Ireland need a quick fix in three key areas...
THE MENTAL GAME
First off, if your head is in the wrong place going into a Test match against quality opposition, you have no chance.
For whatever reason, Ireland were mentally off the pace against Australia last Saturday. Parking any advantage the visitors enjoyed on the technical, tactical or skill front, it was surprising to see just how much more committed they appeared in terms of physical intensity. That is something all Irish sides, at provincial and national level, pride themselves on.
I strongly suspect that, under a new regime, the Irish players were so focused on taking so much new information on board in terms of calls and patterns when in possession that, as a collective, they missed the boat when it came to dictating the terms of the physical exchanges. On the other hand, Australia, under pressure to perform given they knew sanctions were coming down the line as a consequence of their nocturnal activities, knew losing just wasn’t an option for them and played that way.
So much of sport is played out in the head. Ireland need to carry a genuine belief that they can beat New Zealand tomorrow but, in my experience, a fear that you could be made look foolish unless you do everything in your power to negate the qualities they bring to the contest will serve the Irish cause well.
That fear, allied to the mindset of the opposition when they are overwhelming favourites, dictates just why games against superior opposition can be much closer than you might expect. After all, in their two games in Europe so far, New Zealand only beat a French team that finished bottom of the Six Nations last season by seven points and England by eight.
New Zealand are fully aware that the biggest obstacle tomorrow is themselves. Speaking at the official handover of the World Cup to the IRB last Monday night, Richie McCaw commented: “For those of us who have been around a while, we know that the games where we haven’t performed have been something to do with the mindset or attitude in terms of preparation, so that’s what we have to get right”.
McCaw admits mental frailty was a key element in their defeat to England in the corresponding game last season. After what happened against the Wallabies one would expect Ireland, as wounded hosts, will be breathing fire tomorrow. Question is, will it be enough?
An early barometer of where Ireland are at in the ‘emotional intensity’ scale can be gauged by the ferocity with which they compete at the breakdown. This key area is, and always has been, New Zealand’s stock in trade. Last week , the English forwards gave them a torrid time in the set-piece but once again it was the visitors’ facility to clean out opposition bodies at the breakdown, creating quick ball at vital times, that separated the two teams at the end.
New Zealand are clinical at converting opportunities into tries and therefore only need a limited number of chances in any game to punish the opposition. Therefore, even if Ireland manage significant improvements in the scrum and lineout from last week but fail to compete with New Zealand on the floor and in the contact area, they will be in for a very long day.
As a priority, Ireland need to stop the New Zealand forwards dominating the three feet beyond the ball. They are expert in creating a distance between the ball on the deck and the opposition, which offers Aaron Smith a field day at scrum-half. He is fast becoming one of New Zealand’s most influential players and Ireland need to get numbers to the ruck early in order to frustrate him.
Sean O’Brien will have his hands full dealing with McCaw. He cannot operate on his own and needs support from the nearest Irish player, be that a back or a forward, in cleaning out New Zealand bodies before they get hands on the ball. If New Zealand are allowed to dictate the speed of delivery from the breakdown in the manner Australia did last weekend, they will rip you apart.
There were unrealistic expectations in advance of this series that Joe Schmidt would wave a magic wand and Ireland’s recent ills, in terms of their shape and accuracy in attack, would be resolved immediately. The big surprise, however, given Leinster’s defensive solidity under Schmidt, has been the misreads and uncertainty in defence.
That has to be resolved and reuniting Sexton, D’Arcy and O’Driscoll — subject to fitness — in midfield will aid that process.
Against Samoa and Australia, confusion reigned in defence. Fortunately, those lapses went unpunished against Samoa when they made a number of line breaks but failed to convert. Australia sensed vulnerability in the wide channels from an early stage and they had the smarts to exploit this with first-half tries, manufactured in the 15m tramlines and finished off superbly by Nick Cummins and Michael Hooper.
The mix-up in defence between Ian Madigan and Luke Marshall was also inexcusable. Ten metres from your goal-line, the drift defence goes out the window. You must come up hard and smash the man in front of you. If the referee penalises you for tackling a man without the ball, so be it.
The worry tomorrow is that New Zealand will need no second invitation and are even more clinical than the Wallabies. In that classic game against South Africa at Ellis Park last month, Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer described the difference between the sides thus: “We had 19 line breaks against them and converted four. They had seven and converted five”.
If New Zealand sniff even a hint of hesitancy in the defensive system, Ireland will be brutally exposed. I would therefore expect Ireland to blitz from the outside in and pressurise Aaron Cruden and Ben Smith in particular. Smith was outstanding in the Rugby Championship but operated on the wing in all of those games, while he was at full-back for the majority of the Highlanders games in the Super 15.
He has operated at outside centre on this tour, with Conrad Smith currently on a rugby sabbatical, and Ireland need to exploit his relative lack of international experience as a midfield back. The key is to break the chain in their attacking formation and stop them before they manage to generate any momentum. That won’t be easy but increased line speed and a far more aggressive kick/chase game than we saw over the last two weeks will aid Ireland’s cause immeasurably.
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