Tag Archives: Aaron Cruden

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.

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.