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All Blacks vs Ireland: How can the Irish contain the juggernaut?

An Irish fan shows her support ahead of their Rugby World Cup match against Australia at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011.(AP Photo/Ross Land)
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4th November, 2016
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The Spring Tour / Autumn Internationals are finally upon us! To say I have been ecstatic of late would be an understatement of gargantuan proportions.

I’ve been like a 14-year-old girl at a One Direction concert. And while I have to wait a week for my Beloved England to run out, I’m perfectly content with the action we have approaching us this weekend.

Of which there is loads to discuss.

I’ll be doing one of these articles for each of the games if I can. But first up, not in terms of timing but excitement for me, is Ireland versus New Zealand.

The All Blacks

Coming off the back of the Rugby Championship, I’m still in disbelief at how ruthless the All Blacks have been.

Their try-fest against the Boks in Durban was arguably one of the greatest demonstrations of instinctive, counter attack and running rugby I have ever seen.

What surprised me even more was how the Boks did not adapt their gameplan at all, and kept on providing them the exact platform they wanted to launch their counter attack.

Barrett has been a revelation. Smith, along with the back three, instrumental in identifying space and exploiting it. Forwards shifting the ball on the gainline and Dane Cole playing like a 10 make a rollicking sight..

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Even for me, there’s too much there to talk about. But quite simply, I see this All Blacks team being untouchable for a good two-three years. They are one of the only teams out there that can afford to focus entirely on imposing their own game and not focusing on stopping the opposition, which is really how Ireland will partly hope to remain competitive in this game.

As for how the teams will play, the All Blacks will look to put on a show in this Test. They’re playing in Soldier Field, a place where they have active interests in growing rugby, and the entertainment of a 15 man free flowing Rugby game will certainly foster its fans in the Americans.

One thing I have noted over the Rugby Championship is while they have always had their 2-4-2 structure in place, they have made significant strides in not so much removing it, but certainly becoming far more fluid and less dependent on it.

In the Kiwi 2-4-2 system, you’ll usually have your forwards split along the field in the above pattern, with 6/2 usually on one side, 1/3/4/5 on the centre and your 7/8 on the other.

The basic pattern has worked immeasurably well for ball retention and allowing width in the All Blacks game, and simultaneously with the skill of the All Blacks forwards, allows the ball down the open or blind with little or no inaccuracy.

The Central Forward Pod (CFP) could punch up field, constricting defenders in the centre before they moved the ball wide with multiple players having the ability to play first receiver, passing flat, straight lines, and with the use of clever decoy running.

After they had broken the gainline, the ball would then be passed back to the centre forward pod, who would normally have scanned and performed some kind of deceptive interplay among themselves that led to more metres gained. For example, a short pop pass off a hard shoulder, before moving the ball to the other side.

They also usually had a fixed number of backs on each side to prevent outnumbering in defence should the ball be turned over.

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Where the All Blacks have modified this however, is the use and placement of their backs, greater exploitation of space, and higher emphasis on skillsets and fitness.

If I had the ability to place photos in illustrating my point I would, but alas I’m not so tech savvy. So I will do my best to explain my point via examples of gain play.

The All Blakcs now trust themselves to the extreme. They always did, but now, so confident and precise are their skills that they no longer worry about having a relatively even number of backs across the field.

In fact, to create many of their overlaps from the CFP, they flood one side of the pod with more backs then the other. Creating a number mismatch and light overlap. Via draw and pass and their skills, they increase these overlaps.

For the opposition, the space created from this via a turnover could be invaluable. A few long passes and you could be looking at a 5 on 1 scenario. However, the All Blacks don’t worry about this anymore.

The reasons being are first that they don’t have to worry about the ball being turned over, as their forwards on the wings are fast and fit enough to be in close support when the wide runners are bought down, allowing them to be clearing out 15s and 10 Jackals with the overlap. It’s a physical mismatch and likely man off-feet penalty situation if I ever saw one. Advantage All Blacks.

Secondly, other teams are not the All Blacks. Many of the other teams lack the skills or processes, or simply are not ruthless enough to take advantage of this created space. When an NZ player turns the ball, the line immediately scans and identifies where the space is, and the ball is put into that space, while every player does all he can to commit players in the passage to that area of the field.

No other team has this skillset, hence kick chase is the likely option to get the ball to that area. And with New Zealand’s back three, it just results in an in inconsequential territorial loss.

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The Flood
As covered above, the main change in the All Blacks attacking strategy is what I like to call ‘The Flood’. A ruck may get to the 15 metre line. The backs on the shortside will move over to the open, further downfield then the CFP. The forwards in the centre pass the ball back behind to a waiting ball player or shepherd the ball down the line while drawing defenders, and simply put, you have more attackers on the openside then you do defenders.

The other major change I have noticed is the removal of one phase of the Central Forward Pod. Or a greater tendency to go wide quicker.

Against Ireland in 2013, one phase before Ryan Crotty’s final try, Ma’a Nonu stood at first receiver with a view to pass to the Frank’s brothers at the centre. After which, the ball was shipped to Aaron Cruden, Coles, and then Crotty, for the last gasp try. Two phases in total from edge to edge.

