Category Archives: New Zealand Tour

Miserable End to Ireland’s Season (Part 1)

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Ireland’s season ended in the worst possible way on Saturday, a 60-0 annihilation by the All Blacks. The narrow loss in the 2nd test had given us all hope of another strong performance, but Ireland turned in their worst display in recent memory. While the All Blacks were at their excellent best, Ireland were at their unacceptable worst. Regardless of injuries to Ferris, O’Connell and Bowe, and the oft-repeated excuse of a long, arduous season, Ireland should never lose a game by 60 points.

One of the most frustrating aspects of this loss was that Ireland suffered from the same weaknesses that affected them in the 1st test, and throughout the rest of the season. The passive nature of the defence was the prime example. Ireland have shown that an aggressive, proactive defensive system suits them far more. The 2nd test in Christchurch, as well as the 17-17 draw with France in this year’s Six Nations showed that Ireland are far harder to break down when get up hard off the defensive line. On Saturday, this failed to happen and the All Blacks ran riot.

The first of the All Blacks tries came about after something of a lucky bounce after Aaron Smith kicked through. The hosts went through several phases, keeping their attacking shape superbly, particularly as they went left-to-right. Conrad Smith then made a big surge and Ireland were caught numbers down on the right-hand side. Pause the video above on 9:17 and you’ll see Paddy Wallace has recognised that the All Blacks essentially have a 4 v 3 and is signaling for help. Aaron Smith’s usual quick service allows Sonny Bill Williams to use his footwork and then Cruden gets the offload away for Cane to score.

All Blacks vs. Ireland

(c) Geof Wilson.

The try reminded me of the first score we conceded against Wales in the Six Nations this year. We were caught numbers down in a narrow channel close to the touchline, but in both cases, Ireland’s defence could have been more aggressive. Obviously, it’s preferable never to be outnumbered, but it will happen and there must be a strong reaction, especially the close to the try-line. SBW’s little bit of footwork made Wallace and Earls momentarily sit back on their heels, when they, and Kev McLaughlin outside them, needed to be far more decisive (Watch from 8:05 for the entire passage of play).

The second All Blacks try came directly from 1st phase ball off a scrum, something of a rarity in international rugby. I don’t want to take anything away from Cruden’s magical offload, but again Ireland’s passivity was central. The All Blacks were playing off a scrum going forward, but still Ireland’s defence just wasn’t good enough. As soon as an outhalf attacks the gain line like Cruden did, the defence needs to step up and close down the space around him. Cruden was never going to be able to throw a long pass in that situation so it’s time to bite in and hit someone.

All thoughts of drifting across the pitch should have left the Sexton, Wallace and O’Driscoll’s minds. They should be looking instead to get up off the defensive line  and smash Cruden. But pause the video at 15.30 and you’ll see Sexton planted on his heels and Wallace actually taking steps backwards. Yes, the scrum went forward, giving the All Blacks a big advantage but these are still elementary errors. Fergus McFadden is completely ineffectual sweeping across behind the ‘D’. He doesn’t even lay a hand on SBW as he bursts through. Again, a lack of intent in defence. (Watch from 14:53).

All Blacks vs. Ireland

Ireland’s defensive line speed simply wasn’t quick enough. (c) Geof Wilson.

SBW’s second score, just 7 minutes later, was perhaps the weakest of the 9 Ireland conceded. Again, it was an effective All Blacks attack, with quickly recycled ball and lots of momentum. But to be cut apart by a simple switch that close to the tryline is poor. Unfortunately, Paddy Wallace was involved again. Between himself and Dan Tuohy, Williams simply had to brought down, especially as the bodies were in the right positions defensively. The line speed was again slow and Cruden had plenty of time to skip and burst on a wide angle, setting Williams up. (Watch from 20:45).

After the 1st test, I wrote that Ireland needed to cut out the unforced errors, highlighting how each of the All Blacks’ 5 tries that day stemmed from Irish mistakes. Well, try 4 was horribly similar to some of the tries we conceded in the 1st test. Seconds after throwing a pass straight into touch, Brian O’Driscoll dropped a switch pass from Wallace on the All Blacks’ 22, and the most clinical team in the world punished Ireland to the full extent. It was shocking inaccuracy to botch a simple switch, and summed up Ireland’s lack of accuracy and directness in attack.

