from Jamison Gibson-Park was the best example of Ireland heaping pressure on New Zealand by pinning them deep in their own half:
The old adage that New Zealand can score from nothing remains as true as ever, and the cheap tries that Ireland gifted Codie Taylor and Will Jordan were painful reminders of this, but outside of those concessions, Ireland managed to close New Zealand out when it looked like they were going to claw their way back into the game.
9 times out of 10, New Zealand score from flat cross-field kicks like the below, but Hugo Keenan showed composure and intelligence beyond his years by anticipating the play, getting into the right position and timing his jump to the millisecond:
After being maligned for his defensive frailties all year, James Lowe produced a world class defensive effort by shutting down a New Zealand wide attack with a powerful, textbook hit when a try was on the cards:
The emotion and honesty in Lowe’s post-match interview combined with his on-pitch performance should put to bed any doubts over his ability or place in this squad, as he has repaid his coaches’ faith in him in spades.
Peter O’Mahony, too, is another figure who divides opinion around the country, but his selection on the bench in place of another ball-carrier silenced critics, as his jackalling work at the breakdown after Lowe’s tackle above was vital in securing Ireland possession when the game was in the balance.
The defensive highlight of the game for Ireland, though, came in the first 10 minutes. After New Zealand manufactured a surge down the right wing through a cross-field kick, Garry Ringrose and Andrew Conway combined for a two-man tackle, hauling Jordie Barrett to ground just short of the whitewash. Some dogged goal-line defending followed, with Ireland eventually winning a turnover at a time when it would have been so easy to give up:
There were countless swing moments that could have turned this game against Ireland. The chase-back from Gibson-Park with Sevu Reece bearing down on him could have resulted in a try for the All Blacks, the forward pass for Akira Ioane’s disallowed try could have been ignored, but Ireland displayed a calmness under pressure that we hadn’t seen from them earlier this year when they were truly under the pump.
Bigger And Better Things
Yesterday’s performance from Ireland was as complete as anything we have ever seen from them, and at least on par with what they were capable of producing in 2018 when they were at their peak under Joe Schmidt. If Ireland go out and underperform and/or lose to Argentina next Sunday, it will take a lot of the gloss off yesterday’s victory, but you get the feeling that everyone in the rugby world knows that Ireland are a force to be reckoned with again, and yet they have room for improvement.
Dan Sheehan, Tom O’Toole, Ryan Baird, Gavin Coombes, Craig Casey, Harry Byrne, James Hume and Robert Baloucoune are all only in the embryonic stages of their development as Test players, and Ben Healy, Ciarán Frawley and Jack Crowley have yet to come into the fray. Every one of those players have the potential to be very good internationals, and even though 10 is a concern with the lack of experience that Johnny Sexton’s understudies have and Joey Carbery’s injury profile, Ireland do have quality options in that position, as well as strength in depth in every other area.
The Irish players and coaches have talked about having half an eye on the World Cup, and although France are certainly favourites with it being on their home patch and the calibre of their squad, Australia have been reborn under Dave Rennie, South Africa are going from strength to strength and England and New Zealand are guaranteed to bounce back from recent difficulties, Ireland are right back in the mix. Things may well fall apart for them in 2023 as has happened at every World Cup, but the belief that Ireland are good enough to dominate the world stage is back again.