November 17, 2016
The game against New Zealand 2 weeks ago didn't go the way most of us imagined. New Zealand were being heralded as the best team the game had ever seen with the World Cup in their pocket, the Rugby Championship in their pocket and a record winning streak to their name. Having been so comprehensive in their dispatching of the opposition in the Rugby Championship we all fully expected them to beat, reasonably comfortably, an Irish side only just getting together for the first time. But as we all know now that wasn't to be. Ireland delivered a top class performance and deservedly beat a New Zealand side that was inaccurate and ill disciplined for large parts of the game.
Looking ahead to the game this weekend though and New Zealand have made some changes to their squad with the reintroduction of Whitelock and Retallick being the most obvious, However the inclusion of Israel Dagg in place of Naholo is also an important change. Ireland targeted New Zealands line out last time out as they had an inexperienced lock running theirs next to back row forward Jermoe Kaino. Whitelock and Retallick will remove that area of weakness from their set piece, although there are doubts about Whitelocks fitness after an ankle injury he sustained. Ireland also targeted the 2 Kiwi wingers with their kicking game as well. Daggs selection will reduce Irelands ability to use their kicking game as a weapon as Dagg is more than comfortable under the high ball. So New Zealand have selected a team that addresses the main areas that Ireland had targeted 2 weeks ago. Where does that leave Ireland?
There are still a few areas that New Zealand were weak that have not been addressed. Aaron Smiths performance in Chicago was a long, long way off what we would normally expect from him. Hansen has shown faith in his starting scrum-half by naming him in the 9 shirt again for this encounter. This is an area that Ireland should be looking to target, to try and put him off again. The inclusion of both Whitelock and Retallick may improve their set piece but will both be able to keep up with the pace of the game if Ireland come out of the blocks at full tilt from the off? New Zealand also have a young and inexperienced, but still incredibly talented, outside centre in Anton Lienart-Brown. Ireland will need to ask him some serious questions in defence, either by finding line breaks down his channel or by looking to draw in the Kiwi defensive line by sitting him down in midfield.
All that said though Ireland shouldn't just look to the opposition to identify how they are going to win this game. One thing that stood out in the historic win 2 weeks ago was Irelands ability to deliver on multiple fronts to a high degree of accuracy and in a very disciplined manner. And all of this after only 3 pitch sessions together this season. Ireland dominated the set piece, both scrum and line-out, for the vast majority of the game. The passing and kicking game was accurate. The pack delivered good front foot ball for large parts of the game and disrupted Kiwi ball well. Ireland conceded just 4 penalties to New Zealands 12. The work rate from all involved was top notch. And in the final 10 minutes, when New Zealand are used to punishing their opponents, it was Ireland that were composed and clinical. Joe Schmidt recognised after the game in 2013 that Ireland need to be an 85-90 minute team. They've shown now that they can be.
But there were still elements that Ireland could improve on. There were 2 noticeable system errors in 2 of New Zealands tries; their first through Moala and their 4th through Barrett. Payne was caught too tight to Sexton, which opened a huge hole for Naholo to go through for the first. And for the other Cian Healy bit in on Josh van der Fliers man creating a gap for Barrett to burst through. A few times players went looking for an offload but didn't have the support runners in the right place to receive them. It happened to Sexton on 2 occasions specifically where he ended up taking contact even though there was space created to attack. And in the final quarter particularly Irelands set piece came under some pressure.
Already in Joe Schmidts tenure Ireland have shown an ability to vary their game from match to match to take advantage of relative strengths and weaknesses. With the squad depth, accuracy of execution, fitness levels and decision making improving hugely compared to this time 3 years ago Ireland are in a good place to target a second win against New Zealand. But New Zealand will be smarting from their performance so I'd expect a big backlash from them. It's lining up to be an almighty encounter between 2 top class sides, but given the squad they will have available to them and the point they will have to prove I'd fancy New Zealand by 5-10 points. If Ireland can deliver a similar kind of performance to the one in Chicago they can certainly upset that prediction, but if they manage that and still lose I don't think we can have much to complain about.