That 4th try, from Ben Smith, came in the 23rd minute, and Ireland didn’t concede another until the 43rd. So what happened in between? Ireland actually enjoyed plenty of possession during this period, but failed to make it count. The Irish attack was blunt to say the least, with just 1 clean line-break in the entire 80 minutes, from lock Donnacha Ryan. The main attacking play Ireland looked to use was a simple screen, putting the pass behind a decoy runner, to a deeper lying player running on a wide angle.

All Blacks vs. Ireland

(c) Geof Wilson.

With the All Blacks’ defensive line speed very quick, it simply didn’t work for Ireland. The lack of accuracy even extended to simple plays like this. Check out 30:20 for one example of the move, with Ireland actually conceding a penalty because of their poor timing. In general, the New Zealanders were hard up off the line. Ireland needed to be far more direct, as they were in the 2nd test, when our main carriers got on the ball and ran hard, from depth. Even if we insisted on running these screens, the ‘decoy’ player needed to be hit a few times to really question the All Blacks defence.

To come away from that extended period of possession scoreless pretty much condemned Ireland to a heavy defeat. Over the 80 minutes, Ireland actually had slightly more possession than the All Blacks, around 56%. To be beaten 60-0 in that situation is hard to understand and accept. Ireland’s attack rarely looks built to break down the particular opponent it faces. How often do we see an attacking tactic that picks out an opposition weakness? Very rarely. With Less Kiss in charge of both defence and attack, he is simply too stretched, and both aspects of Ireland’s game are suffering. Ireland’s need for a top-quality, innovative attack coach is now glaringly obvious.

Look out for part 2 of this analysis, where I’ll look closely at the 5 tries Ireland conceded in the 2nd half and see what lessons can be learned from them. As always, any comments would be greatly appreciated, so please add one below!

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Photos courtesy: Geof Wilson.

Can Ireland Finish on Positive Note?

All Blacks vs. Ireland

Ireland need to back up last weekend with another strong display. (c) Geof Wilson.

I’ll put my hand up and admit I did not see that Irish performance coming in the 2nd test. In fact, I had predicted another heavy loss for Ireland. I’m delighted that I was proven utterly wrong. The physicality ferocity shown by Declan Kidney’s side was something we haven’t seen since the shock win over Australia at last year’s World Cup. In the immediate aftermath of the 2nd test, I wrote about the frustration caused by Ireland’s inconsistency. If Ireland fail to put in a similar performance tomorrow, is this tour a failure? What do we need to see tomorrow to call it a success?

Obviously, Kidney and his squad will demand a similar level of intensity from themselves this weekend. Ireland showed in that 2nd test that they’re a match for any side when they front-up physically and work hard for 80 minutes. That needs to become a given for Ireland. While I recognise that it’s impossible to be at 100% every single weekend, Ireland need to push themselves to the limit every time they take to the field. Regardless of tactics, moves and other technical aspects, that determination and focus should be mandatory.

The difference in attitude between the 1st and 2nd tests was stark. Frankly, the approach to the 1st test was not up to scratch, and the players themselves will recognise that. It’s true that the All Blacks were nowhere near their best last Saturday, but that shouldn’t enter the equation. The fact is that Ireland gave Dan Carter and his buddies less scope to run riot than they did in the 1st test. So first off, and most importantly, Ireland need to match last weekend’s physicality and intensity. Even without that elusive first win, that would be progress.

All Blacks vs. Ireland

Ireland’s attacking shape was better in test 2. (c) Geof Wilson.

In terms of game plan, Kidney and Les Kiss must stress the importance of taking points from our visits to the All Blacks’ third of the pitch. There were too many missed opportunities in that regard last time out. Spilled ball, accidental offsides and overthrown lineouts have to be cut out. While I’m not suggesting that Ireland slow down their possession, patience is important. One of the encouraging things about the 2nd test was how Ireland worked hard to keep their shape in attack, particularly in the build-up to Conor Murray’s try.

While Murray was eventually forced to slow things down just before he snuck over, the phases preceding that were impressive. The forwards worked hard to get into good positions to carry ball, and there were options out the back too. That meant Murray had less to think about it at the base of the ruck, and as a result, his service looked quicker. Ireland’s defensive breakdown work has been a real strength on this tour, but as pointed out by Kiss, we need to be more clinical in cleaning out rucks in attack. The ball needs to be on a plate for Murray.

