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SPIRO: Are the All Blacks and Ireland hiding their best stuff?

Joe Schmidt and Ireland. (AFP PHOTO / PAUL FAITH)
Expert
5th October, 2015
124
7390 Reads

Even before the 2015 Rugby World Cup, All Blacks great Ian Jones, now a smart ground commentator, declared that New Zealand would keep a lot of their plays back before unleashing them during the finals.

In my opinion, this notion about keeping your best stuff back is too smart by half. It can lead to teams being so determined not to show off all their tricks that they lose the form and the confidence to play their best stuff when they finally want to play it.

The All Blacks suffered from this syndrome in the quarter-final at the 2007 Rugby World Cup when they came up against a resilient, determined French side, and – it must be stated – a referee determined not to give them penalties. The result was a character-testing, searing loss.

Sir Graham Henry disputes this analysis. He says that the All Blacks played so well in the pool rounds at the 2007 World Cup, especially in their opening match against Italy, that they didn’t really toughen up their game for the quarter-final against the host nation of the tournament.

Given this background, it was fascinating to read the media conference given by Steve Hansen after the All Blacks struggled to a 43-10 victory over Georgia, at Cardiff.

Before the match, Hansen explained that the All Blacks were going to field their best starting XV against Georgia and Tonga, their last two pool round matches before the finals series started.

This best All Blacks XV started brilliantly. From their first lineout they brought Waiseke Naholo into the backline from a slick move and the winger raced 60 metres or so to score one of the best individual tries of the tournament.

Early on in the game, it looked as though the All Blacks were playing at a run-a-ball, one-day cricket rate when they piled on 22 points in 22 minutes.

Then for the next 30 minutes they struggled. They made numerous handling errors (19 for the match) against a dogged defence. Then in the last 15 minutes or so, the All Blacks surged again.

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The New Zealand rugby media were scathing. Duncan Johnstone on Stuff criticised the weak play of Jerome Kaino, the All Blacks’ “scrum problems”, Conrad Smith’s lack of incisive play, Dan Carter’s “eroding confidence” and Kieran Read being out of form.

“Tactics count for little when a team is guilty of basic errors, handicapping their play with dropped passes, turnovers, loose lineout throws, missed tackles, poor field kicking and sideways backline movement.”

Oh dear, perhaps the All Blacks supporters need to cash in their tickets for the finals, already!

Or perhaps not.

Just listen to Hansen talking about the “perfect work-out” against Georgia.

“We wanted to build parts of our game that we know we are going to need later on in this competition if we are going to survive in it. Now that’s been to the detriment of some other stuff that you normally work on.”

According to Hansen, the All Blacks deliberately restricted their kicking game to force their players to cope with playing under intense pressure that the tough, abrasive Georgian applied to them.

Hansen is a smart coach. His record with the All Blacks of two losses in four years testifies to this. It seems to me that he is trying to ensure that the weakish pool the All Blacks are playing in (with only the Pumas as a challenge) does not lull his team into a false sense of security.

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If the opposition does not apply pressure, he is saying, the All Blacks will put themselves under pressure.

“Everyone’s told us that we’ve got this weak pool, so that’s how we manufacture something that allows us to practice stuff that we’re going to get later on.”

Hansen is also doing some interesting things with the shape of the All Blacks side. He went into the Georgia match, for instance, without a reserve second-rower.

He dropped Tony Woodcock and Owen Franks from the front row. When they came on late in the match against Georgia they stiffened up an All Blacks scrum that had been wilting a bit.

And Victor Vito was used later in the match on the wing. Is there a clue here to what the All Blacks might do, late in a match against, say, the Wallabies, if these teams meet up during the finals?

Gregor Paul, in The New Zealand Herald, makes the point that Georgia had “only one man in the backfield” and kicking would have been “the right ploy in the circumstances”. But by refusing to do this, the All Blacks exposed themselves to a rush defence “where the Georgian licensed a lone tackler to come out of the line and target a potential recipient”.

It took the All Blacks some time, “an age”, to deal with these tactics, “but they got there”.

I agree with Paul on all of this. I wonder, though, whether Hansen is going to tweak his starting loose forward trio with Vito replacing Kaino (as he did at Eden Park) and replacing Conrad Smith with Malakai Fekitoa in the last pool match against Tonga.

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Points for and against so far in the World Cup by the leading teams make interesting reading:

New Zealand: for 127, against 40 (the best attack)
Ireland: for 110, against 26 (the best defence)
Australia: for 126, against 29
Wales: for 105, against 47
South Africa: for 112, against 56
France: for 111, against 39

***

Paul O’Connell, Ireland’s inspirational captain, watched the All Blacks fluctuating victory over Georgia, and was impressed with the Georgians.

“I know that some of the errors that the All Blacks made were unforced, but certainly a lot of them were forced as well by really hard line speed and organised defence. It was a brilliant game to watch and I thought Georgia were excellent.”

