Ronan O'Gara: Why Sam Whitelock's absence is a second test game-changer

Crusader is a modern-day Paul O’Connell with an IQ that very few people in world rugby have or appreciate
Ronan O'Gara: Why Sam Whitelock's absence is a second test game-changer

BIG MISS: The All Blacks will feel the absence of talisman Sam Whitelock in Dunedin on Saturday.

Of all the reasons for Ireland to have a palpable sense that their test series in New Zealand is still up for grabs, nothing compares in real terms to the All Blacks losing their standard-setter, Sam Whitelock.

The Crusaders lock’s unavailability due to delayed concussion equates to a massive development in terms of a momentum shift. Whitelock is a ten-to-fifteen point game-changer for the All Blacks and if that sounds crazy, it is a measure of the significance I afford his absence having watched and worked at close hand with Sam for two years in Christchurch.

Whitelock is a modern-day Paul O’Connell with an IQ that very few people in world rugby have or appreciate. He has a remarkable grasp of how to run a week, of how to react in real-time under pressure, and how to ensure a unit operates to a level far higher than the sum of its individual parts.

Let’s use prop and Crusader colleague George Bower as an example. Bower had a storming afternoon in the front row in Auckland. When I arrived in Christchurch in 2018, he was a fourth or fifth-choice club player, before getting a break and working in the same pack as Whitelock with the Crusaders. He got an opportunity last Saturday and grabbed it, but this idea that he was always an All Black-in-waiting and destined to play at the highest level is nonsense. 

Like so many others, he has thrived in a good environment of which Whitelock is a central tenet. And without him on Saturday in Dunedin, there is a slightly callow, perhaps fragile, look again to this New Zealand squad. For all the fizz that George Bower brought to the first game in Auckland, there is every chance he performs nothing like that in the second test. He, and others, no longer have the stabilising influence of Sam behind them, and that is very significant. His influence is incalculable. That’s how far I would push it. He left a lasting impression on me, most notably for his capacity to process and assimilate thoughts in the now and to be able to produce big plays and big leadership for his team. 

You’d swear he was a playing coach.

I file this in advance of seeing the All Blacks XV but I would expect Will Jordan to come in on the wing and Sevu Reece to switch over to 11. With David Havili and Jack Goodhue available again, has Quinn Tupaea put enough credit in store to keep his place at centre? I wouldn’t be sure. So there will be changes in the backline.

For all the sighs of relief in New Zealand and the assumption that doubts about management, physicality and structure have been put to bed, the All Blacks are not out of the woods, even after thumping Ireland. The tourists caused their hosts enough issues in short bursts last week to feel they can win a first test match on New Zealand soil.

That all presupposes that Andy Farrell and the players have rectified their own issues from the first test. And I’m fairly certain that some issues and dilemmas are not sortable in seven days.

They committed the ultimate sin of turning over good field position and possession for a runback score in the first quarter. Away from home, that’s never smart but what it did was buy the All Blacks, a vulnerable All Blacks, energy and confidence. Believe me, without Whitelock, this is an average enough New Zealand team compared to what has gone before.

However, it’s worth assessing how, despite a promising opening, the first test ran away from Ireland by half-time. The game was dead at the interval and management realise there’s a lot of work and assessment to be done when the first game is over that early. Whether it was England in Perth or Wales in Pretoria, that didn't happen elsewhere last Saturday.

Ian Foster and his players were on the back foot after what happened in their last two tests of 2021 in Dublin and Paris. For Ireland to be guilty of a passage of loose play is one thing, and even conceding the try to Seve Reece off the back of it is redeemable. What was troubling was how Ireland singularly failed to rediscover their composure and limit the damage when New Zealand tails were up.

Why do you depart from script and structure? Invariably it’s because thought processes are shredded by stress. Ireland’s is a systematic brand of rugby, with set structures. The players need detail and when the opposition torpedoes that sense of order, much of that is lost in the chaos.

People use terms like playing ‘unstructured’ rugby as an aspiration for Irish rugby. That’s not going to happen because it’s not in the Irish rugby psyche. You can work to keep the ball alive. That is essential to ensure you can move beyond a tactical strait-jacket. Getting the detail and structure aligned is a massive advantage but it's not the only way. There has to be balance, there has to be the freedom to change in real time.

Ireland do not know how to play unstructured rugby and that won’t change. They are the descendants of a systems-based playing style and it’s not something they can (or would be inclined to) throw overboard. There has been moves towards an offloading game and one ill-advised pass in Auckland shouldn’t change that. 

But to some degree we remain slaves to our (relatively) successful past. Ireland is at a very interesting juncture now in the evolution of playing styles before the 2023 World Cup, which is now just 15 months away. Where Ireland is in that process is the real intrigue for me. Does Andy Farrell plough on and devise a more expansive structure or do they revert to the detailed structured style that has served them well between World Cup cycles but not at the global spectacular. That is the conundrum and how poorly Ireland managed the game after that second All Black try nourishes the conservative view.

In the opening fifteen minutes, there was some nice chip kicks from Johnny Sexton. That’s nice, instinctive, good reading of the situation – it’s not unstructured rugby by any means. Whether they got a bit giddy at that point is neither here nor there. Forget the Reece try – that is damage that can be rectified, but there were two more tries before half-time – that’s the most damaging part of the Ireland effort and the focus of their work ahead of Dunedin.

Watching from a distance now, the New Zealand mindset without Whitelock is the intriguing bit. Those question marks haven’t disappeared in eighty minutes but they will head to Dunedin in a more relaxed mindset. Does that create danger or opportunity for Ireland? What you can’t have is the hosts powering into an early fourteen-point lead, because that’s ugly territory you are heading into.

What Paul O’Connell was saying during the week about accuracy would indicate Ireland weren’t happy with the ruck or the lineout. Knowing him as I do Whitelock, that can be taken as read that the Irish players will be given very good evidence-based solutions to rectify those issues in the second test.

With maybe one exception, the Ireland side will be the same as Auckland, whereas I thought there might be a couple of changes to the All Blacks team.

Instead Will Jordan is added to the replacements while Leicester Fainga’anuku and Quinn Tupaea remain in situ. I’m not certain New Zealand have achieved the right balance. I’d still prefer Richie Mounga to Beauden Barrett at ten but maybe that’s a Crusader thing.

With Whitelock missing, the machine that is Scott Barrett will most likely move up one to the second row. It was somewhat remarkable that his charge in from the side on Peter O’Mahony didn’t get looked at by the match officials but this is less a hometown thing than a general issue with the consistency of officialdom across the rugby world. 

An Irish test victory would be an important historical marker but of greater import is where the balance is at for the players between the detail they are given and the licence they have to go free-range. It was not something they handled well in Auckland.

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