In defence, Ireland are always at their best when they’re proactive, rather than reactive. By that I mean they need go looking to make hits, rush up hard at times to shut down the All Blacks and generally put them under pressure. Of course this requires excellent communication, something that was patently absent in the 1st test. Again, the 2nd test brought great improvement but there were one or two occasions when Ireland sat back in defence, notably in the build-up to Aaron Smith’s try. The Six Nations loss to Wales this year showed how badly a soft, drifting defence suits Ireland. Another aggressive defensive effort would be further progress.

All Blacks vs. Ireland

Ireland should attack the All Blacks’ scrum. (c) Geof Wilson.

It goes without saying that Ireland should target the scrum, particularly with Romain Poite refereeing. He will always reward the side going forward, so more of what we saw in the 2nd half of the 2nd test is necessary. Ireland’s mindset at the scrum can develop into a destructive one. In terms of personnel, Declan Fitzpatrick should be given 20 or 3o minutes in order to continue his progress. He showed real promise in the 1st test and wouldn’t represent a huge risk.

It’s a positive that Dan Tuohy, Donnacha Ryan, Fergus McFadden, Peter O’Mahony and Kevin McLaughlin are all getting more exposure to international rugby. They will all greatly benefit from it. Ryan in particular has stood out and is starting to look really comfortable at this level. Tuohy has had two tests to find his feet and needs to match his second-row partner tomorrow. McFadden may not be a natural winger, but similarly he needs to show some attacking edge to repay Kidney’s loyalty.

To sum it up, if Ireland show a similar level of intensity and physicality, continue to improve their attacking shape, keep their defence proactive, attack the scrum and demand more from the new faces, this tour will have been a genuine success. It may seem like quite a lot to ask for, but these players will demand it of themselves. After the 1st test, I never imagined I would be saying that Ireland have developed on this tour. Regardless of the result tomorrow, if Ireland turn in a similar, or even better performance than the 2nd test, that would represent clear positive progress.

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Photos courtesy: Geof Wilson.

All Blacks Watch: Changes Abound

All Blacks vs. Ireland

The All Blacks’ haka before the 2nd test. (c) Geof Wilson.

Steve Hansen has made six changes to the New Zealand side to face Ireland in Saturday’s 3rd and final test. Two of those are injury-enforced, with key men Dan Carter and Kieran Read ruled out. The loss of those two would weaken any team in the world. They’re both world-class and any replacement would be a step down. That said, the players that Hansen has brought in are not to be totally underestimated. Ireland will have another huge battle on their hands if they’re to finally beat the All Blacks.

Carter’s out with a hamstring problem and into the number 10 jersey comes Aaron Cruden. During last year’s World Cup, the 23-year-old was called up to the All Blacks squad when Carter’s groin injury ruled him out of the latter stages. Cruden started the semi-final and final and did well, but didn’t dominate as Carter would have. He looked understandably nervous and realistically, not particularly ready. But the experience did him a world of good, as Cruden has gone from strength to strength since.

His form in Super Rugby has led the Chiefs to the top of the overall table. Cruden has looked a different player. Physically he finally looks comfortable at senior level. There’s a more confident, almost cocky edge to his play and that’s thanks to being part of the World Cup win. His playmaking skills are excellent and as well as that, his place kicking has been superb. Steve Hansen has said he always planned to make changes for the 3rd test. While that could be seen as an attempt to play down the losses of Carter and Read, it would have been no surprise to see Cruden start this game even if Carter was fit.

Cruden kicks a penalty against Australia in the World Cup semi-final. (c) Mark Whatmough.

The other changes in the backline see Hosea Gear and Ben Smith come in for Julian Savea and Zac Guildford on the wings. Gear and Smith are team mates at the Highlanders and have linked up to great effect this season. 26-year-old Smith has been playing at fullback, but is very versatile and will be comfortable on the right wing. At 28, Gear is fairly experienced in comparison to Savea. He has 5 tries in his 8 caps and has been unlucky not to earn more international recognition. He will be a lot more comfortable under high ball than Savea was, if Ireland look to use that tactic again.

The loss of Read means a move to No.8 for Richie McCaw. I may be tempting fate, but McCaw hasn’t been at his best in the first couple of tests. Uncharacteristic knock-ons have been a feature in both games and he has looked shocked at Sean O’Brien and Rory Best’s willingness to take him on at the breakdown. The legendary captain will be eager to finish on a high note. Sam Cane takes over at openside. The 20-year-old had a strong debut off the bench last week and looks test-ready at international level. Still, O’Brien should have the measure of him.