By changing the All Blacks to Ireland and Georgia to Italy, the same sort of comments could be made about Ireland’s match against Italy.

Ireland’s tough 16-9 victory over Italy was their first match in the 2015 World Cup against a tier one nation. They made a lot of mistakes. But they kept Italy tryless and scored their winning try through a lively Keith Earls early on. It became the decisive factor in the outcome of the match.

Italy played very well, much like the team of 2013 which beat Ireland and France in the Six Nations tournament. You had the sense, though, that Ireland were playing within themselves, as they have throughout this World Cup.

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The outcome of their last pool round match against an unbeaten France will provide a real indication of the relative strengths of the two teams. Both of them are going into the finals, but the winner avoids going into the All Blacks’ side of the finals draw.

I am surprised that New Zealand rugby writers are expecting France to defeat Ireland on Sunday, October 11 at the Millennium Stadium. I would have thought that as the Six Nations champions, Ireland would start as favourites against any other European side.

The referee for this match is Nigel Owens. I would think, too, that this is a trial for him as the possible referee for the World Cup final, provided Wales are not one of the contending teams.

Earlier in the year I wrote a piece on The Roar headlined: “Alive, alive Oh! Ireland exposes England’s power game.”

The article praised the coaching of Ireland’s coach, the New Zealander Joe Schmidt, and his ability to suss out the weaknesses in an opposition and then present a winning gameplan for his side.

“Schmidt worked out England brilliantly. He saw that without Mike Brown or Ben Foden there was no threat of running the ball from the back three … conflating this weakness is the fact that the England pack is a fleet of tanks: tough, slow-moving, and built to smash forward gradually. There is no real pace in this pack … so Ireland kicked the ball an astonishing 44 times.’

I predicted, also, from this analysis that Ireland’s 16-9 defeat of England “suggests that Ireland, rather than England, will be the great hope of the northern hemisphere to win the 2015 Rugby World Cup”.

This prediction seems to me to be very much alive. I would think that the Wallabies will beat Wales next weekend at Twickenham, with the South African referee Craig Joubert who, like Owens, is trialling for a second Rugby World Cup final appearance.

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What I like about the current Ireland side is that under Schmidt they have got into the habit of winning. Since Schmidt took over in 2013, Ireland have won 18 of their 22 Tests. They have played 11 nations and have beaten all of them at least once, except the All Blacks.

The All Blacks, it will be remembered, beat Ireland in injury time in 2013, 24-22, after Ireland had led 19-0 at one stage in the match.

Schmidt is a coach who is very much in the Sir Graham Henry mode. He makes the structures of his teams very reliable. From this foundation, he then builds on the complex parts of the Ireland game, both on attack and defence.

He has hard man O’Connell running the forwards and probably the best No.10 currently in world rugby, Johnny Sexton, directing the team around the field.

So far in this World Cup, Ireland have reflected Schmidt’s detailed, meticulous coaching style. They wore down Romania for a bonus point 44-10 win. This was in front of a Rugby World Cup record crowd at Wembley. Ireland, too, fielded the oldest starting XV in Rugby World Cup history for this match, with an average age of 29 years and 245 days.

An equally clinical six-try 50-7 win over Canada followed this. And then the hard-fought 16-9 win over Italy where Ireland, in all probability, rather like New Zealand against Georgia, held something back.

To beat France in the decisive match of their pool, though, you would think that Ireland will have to bring out their total game. In my view, this should be enough to give Ireland a victory and the entry into a quarter-final against the Pumas.

***

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Can Ireland go all the way in the 2015 World Cup?

On July 24 2015, Stuff published an analytical article that had something to say on this issue: “Will Ireland beat the All Blacks at the 2015 Rugby World Cup?”

The authors of the article were Bill Farrell and Elsa Jordaan. They used forensic data created by a EY data analytics team.

According to Farrell and Jordaan, Ireland have a 35 per cent chance of winning an ‘away’ match against a southern hemisphere side. We should remember this, perhaps, if Ireland play the Wallabies or the Springboks in the finals.

The All Blacks have a 73 per cent record against northern hemisphere sides in an ‘away’ match. The All Blacks, too, have been a successful side at the World Cup: two wins (1987, 2011), runner-up (1995), two third places (1991, 2003), one fourth place (1999).

While having had no real success at the World Cup, Ireland have won the last two Six Nations tournaments.

Farrell and Jordaan, after setting out these facts, then invoke “The Rule of 3”.

“The probability of a very rare event is three, divided by the number of observations tested. In this instance, the probability of Ireland defeating the All Blacks is 3/28 (the number of matches they have played) = 11 per cent.”

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This analysis is not going to be tested at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. I can’t see Ireland, despite the fact that Schmidt is an excellent coach, making the final.

My fearless prediction is for a Wallabies versus All Blacks final.