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As the dust begins to settle on Ireland’s 16-9 victory against New Zealand on Saturday, an assessment and analysis of Ireland’s performance in all facets of the game is being undertaken to determine how and why Joe Schmidt’s side toppled the world champions.
Ireland excelled in many areas of the game; the scrum, the lineout, the aerial battle, were all edged by the men in green at crucial moments in the match while Ireland’s discipline, or New Zealand’s lack thereof, was also telling.
However, it was Ireland’s defence which proved most important in winning this game.
Time and time again, Ireland stopped New Zealand in their tracks and came up with crucial turnovers to alleviate their opponent’s momentum which provided a huge psychological boost.
It wasn’t just the work on the deck which helped Ireland in this regard, their competitiveness in the air coupled with excellent kicking from Johnny Sexton contributed to halting New Zealand from gaining any possession in dangerous areas of the field.
Here, we take a look at some of Ireland’s excellent defensive work, especially in the first half which ultimately had a huge bearing on the result.
The opening two and half minutes of this clash showed how both sides were looking to take each other on in the air. Keith Earls, Kieran Marmion, Beauden Barrett, Ben Smith all exchanged kicks with New Zealand ultimately winning out when Barrett put a beautiful ball in behind Earls which Rob Kearney could only collect and slide over the touchline with.
This led to New Zealand’s first big chance of the game and Ireland’s defensive effort in this passage of play set the tone for the rest of the match.
Codie Taylor gets ready to throw into an attacking lineout as he struggles to hear the call due to the incredible noise generated by the home support.
It’s important to note the location of this attacking setpiece with Ireland’s lineout members standing approximately nine metres out from their own try line.
Liam Squire wins the lineout and gives it to his fellow flanker Ardie Savea. Instead of opting for a maul, Savea sends the ball to an onrushing Ryan Crotty who makes a big carry.
Crotty gets over the gain-line but what happens next shows how clued in Ireland are when it comes to their defensive duties.
The ball spills out of the ruck and Josh van der Flier is first to react as he swallows up a back-tracking Brodie Retallick. Rory Best and Tadhg Furlong are then on hand to support van der Flier as they knock back Retallick which negates any momentum made from Crotty’s initial carry – it also allows further time for the Irish defence to get in position for the next wave of attack which we can see below.
Ireland’s defensive line (red) is set and there is good spacing (white) between the players; they are close to one another around the fringes of the ruck in order for the potential to double up on New Zealand’s strong ball carriers while further out the line, they have numbered well in order to deal with any situation where they may spread the ball wide.
New Zealand decide to go through the narrow channels as Squire and then Savea take on the ball in the tight exchanges.
Next up it’s Kieran Read who takes on the responsibility and he hits the line hard but Cian Healy and Devin Toner combine to hold the New Zealand captain up, again, stemming any momentum and quick ball which the visitors are trying to create.
Throughout this passage of play, Ireland are trying to sniff out a turnover but most importantly, they are not desperately attempting to jackal the ball after every tackle as this could potentially leave them vulnerable at a failed attempt by either conceding a penalty or taking more players out of the defensive line – they are picking and choosing their moments.
Retallick takes up the mantle on the next phase, again with a carry in the narrow channels as he is brought down swiftly by Best and Sexton – on this occasion CJ Stander thinks he has a chance of a turnover but retreats immediately and gets back into the pillar position when he realises it isn’t on.
It is clear now that Stander is on the hunt for a turnover. It is more evident on the next phase. Jack Goodhue’s carry finally gets his side over the 5 m line with the help of Owen Franks and Karl Tuinukuafe – the two props latch onto Goodhue to eke out an extra metre or two.
It’s starting to get dangerous for Ireland now and Stander realises this as he swoops in and latches onto the ball. Savea spots the danger and clears Stander out who is now off his feet. Wayne Barnes shouts. “Off your feet, get away, off your feet!”.
The next phase sees Read carry hard once again as he is brought down by Healy and van der Flier – Healy receives a heavy clear out in the back from Sam Whitelock for his troubles as Ireland continue to hold firm.
New Zealand decide that they are going nowhere with their forwards so Aaron Smith gives the ball to Barrett who flicks on a pass to the dangerous Damian McKenzie who joins up with the attack.
However, this proved to be the wrong decision as Ireland’s line speed, a key trait of the Andy Farrell defensive system, knocks New Zealand back a couple of metres.
From the above image, we see New Zealand’s point of attack (white). Smith plays the ball to Barrett who flicks it on to McKenzie.
However, Ireland not only sense the danger but see an opportunity to knock back New Zealand from the gradual ground they had been making up until that point.
Bundee Aki (1), Garry Ringrose (2) and Jacob Stockdale (3) sprint out of the line to take on Barrett, McKenzie and Squire, respectively. Out of shot, Rob Kearney is keeping an eye on Ben Smith.
The quick line speed works incredibly well in this regard and the decision is vindicated as Ringrose and Aki combine to bring down McKenzie.
As you can see below, the move began with Smith passing the ball out of the ruck (1) from inside the 5 m line and it finished with McKenzie being tackled outside of it (2) – another psychological win for Ireland.
Aki goes for the turnover in this instance, but Barnes tell him to get out of there.
On the next phase, New Zealand go back into midfield as Read trucks it up the middle and he is brought down by Healy and van der Flier.
On the next phase, Stander goes in for his second real turnover attempt as Goodhue is brought to ground by Ringrose and van der Flier. However, Barnes quickly tells Stander, “you’re not on the ball!”, as the Munster man apologises with the innocent hands-in-the-air move.
However, it is a case of third time lucky for Stander as on the next phase, he and van der Flier combine to latch onto the ball after James Ryan brings down Read.
It’s not like New Zealand to go through 12+ phases, within 10 m of an opponent’s line and not come away with anything for their efforts.
As this was at such an early stage of the game, in addition to Ireland having little to no possession up until that point, this defensive passage of play proved to be a major mental boost for Ireland. This wasn’t lost on the crowd in the stadium as they reacted in kind by celebrating as if Ireland had scored a try.
If we take a look where this all began and where it finished, this passage of play epitomised the bravery and commitment of the Irish team. The initial lineout began about 10 m out from the Ireland line, while the turnover was won approximately 7 m from the Ireland line. Overall, Ireland conceded three metres after 12 phases against the world champions.
Ireland continued this ruthlessness in defence for much of the game and when you consider how the last time New Zealand were held both try-less and to single digits in the scoring stakes was in a 13-3 loss to South Africa in 1998, it reveals just how good Ireland were in this area of the game.
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