Completing the back-row is Liam Messam of the Chiefs. He was left out of the All Blacks’ original 35-man wider training squad, with Hansen stating that he knew exactly what Messam offered and didn’t need to see him at that point. The injury to Victor Vito and the fact that Adam Thomson wasn’t physically up to standard last weekend means a swift promotion for Messam. The 28-year-old has been consistently impressive for the Chiefs for a number of years but only has 9 caps to his name. Like Hosea Gear, he was left out of NZ’s World Cup squad and will be keen for redemption.

Keven Mealamu

Kevin Mealamu is back on the bench for NZ. (c) Geof Wilson.

The only other change to the starting XV sees Luke Romano come into the second-row to win his first cap, with Brodie Retallick dropping to the bench. Romano is something of a late developer. At 26, this season has been his first as a starter for the Crusaders in Super Rugby. Indeed, he only started playing ITM Cup for Canterbury in 2009, under Munster coach Rob Penney. He has developed his 6’6″ frame, but at 110kg is still not the biggest lock around. Romano is a grafter though and will work hard around the pitch.

There’s three new faces on the All Blacks’ bench. Experienced hooker Kevin Mealamu has recovered from a calf injury and is likely to enter the fray for the closing stages. Uncapped Hurricanes outhalf Beaudan Barrett will be hoping for a debut. The 21-year-old has been in sparkling Super Rugby form and would add attacking excitement to the game. Finally, Tamati Ellison is included for his versatility. Capped once, back in 2009, the Highlander covers the midfield and the entire back-three.

So, plenty of changes to the All Blacks’ match day 22. The losses of Carter and Read have certainly weakened their team, but the six players who come in have all been performing well for their clubs sides. Still, Declan Kidney will recognise that this is not a full-strength New Zealand team. He’ll ask for one more effort from his Ireland team.

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Photos courtesy: Geof Wilson, Mark Whatmough.

Pride and Frustration

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“We’re a good team when we play” – Brian O’Driscoll

I don’t want to become one of those critics who find fault with every single Irish performance but frustration is the overriding emotion right now. That was an immense effort from our lads and we came so close to our greatest ever result. There were technical elements that let us down (as well as some easy penalties in the first-half), but there were multiple positives too. The desire and intensity was incredible, and we attacked at a much higher tempo than we have done for a long time. But today’s game simply poses the question of why this type of Irish performance is so rare?

From the first minute, Ireland’s physicality was through the roof. Every single player threw himself into collisions again and again. Gone was the respect for the mighty and unbeatable All Blacks. This was just plain old New Zealand. During the week, Dan Carter claimed that Ireland were always “ferocious” opponents. We didn’t see that last weekend, but it was evident today. Once again, we dominated the breakdown. Most welcome of all was how we got on top in the scrum in the second-half. All huge positives, and part of a strong display overall.

It reminded me of the Rugby World Cup win over Australia last year, and the big win over England in the 2011 Six Nations. It could be argued that these three games were Ireland’s only three strong showings in the last couple of years. Why are they so rare? Why can Ireland not motivate themselves to this degree more regularly? If we could match today’s level of intensity and physicality more often, we’d be a truly successful international team. The quote from Brian O’Driscoll immediately after the game says it all. Ireland need to work out a way to “play” more consistently.

It might seem particularly harsh to be critical in the aftermath of such a narrow loss to the best team in the world. On Thursday night, Roy Keane blasted the Irish soccer team for their losing mentality. He was critical of the fact that Irish fans were singing and supporting, even at 4-0 down. I don’t want it to come across that I’m doing something similar here. It’s a very different scenario. While Ireland doesn’t have players with enough quality to get anywhere near the world’s best in soccer, we do in rugby. Today was the very proof of that.

O’Driscoll and his team mates certainly won’t be accepting of this loss. They will analyse it and dissect it on Monday morning. They’ll look at the dropped balls, lineout misses, and the number of visits to the New Zealand 22 which brought no points. The provincial success of first Munster, and now Leinster, has given this Irish squad a winning mentality. They will be critical of themselves and look to improve next weekend. So why should us supporters and critics not look for more too? We should certainly praise the many positives in today’s display, but equally we should question why we don’t see them more often.

