While they would never admit it, the Irish front five must have felt confident of laying a decent platform going into last Saturday’s contest against Argentina, especially at scrum time.
Pummeling any opposition in the scrum, propelling them backwards and shredding their front row, yields a far greater psychological gain than pilfering one of their lineouts.
When Ireland drove the Pumas backwards in the very first scrum of the game, resulting in Kieran Marmion crashing over for the opening try, a clear narrative was formed in the referee’s mind.
The quality of the Irish scrum, with three Lions props and two quality hookers a regular match-day feature, has laid the foundation for some wonderful days for Irish rugby over the last few seasons.
Therefore, when Argentina coach Mario Ledesma labelled the All Black scrum the best in the business, it’s worth remembering that from a scrummaging perspective, the Irish front five are set for a battle of equals today.
When your props are put under pressure, there is more onus on the wing forwards to dig in and lend as much support as possible. The problem is that compromises the back row’s defensive duties, as Argentine captain Pablo Matera discovered last Saturday. A split second is all New Zealand scrum halves Aaron Smith or TJ Perenara need to make a break.
The Irish scrum faces its biggest challenge in two years tonight and while the absence of World Cup-winning loose-head Joe Moody is a loss to the visitors, his recently capped understudy Karl Tu’inukuafe impressed throughout the Rugby Championship after making his debut this season.
The deciding factor in Ireland’s only win over New Zealand to date was the dominance Ireland exerted at the lineout in the absence of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, who pack down tonight for the 50th time as an All Black second row partnership.
Retallick‘ s ability to pilfer three successive England lineouts last weekend enabled them to win a very tight game.
Today will be no different. With Devin Toner recalled as both the lineout caller and chief ball winner, Ireland will be better in this department than they were a week ago. They will have to be to harbour any ambitions of winning as that battle out of touch will prove decisive.
The last time these sides met, the brutality New Zealand brought to the tackle and the contact area set the ground rules for revenge of the Chicago result two weeks earlier.
The high hits delivered by Sam Cane and Malakai Fekitoa on Robbie Henshaw and Simon Zebo that day would not be tolerated under the new tackle guidelines. That refinement won’t make any difference to the physicality New Zealand will seek to impose at the breakdown tonight.
They are fully cognisant of Ireland’s desire to hold onto possession through multiple phases which is totally dependent on recycling possession within three to four seconds. Anything less and New Zealand will have time to reset their defensive line.
The All Blacks have always been the masters of the breakdown with a poaching No 7 in the mould of Michael Jones, Jock Hobbs, Josh Kronfeld, Richie McCaw, and Cane the first names on the team sheet.
In Cane’s absence, Ardie Savea carries that responsibility today. Steve Hansen is fully aware that once Ireland are prevented from building momentum and getting over the gain line, as they struggled to do against Argentina, their attack becomes very lateral. That will only play into New Zealand hands from a defensive point of view.
On the flip side, Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell will be hoping his players will be equally successful in slowing down New Zealand’s ruck ball. To do that, you have no option but to match them physically. That, in turn, will enable Ireland to implement Farrell’s blitz defence that played such a vital role in the Lions’ achievement of securing a win and a draw in their series last year. England delivered a similar template last Saturday and went within an inch of winning.
New Zealand are no different to any other side — they are not immune to pressure even if they appear to handle it better than most. The key is in sustaining that pressure for 80 minutes, on both sides of the ball.
Ireland’s kicking game will play a key role in this and will need to be a lot more accurate than last weekend.
The kick-chase has to be so much better but so too the execution, with Johnny Sexton strangely off target with three loose kicks.
Damien McKenzie is a virtual Billy Whizz with ball in hand and can create havoc in broken play. However, as Jordon Larmour discovered against the Pumas, he has to deliver on the primary duties when stationed at full-back and he will be tested as never before under the high ball. If Ireland kick loosely to him, he could cause untold damage.
Ireland had to score five tries in Chicago to record a first ever win over New Zealand two years ago. In weather conditions forecast to be crisp and dry, Rory Best’s men will be required to score at least three to keep pace with this All Black scoring machine entering the final quarter.
The visitors tonight score tries for fun, averaging over five in the recent Rugby Championship. All their players are primed to attack off turnovers but it is the quality of their passing, regardless of whether it’s a front five forward or a back three in possession, coupled with their lines of running, that set them apart.
The key to stopping them is to deny their playmakers, in particular, Beauden Barrett and their midfield, time and space on the ball. Ireland need to control the territorial battle and pin them back in their 22. Even then they need to be careful, as New Zealand will counter from any turnovers generated, even from their own goal line.
Schmidt loves a challenge and one suspects he will have designed one or two new power plays off set pieces to exploit the defensive chinks that have dogged New Zealand all year.
They conceded an average of three tries per game in that recent championship which put them to the pin of their collar to win some of those games, and cost them dearly against South Africa in Wellington.
Ireland need to be especially vigilant in the championship minutes, just before and after half-time, when New Zealand seem to register points with alarming regularity. To win, Ireland need to be ahead entering the final 20 minutes, a period when New Zealand have scored most of their points in recent times.
That said, the New Zealand bench isn’t quite as influential as it used to be, while Ireland have some real quality to introduce over the closing half hour. If Ireland can sustain the pressure entering that crucial phase of the game, they have a serious chance of winning.
You get the feeling that New Zealand want to make a big statement in this game against a side they could next meet in the knockout phase of the World Cup. A tight TMO call ultimately decided last week’s titanic clash against England but I suspect they will be desperate to control their own destiny this time out.
Right now they have a superior attacking game and that could just be enough to see them over the line.