Andy Farrell has beaten the All Blacks with three different teams but even from that unique perspective, he is unwavering in his assessment that the world champions represent a defence coach’s biggest test.
This Saturday evening at the Aviva Stadium represents another opportunity for Ireland’s defensive mastermind to pit his wits against a side averaging 39.5 points scored over 12 matches in 2018.
Farrell enjoyed success as a defence coach with England in 2012, Ireland in 2016 and the Lions in 2017 when those sides conceded an average of 23.66 points in earning their victories against Steve Hansen’s teams.
Not exactly watertight but a measure of the challenge facing any outfit lining up against New Zealand.
The biggest test for a defence coach? You better believe it.
“It is. There’s no doubt about that,” Farrell said yesterday.
“The reality of what we’re coming up against this weekend is that they are the best attack in world rugby. That’s probably one of the main reasons why they are on top of the tree.”
What makes them so good?
“Their ability to stay calm and stick to the processes and not panic. Play good territory, hit people on the break, play at speed. All the guys are comfortable on the ball. Nobody gets missed out.
“They’re all good attacking players, even their front rowers have got a good feel for time and space.
“They’ve been playing their system for quite some time now. They’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. They’re just very good at what they do.”
Farrell had earlier been asked what the secret to his success had been.
“There is no secret,” he replied. “I’ve lost against them a lot more than I’ve won as well.
“There is no secret. You hear the lads talking about it all week, the lads who’ve played against them.
“They’re a good side, aren’t they, they’re going to have their time in the sun and what they’re masters at is making sure when things go wrong for them, which they do because they’re a team like anyone else, their confidence levels, their ability to stick to the plan, and stay on point is better than anyone.
“We have to take our learnings from that and make sure when things go against us or the run of play goes against it, we get back on point as soon as we possibly can on both sides of the ball.”
Every game against the All Blacks has been an education for Ireland’s defence coach, not least on his secondment to Warren Gatland’s Lions for the 2017 tour which produced a loss, a win, and then a draw in a dramatic series.
“The first game, they hit us through the middle, through the heart really. It actually hurt because they were more physical than us in the first Test. They played a very tight game, tried to take away our line-speed.
“The second game, we reacted to that and we got a response. So there is a lesson learned there that the response has to be straight from the start.”
And it is not just New Zealand who have kept Farrell and the Irish management on their toes. Even last Saturday’s 28-17 victory over Argentina came at the cost of a try which saw the Irish line broken in midfield by centre Matias Orlando’s scything run between Bundee Aki and Johnny Sexton before wing Bautista Delguy breezed into the corner.
The absence of Lions scrum-half Conor Murray and now centre Robbie Henshaw are further causes for defensive concern ahead of Saturday’s Guinness Series showdown but Farrell remains confident that their replacements are up to the task of keeping the All Blacks at bay.
Of Murray, the defence coach said: “He’s a big man, isn’t he? He is a like an extra inside back and he has got some real energy but having said that, obviously Conor is very comfortable in his own skin and he directs the players around him defensively and he slots in in the right places defensively and puts his body on the line.
“But could you say that the others don’t do that? You look at Kieran Marmion and how he throws his body around and it is the same with Luke (McGrath) and Coons (John Cooney). They are the same type of animal, really, they are not nines that fear contact, so we are okay there.”
The loss of Henshaw, like Murray a pivotal figure in Chicago two years ago for Ireland’s historic first win over New Zealand, could also be acute were it not for Farrell’s faith in a fit-again Garry Ringrose filling the breach at outside centre.
“It is probably the hardest position on the field to defend. What Garry has got, he has a feel for space. He knows when to put the pedal down and put the pressure on at the right time but he also knows when he is in that little bit of trouble and giving himself time and space and he is normally good at making those decisions.”