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I’ll try to do some of that analysis myself on Monday morning, looking at the strengths and positives, as well as the areas where Ireland can improve. Watch this space.


All Blacks Watch: Richie’s Heir?

San Cane (c) Chiefs Rugby.

There’s just one change to the All Blacks starting team for tomorrow, with Victor Vito’s knee injury meaning a start for Adam Thomson. The Highlanders blindside scored a try off the bench last weekend and was unlucky not to be starting anyway, so it won’t weaken the hosts. Thomson’s promotion means that Sam Cane is included in an All Blacks match day squad for the first time. It’s likely that we’ll see the young Chiefs man off the bench tomorrow. The openside is still only 20, but there is some hope that Cane could be the man to eventually replace the legendary Richie McCaw.

Cane has long been marked out as a player of exceptional potential. In 2009, while he was still in school at Reporoa College, he was signed by ITM Cup side Bay of Plenty. Part of the New Zealand Schools side the same year, Cane became the first schoolboy player in New Zealand rugby history to be nominated for the NZRU Age Grade Player of the Year. Up against him were Aaron Cruden, Zac Guildford and Winston Stanley. All three were part of the 2009 Junior World Championship winning New Zealand U20s team and 3 years his senior. Cruden was the eventual winner, but to be nominated at just 17 was incredible.

2010 saw Cane make his ITM Cup debut for home union Bay of Plenty. After a few cameos off the bench, he started his first game against Manawatu in September, making him the youngest Bay of Plenty starter in over a decade. NZRU regulations at the time actually prevented Cane from featuring more throughout the season, as the rules limited him to just 6 starts because of his age (18). Still, the openside’s reputations was rapidly rising and the Chiefs brought him onto their books in the same year. At just 18 years of age, Cane made his Super Rugby debut off the bench in the Chiefs’ 72-65 win over the Lions.

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In 2011, Cane made 3 brief appearances off the bench before earning his first Super Rugby start in May 2011 at the age of 19. Prophetically, it came opposite Richie McCaw and the Crusaders. The following month, Cane was on his way to the Junior World Championship with the U20s, where he would announce himself to a worldwide audience. The Baby Blacks won all five of their matches on an aggregate scoreline of 274-52. It was a special team, so for Cane to stand out was remarkable. He even scored a hat-trick in the 92-0 thrashing of Wales.

His performances at the JWC in Italy earned the openside a nomination for the IRB Young Player of the Year. He returned home to play an important role in Bay of Plenty’s 2011 ITM Cup campaign. The ‘Steamers’ (odd nickname) were unlucky to miss out on a place in the Premiership Final, as they came up two points short. Cane once again impressed, scoring 4 tries and contributing all over the pitch with his never-ending work-rate.

The rise has continued in 2012. The Chiefs sit top of the Super Rugby table and Cane has played his part. He’s made 13 appearances, 5 of them starts and scored 1 try. He’s had to be patient though, with 4-times capped All Black Tanerau Latimer often preferred at 7. Still, it’s not too bad a situation for a 20-year-old to be in, and the 104kg back-row has done well whenever he’s been given the chance. His standing within the game was highlighted when Steve Hansen selected the openside in his 35-man wider training group for this test series.

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The expectation was that Cane was being brought into the camp to gain valuable experience, before being capped somewhere down the road. However, the injury to Vito has given him an opportunity to become an All Black earlier than expected. You’d have to presume that the young Chief has impressed in training to earn this chance. There are still aspects of inexperience in Cane’s game, but he has admitted that he’s learning “lots of subtle little tips” from the master McCaw.

All Blacks’ coach Hansen reckons that Cane “could be something special”. He has all the attributes to be a world-class openside. Cane does plenty of ‘fetching’ work on the deck and runs intelligent support lines like McCaw. Hansen says the 20-year-old is “big, robust, great over the ball and plays an intelligent game.” While I’m not suggesting that Richie McCaw is a poor ball-carrier, it’s one area where Cane looks to have the potential to be better than the All Blacks’ captain. At underage level at least, Cane has been explosive with ball in hand.

It’s never going to be an easy task to replace McCaw whenever that time comes, but Cane looks to have all the tools to do it.

Backward Step for Kidney

Does this man have a grand plan for Ireland? (c) Art Widak.

