Defeat is never easy for anyone, but it is the bitterest pill to swallow for a rugby nation as proud as New Zealand. However, a first ever loss to Ireland will serve the All Blacks well as they move towards the rest of their end of year campaign and into 2017.
That’s the thing that has come to define New Zealand under Steve Hansen – a defeat is seen not as the start of a downward trend or the beginning of the end of a golden era in the country’s beloved sport, but rather a springboard to even greater success and moving towards even more towering heights.
The surprising 27 – 19 loss to Australia at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney back in August last year saw the All Blacks romp to a 41 – 13 thrashing of the same opposition just a week later at Eden Park and begin the path that saw the team not only win the 2015 World Cup with relative ease but also cruise to a world record eighteen tests in a row.
The 27 – 25 defeat in Johannesburg in 2014 then saw New Zealand go undefeated throughout their northern hemisphere tour and defeat both Australia and the Springboks once more.
So what lessons will they learn this time around? Well a defeat to Ireland is of course unprecedented, but that will only mean the side will find ways to protect the new-found chinks in their previously near-impenetrable armour.
Firstly, the All Blacks normally have enough strength in depth to cope with injury losses, but also avoid trying to shove square pegs into round holes. Yet with the injuries of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick, as well as Luke Romano absent from the squad, coach Hansen resorted to testing blindside Jerome Kaino in the second row. In a lock pairing with the talented but ultimately inexperienced Patrick Tuipulotu the set piece badly misfired, particularly at the lineout and an intelligent and efficient Ireland team made the New Zealanders pay.
Before the match Hansen said on his choice of locks (via Stuff.co.nz):
“Jerome is very comfortable in the position, and we just thought it was a big ask for a young fellow [Scott Barrett].”
With Vaea Fifita also available, it will be imperative for the All Blacks to bring a better balance to their pack and ensure a greater clarity of thought at the lineout. Against Italy it may be the perfect chance to test the temperament of Barrett after an impressive performance from the bench against the men in green.
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Additionally, the All Blacks will need to learn to better manage the choke tackle – a concept originally created by Ireland and one they used much to their advantage in Chicago. It’s a move that former England defence coach Andy Farrell adapted and adopted with England and one that he used with aplomb against the world’s best team last weekend. Much credit in this regard must be given to the work Ireland prop pairing Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong.
As well as this, New Zealand’s usually superb management of both referee and their own discipline was oddly missing against Ireland. Captain Rory Best dealt with French referee Mathieu Raynal very well, whilst as the All Blacks’ resolve slipped so too did Kieran Read’s patience. Joe Moody’s foolish challenge on Robbie Henshaw ultimately cost his side 12 points when they were reduced to 14 men. New Zealand fans will also recall Moody’s awful effort on Argentina’s Guido Petti back in September as well.
New Zealand are no strangers to yellow cards: 49 players have received 73 yellow cards – worse than every northern hemisphere side beside Italy and only beaten by South Africa (99 yellows from 57 players) and Australia (81 from 48). Yet their association with 10 minutes off the park is more to do with cynicism than stupidity. The All Blacks’ stoic approach to discipline has been such a huge part of their success in recent years.
12 penalties conceded to Ireland’s 4 tells you everything you need to know about the game and why Ireland won.
Moving forward then, here are three areas the world’s most consistent team will need to work on. A run out against the Italians will provide Hansen and his coaches with a chance to experiment a little more and get the right combinations for the return to Dublin in two weeks’ time. That match is likely to be yet another defining chapter in the latest incarnation of one of sport’s most iconic teams.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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