As of last Saturday, with their defeat of South Africa, New Zealand have won 17 test matches in a row. Next, they will take on Australia at Eden Park where they have not lost in 22 years. What this means is they are likely to arrive at Soldier Field in Chicago to take on Ireland having won a record 18 consecutive games.
This incredible record has earned them many plaudits, and rightly so. Such a feat should warrant high praise from the rugby public and the media alike. While this has largely been the case, the opportunities for such has sometimes boiled over into pure hyperbole. One piece I read recently said their accomplishments had transcended space and time. Some feat indeed.
It is all well and good for the media to exaggerate in order to scavenge for a response as they push their product, I just ask that these be taken with a fistful of salt. The reasons for such excessive praise is likely stemming from an insecurity on the part of the worldwide rugby community.
For years, the southern hemisphere teams loved to smirk at their northern counterparts and wallow in their own – fairly justified – smugness. Now there is a distinct chasm between New Zealand and everyone else. Australia and South Africa can no longer even get near the men in black and so they find themselves thrown in with those up north they used to mock.
But back to the real worry for us all if we persist in basking in the ABs’ glow. My concerns with deifying this New Zealand team is this: the more they are built up, the more it is spoken of them being beyond-human, the more people buy into the media hype, the less likely anyone is of ever beating them.
Let us get one thing clear: just as New Zealand will someday lose at Eden Park, so too will Ireland beat the men from the land of the long white cloud. So if this is true, then why not now? What is stopping Ireland making history in Chicago or in Dublin a few weeks time?
While I would not quite go to the lengths of Australia to demystify their neighbours across the Tasman – the likes of Matt Williams and Michael Cheika refuse to call them the ‘All Blacks’ only referring to them as ‘New Zealand’ – I do agree they should not be put up on a pedestal. To do so is to accept they are better than everyone else and then any contest becomes futile.
If we continue to laud them so vehemently then no one will ever beat them. How can we hope to win the physical, the skill, the speed, the intelligence battles if we have lost the psychological battle already?
“You get all your options off the opposition” quipped Steve Hansen last year when asked about the All Blacks’ game plan. So what options can Ireland look to exploit from their opposition in the coming weeks?
The great thing about Ireland’s two upcoming tests against them is that no one will give the men in green a chance. In fact, the only people who will be concerned about what Ireland can bring to the table will be New Zealand. They know just how wily an operator Joe Schmidt is and they will not have forgotten how close they came to being toppled in Dublin in 2013.
Expect Ireland to try something different to look to limit New Zealand’s time on the ball. They are most lethal when the ball is turned over: either from receiving a poorly uncontested or long kick, at the breakdown, a knock on or a loose pass. The likes of Beauden Barrett, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ben Smith and Israel Dagg will crucify any side that coughs up possession cheaply. There is a ruthless and clinical edge to their play as soon as they have won the ball back.
Schmidt may setup his team to try and limit the ABs’ momentum by dictating the speed of the ruck. To slow their ball by selecting effective ‘jackalers’, the likes of Josh van der Flier, CJ Stander and Peter O’Mahony (if fit). The backrow would then try to maximise the speed of Ireland’s ball by using these men to ensure quick ball for Ireland and perhaps open up their attack by going wide.
The Irish game plan is likely to start with a high tempo and will look to draw the contact and win the collisions from the off. Big ball carriers like Jack McGrath, Rory Best and Iain Henderson will need to gain Ireland valuable metres to get the Kiwis on the back foot.
Most teams come undone against the ABs in the last quarter – they scored 28 unanswered points against SA in the final nine minutes at the weekend – and this is why the bench, and especially the timing of it, will be crucial for Ireland to perform well and try and sneak a victory. The likes of Paddy Jackson and Cian Healy – possibly even Sean O’Brien – could well prove decisive in this regard.
There is, however, a danger of playing into NZ’s hands if Ireland try to play a fast paced game. It is not necessarily something that comes naturally to them and maintaining the required mental and physical fitness is something that is potentially beyond the men in green. Pundit Arena’s Jack O’Toole reported how Eddie Jones finds it baffling that teams are trying to beat the All Blacks by playing the same style. Will Schmidt look to try something vastly different?
Andy Farrell, who is still new enough to the role of defensive coach, will relish the chance to test his troops against the most potent attack in world rugby. NZ play with great width, employing a form of the 2-4-2 system that Connacht implemented so successfully last year. This means highly skilled forwards like Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino and Dane Coles will be occupying the wide channels and waiting for the Irish defence to bite in and crack.
To counter this, Ireland will need to get their spacing right, maintain their width and ensure they can generate line speed. None of this possible if they cannot win the battle of the breakdown by slowing their ball. Of course before the breakdown happens, Ireland will need to take their chance to impose themselves physicality in the tackle when the opportunity presents itself.
“Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” Nietszche
Any win against New Zealand would be a tall order for the Irish team. Trying to topple this side is deemed impossible. What motivation it must be to take on the team labelled the greatest to ever play rugby. What a scalp that would be.
David Sharkey, Pundit Arena