Declan Kidney has made four changes to the Ireland team for Saturday’s 2nd test against the All Blacks. While that’s not even a third of the team, the impression is that Kidney is looking for what the Whiff of Cordite calls “damage limitation” on Saturday. I’d love to be proven wrong, but these changes are a backward step for Ireland in my opinion. After including Zebo, Fitzpatrick and O’Mahony last week, the impression I had was that Kidney was finally looking to develop this team. It was belated, but I was encouraged.

As highlighted in that excellent Whiff of Cordite piece, this looks like a “rainy-day selection”, with the focus being on keeping the score down. So why did Kidney send out a fresh-faced team last week and look to move the ball around the pitch at pace? I may be proven wrong, but it looks as though it was a one-off experiment. So what was the point? As head coach of the national team, is Kidney not supposed to have a grand vision of how he wants his team to develop? Frankly, this ‘back to basics’ selection gives the impression that Deccie doesn’t have any concrete idea of where Ireland are going.

I for one refused to castigate the Irish performance last weekend. The opening 20 minutes encouraged me and I was hoping for more of that, done more accurately and with quicker ball. The likes of Zebo, O’Mahony and Fitzpatrick learned valuable lessons and I was hoping they could learn even more this weekend. But they’re dropped, and Trimble, D’Arcy and Ross return, with Kevin McLaughlin also included. The inclusions of D’Arcy and Trimble are the most defensive changes and are certainly a backward step. I understand that there are ‘horses for courses’ and that rain is predicted for Saturday, but does that mean the All Blacks drop Aaron Smith for the experience of Weepu, or Retallick for the solidity of Ali Williams? Not a chance.

Simon Zebo heads for the line copy

Zebo drops to the bench, with Trimble replacing him. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

D’Arcy comes in because of the injury to Earls but it’s still not the right selection for me. D’Arcy was impressive in Leinster’s run to the Heineken Cup, but his form for Ireland for at least a year now has been poor. He’ll make his tackles and he’ll grind out a few metres in contact. But what about Darren Cave? He had a disastrous cameo at the end of the 1st test, lucky not to be yellow-carded and partly at fault for Conrad Smith’s try. Now he’s out of the squad completely, after 8 minutes of action. Why not give him another chance, send him out with a more relaxed attitude and tell him to play his game?

Kidney knows exactly what D’Arcy offers to the team. This tour had to be about developing the Irish squad. While I’m not saying Kidney should be sending out teams to get beaten, we need to give these guys experience. Cave’s confidence will surely now be crushed and he’ll question whether he’s up to this level at all. Or what about playing McFadden in his best position at 12? Simon Zebo, one missed tackle aside, did just fine on his debut, showing a glimpse of his attacking thrust. Now he’s dropped to the bench to accomodate Trimble, another player who Kidney knows all about.

Fitzpatrick was the personification of the word ‘solid’ on his first cap. He never went backwards in the scrum and he contributed a few tackles around the pitch. I would’ve allowed him to keep the starting tighthead role, even if he were to come off at half-time. It might well work out that he plays 40 minutes anyway, but let him have the opening half, when Tony Woodcock really wants to prove his point. A second consecutive start for the Ulster prop would have been great experience for Fitzpatrick, especially after Deccie complained about the lack of that exact attribute.

McLaughlin

Kevin McLaughlin is in at blindside. (c) Ken Bohane.

The inclusion of Kevin McLaughlin at blindside is at least a positive. I would temper that by suggesting that the Leinster back-row has been selected for his prowess at the lineout and his defensive hunger. He’s an excellent player and I’m a huge fan, but McLaughlin’s selection again alludes to a defensive game plan. The major plus to including him is that Sean O’Brien may be spared the mountain of defensive work he got through last Saturday. But will we see O’Brien in the right places to use his strength and power on the ball? I don’t think we have yet this season.

I always make a big effort to look at the positives before each Ireland game. Kidney hasn’t done a good job with Ireland in the last few years, but I’m always willing to believe that coaches, just as players and people in general, can change. However, it looks like that just isn’t the case in this situation. Even if Ireland make it scrappy and limit New Zealand to just a few scores in the rain, what value is there in that? I want to see an Irish team that is confident and skillful enough to go out and look to beat every team they face.  I believe we have the players to do that, if we can develop the team in the right way.

What do you think of the changes Kidney has made? Can Ireland stay close to the All Blacks on Saturday or will it only get worse? Do you agree or disagree with what I’ve written? Please leave a comment with your views.