Against Argentina in the pool stages of the World Cup, we saw the change in the CFP shift rather than taking the ball into contact.

This is when I first observed the ‘flood’, with vast numbers on one side of the pitch and the number of defenders lacking. This mismatch in numbers owes a huge part to the All Blacks fitness, and communication. The time it takes for the All Blacks players to flood the openside after exploiting the short, is outstanding.

The back majority line are moving over to the openside, getting ready for the ball as the forwards and blindside winger are working their way down the shortside, attracting more defenders.

The lack of the CFP going to contact here is huge. Removal of this phase, allows the All Blacks to keep their foot on the throat of the opposition. The CFP taking the ball to contact would allow time, time the defence could use to drift over from the short to the flooded side of the field, and number up against the extra attackers, nullifying the numbers situation the All Blacks have created.

By shifting the ball straight on from the CFP in the wide to wide pattern, the CFP attract defenders from running, and do not give the defence time to drift onto the flooded line, allowing more chance of the All Blacks scoring a try.

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This takes incredible positional play, and fitness to keep doing for 80 minutes. The fitness and efficiency was focused on in a previous article of mine, and highlights the aerobic capacity of the All Blacks to keep doing this throughout the game.

The side trust their structures, but with the fitness they possess, they now have enhanced and modified them to an even greater level, to create situations where they always almost have numbers.

To beat this is sensationally hard. Firstly, you have to be as fit as the All Blacks to counter their flooding process, and allow yourself the capacity to number up against them.

You also have to be select and smart with your efforts, as stopping the All Blacks playing their game is hard enough. But then on top of that, you have to come up with your own.

Ireland’s Chances

I’ll break this down into two parts; attack and defence.

Not much longer to go! We’re on the home stretch.

Defence
Andy Farrell’s defensive system could have dividends here, though the replacements of the bench will have a very important role.

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The All Blacks will be forced to play deeper then they would normally like, as Farrell’s system is all about line speed, taking out the man at the first/second receiver rather than drifting and inviting the All Blacks to carry out their plays (aka death).

Ireland will look to interrupt the plays before they have a chance to play out. Pressure the All Blacks into making mistakes, and most importantly, look to turn the ball over at the wings. Joe Schmidt has two, highly competent kickers at 9 and 10 with Conor Murray and John Sexton.

I would not be surprised to see the two of them kicking to their open side with deep of cross field kicks into the space created from the flood should turnovers happen.

They have some fast wingers, and at the very least, they will be able to pressure and play territory in that regard by kicking close to the touchline.

The fitness will need to be huge for this to work. As the press defence of such intensity will be very draining on the Irish players, as the game goes on, the replacements will have a big job to do to maintain it.

Andy Farrell will be hoping his side’s line speed will stop the All Blacks being able to go wide. This will only happen for a limited time if the All Blacks go all out. And the Irish will need to be spot on to have to stop all of the above. It is a monumental challenge.

Attack

Joe Schmidt is one of the wiliest operators in world rugby. And, the luck of the Irish, some of his favourite plays are directed at an area that has proven one of the All Blacks weaknesses thus far this year.

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The fringe of the ruck is one for Joe Schmidt, who loves these attacks, and I do too. Against a drift defence, if you set up that you’re going wide and fool the opposition into believing this from earlier moves, you could be laughing.

Off this family of move, that my club call Scythers flow as follows:

  • The 9 will pass to a hard running 8 who targets the outside shoulders of the first defenders off the ruck.
  • Your 9 continues running a sideways line, preparing to take the loop pass, and pop it out wide to 10.
  • This activates the drift defence. The 8, instead of passing to the 9, pops (preferably) a long pass to your 15 who is running a hard line from the shortside to the open side fringe of the ruck. Meanwhile, your forwards in the ruck are holding onto any players they can get their hands on for dear life, keeping the fringe nice and unoccupied.

This is classic Joe Schmidt redirection. And a great play. The 10 and his backline will be running through as support to take the ball down the line and get some great go forward ball.

You can expect Schmidt to target the All Blacks mercilessly here. I expect the tight 5 to be going hard at the Fringes, just like Argentina, before going wide. Going wide, the Irish could be dangerous. Ireland are developing their game under Schmidt.

Against South Africa, they incorporated more and more runners running through tackled players off the shoulder rather than just behind, a tell tale sign of offloading practice, which in the past has not always been the Schmidt way. On top of this, there will be a lot, of contestable kicks.

Indeed, this was a key strategy of Ireland in the 2014/2015 seasons. With the back three running through the line to catch expertly struck Garry Owens from Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton.

Schmidt is a smart coach, and will not kick straight to the All Black back three like the Boks did. I see Ireland giving the All Blacks a headache in the first half of the game, and indeed, once they’ve settled into the game, show areas of weakness that may not have been seen this year.

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A fearless prediction? I fully expect the men in black to streak to 19 wins. The skills and fitness will make all the difference. The quality of their bench is sensational.

And while looking forward to a good game, the Irish will not be able to cope with the intensity that they can bring to the fore. If they can take their chances, the All Blacks have an off day, and Ireland follow Schmidt’s gameplan to the letter, Irish eyes could be smiling and scare New Zealand.