The difference between Ireland and New Zealand can be summed up in a few words after Saturday’s defeat.
“Thirty-four points” would be accurate, but a little reductive. After all, you know the result by now. The clear difference was in the tactical approach New Zealand took in everything from their game sheet to their selection.
To understand how to attack the All Blacks, you have to understand how they tend to defend more often than not. On Saturday, the All Blacks were defending with 12/13 men in their primary defensive line with two/three players rotating in the backfield and wings to coverkick options and track Ireland as they moved across the field depending on where on the field the ball is.
If New Zealand are defending in your half of the field, they’ll have 12 players in the primary line, with Mo’unga, Barrett, Bridge/Reece in the backfield to cover kick exits. Teams like Ireland and South Africa, on the other hand, use 13/14 men in their primary defensive line to fill the field and blitz into the opposition passing lanes with the likes of Rob Kearney patrolling the backfield.
Put simply, if you can keep more men on their feet and pressing into the opposition’s passing and carrying lanes, you’ll be more likely to win defensive collisions and force mistakes out of the opposition. This system has key weaknesses — usually behind the wingers on the edges of the defensive press — but it’s been shown to be hugely effective if done right.
With this knowledge, we know that the biggest danger to the New Zealand defensive system is being unbalanced in their relatively narrow defensive line.
How does a line get unbalanced?
You unbalance a narrow defensive line by varying the points at which you carry the ball into it.
Mix that variance in ruck point with strong ball carrying and the threat of other ball carriers and you have a combination that has stressed the All Blacks defensive system previously. If the All Blacks lose three players to a ruck on the left-hand side of the field and then lose another two to a ruck nearby, that leaves seven defenders to cover a large area of the field.
If you can get quick ball at the ruck, a guy like Sexton can pick those seven defenders apart to create linebreaks or tries.
Variation is the key
A key aspect of Ireland’s work against the All Blacks in 2018 was the amount of variety we had in the ball carriers we used.
Ringrose had 25 possessions. That is to say, he kicked the ball once, carried the ball 14 times and passed the ball 10 times. Aki had 23 possessions. Kearney had 13 possessions. On Saturday, Ringrose touched the ball nine times, Henshaw 13 times, Kearney eight times.
So what happened?
A succession of handling errors prevented Ireland from getting into position to unbalance the All Blacks primary defensive line.
When Ireland play at their best, they retain possession for multiple narrow phases off the scrum-half before releasing the ball through Sexton to a big-hitting midfielder — an Aki or Henshaw and then either (a) restarting the process (b) launching a preplanned “strike move” to generate a linebreak or (c)getting the ball to Sexton sohe can take advantage of a mismatch or an overlap that’s been generated by the work done earlier.
On Saturday, Ireland weren’t able to retain possession when playing off Murray and lost the ball at key junctures when they tried to “release” it to the likes of Henshaw, Earls, and even Sexton himself. That comes down to better New Zealand defence on those narrow Irish phases and managing to force those key errors. Ireland’s general drop in “accuracy” has to be looked at too.
Accuracy sounds like a rugby buzzword — and it is — but it describes how efficient a team is with retaining their possession of the ball. Hitting breakdowns with accuracy mean that you get quick ball, quick ball means the opposition defence can’t set themselves, and an opposition that can’t set themselves are easier to play through and around.
When you’re accurate over multiple rucks, the opposition get boxed into playing on your terms, even if you’re not making huge gains from a territory perspective. When Ireland play with this kind of accuracy, they are very difficult to stop because, again, you see guys like Healy, Ryan, Stander, Henderson and Aki/Henshaw carrying the ball with lots of support around them.
When Ireland aren’t accurate — through opposition pressure or individual errors — they look like a malfunctioning robot battering its head off a wall. It might not feel like it, but Ireland had 50% possession on Saturday. The key difference is Ireland couldn’t get their primary game into play and New Zealand did.
New Zealand’s use of the ball was far more varied than Ireland’s. In September, I made a fist at predicting the All Blacks’ XV for this weekend’s game and one of the key parts of my thought process was on how they would stack their midfield.
After watching our game against the All Blacks in 2018 back a few times, they consistently missed a big physical outlet on their edge plays when they couldn’t find Ardie Savea. Hansen left out Ryan Crotty — a key defensive organiser — for the more dynamic and physical pairing of Jack Goodhue and Anton Lienert-Brown with Sonny Bill Williams on the bench.
Both Goodhue and Lienert-Brown had a big effect on this game and were effective twin carrying threats for the All Blacks’ dual playmakers to use again and again.
Variation. Width. A low error count.
Ireland, on the other count, were narrow, predictable and had an error count that would make your hair fall out. The hard truth is, Ireland weren’t good enough on Saturday. Ireland slipped in 2019. But we’ll rebuild and go again, as England did in the aftermath of 2015. What’s the alternative?
If Ireland can keep the provinces strong, back the talent we have in our system, and take it one year at a time, we can improve. But for now, it’s hurt, recrimination, and misery. A four-year tradition. It hurts, but it’s supposed to. Thanks for the memories, Joe. But on we go.