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Photos courtesy: Art Widak, Ivan O’Riordan, Ken Bohane.

All Blacks Watch: 1st Test Reaction

ALL BLACKS

The New Zealand press have understandably put the All Blacks on a high, high pedestal. (c) Chris Zielecki.

So we’ve all had time to digest and dissect the Irish performance, listen to a few excuses from Kidney and suggest where Ireland can improve. So what’s the reaction been to that 1st test in New Zealand? Unsurprisingly, most of the focus has been on the excellence of the All Blacks. While the Irish press have been quick to laud the clinical world champions, the New Zealanders haven’t spent too much time looking at the Irish display.

There has been a general and widespread satisfaction with the All Blacks’ performance. The impact of debutants Julian Savea, Aaron Smith and Brodie Retallick has been repeatedly highlighted. Savea’s hattrick made him an obvious inclusion in the headlines, with even his own mother reckoning he “did really well.” Smith’s mum “cried her eyes out” as he ran out to win his first cap. Meanwhile, the Otago Daily Times felt that “it all seemed a bit easy” for the beastly Savea.

Toby Robson pointed out that most players “struggle to adjust to the increased speed and physicality of test match rugby”. While most of Ireland’s new faces certainly struggled to catch their breath at times, Robson felt that the new All Blacks had no such problems. Aaron Smith solidified Robson’s suggestion when he claimed that “I’ll definitely be keen for faster ball. It would be cool to speed the game up even more.”

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The thought of Smith firing even quicker ball out to the imperious Dan Carter is a scary thought for Irish fans. One potential saviour may be the poor weather predicted for Christchurch this weekend. Tony Smith wrote that the possible cold and wet could “come to Ireland’s aid”. Ireland competed aggressively at the breakdown last Saturday and did well to slow the All Blacks’ ball at certain stages. In the same piece, All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster admitted, “We had trouble in certain parts of the game at getting rid of their tackler at their first arrival.” He was clearly referring to Sean O’Brien, and the Tullow man will need to put in a similar performance on Saturday.

The display of Dan Carter at outhalf was hard to ignore, and the New Zealand media did nothing of the sort. Wynne Gray of the New Zealand Herald wrote that Carter had “taunted the Irish with his array of skills” and that’s hard to argue with. At times it appeared that Ireland couldn’t even get a hand on Carter as he floated around the pitch. Apparently the outhalf feels that he wasn’t really part of last year’s World Cup success. Writing for stuff.co.nzMarc Hinton claimed that this was sad, “but not bad.” Ominously for Ireland, Hinton feels that Carter is now “a man on a mission”.

Let’s be honest, the All Blacks were a joy to watch, regardless of the fact that they were hammering Ireland. It’s a joy that the players themselves say is starting to come through within the squad. Ali Williams has pointed out that the squad have a “refreshing new mindset” after winning the World Cup. He admitted that having that monkey off their backs meant the All Blacks could be more focused on the “here and now, rather than in front.” Meanwhile, Isreal Dagg spoke about how much “fun” the All Blacks backline had against Ireland.

Dan Carter with The Cup

Carter came in for plenty of well-deserved praise. (c) Geof Wilson.

The critics agree. Toby Robson feels that this New Zealand side “could be fun.” He also made the valid point that while “Ireland’s players were tense and poker faced, the All Blacks, including those on debut, were relaxed and smiling, even early in the test.” It’s difficult to disagree with that. While the New Zealanders looked chilled, the Irish were uptight, particularly the new additions to the side. As the Whiff of Cordite lads pointed out, Darren Cave “looked like he had seen a ghost”.

So what are the New Zealanders predicting for the 2nd test? Well, it’s not good news. Steve Hansen has indicated he won’t be making big changes to the starting team (Although Nonu looks set to start ahead of SBW). In the NZ Herald, Chris Rattue thinks Declan Kidney’s side “are in for one helluva hiding in the second test, and heaven help them in the third.” While many of us Irish supporters were encouraged by certain aspects of the Irish display in the 1st test, Rattue thought Ireland were a  “decidedly inferior team playing wild rugby”. Finally, assistant coach Ian Foster is promising more from the All Blacks in the 2nd test. None of this bodes well for Ireland, but at least we’re having the craic!

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Photos courtesy: Chris Zielecki, Geof Wilson.