Tag Archives: Sonny Bill Williams

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: Stopping Sonny Bill

Sonny Bill Williams is one of the best centres in the world, as well as a heavyweight boxing champ and a beautiful man. Jealous? Me? (c) Geoff Trotter.

With Steve Hansen having hinted that he will give Ma’a Nonu a rest during the upcoming three-test series against Ireland, it now looks almost certain that Sonny Bill Williams will be wearing the 12 jersey for the All Blacks. Even if Nonu wasn’t to be given a break, SBW would fully deserve to be starting at inside centre. The 26-year-old has been one of the best players in Super Rugby this season. His spectacular form for the Chiefs means Ireland will have to watch him very closely on Saturday.

The Hamilton-based franchise sit top of the overall Super Rugby table after 13 games. Sonny Bill has been a huge part of the success so far. His attacking game has been razor sharp, and he looks like a far more complete player than when he first switched from league. He’s gained the 4th highest number of metres in possession, with 984, behind only Hosea Gear, Andre Taylor and Ben Smith. Williams is joint 3rd for line-breaks on 11 and is the clear leader in the offloading table, with an incredible 29 in his 13 games.

It’s this ability to play the ball out of the tackle that makes Williams such a dangerous proposition. At almost 6’4″ and 108kg of pure muscle, he has a physique which has helped him to become the heavyweight boxing champion of New Zealand (video at bottom of this piece). William’s size and power allow him to take the tackle on his own terms and he always gets his hands through. As soon as SBW gets the ball, the offload is the first thing on his mind. It’s one of the most effective attacking weapons in world rugby.

Sonny Bill Williams

Williams is extremely powerful. (c) Luton Anderson.

Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll are both very powerful men, but at 5’11” and 5’10” respectively, may struggle to deal with Williams. The All Black will be confident of getting his hands through the tackle against both, and with Conrad Smith and Israel Dagg running the intelligent lines off him, Ireland could be cut to shreds. So it there a way to stop the Sonny Bill offload? It’s easier said than done, but O’Driscoll and D’Arcy have the experience and intelligence to dull the big man’s effectiveness.

Last Saturday, the Chiefs beat the Blues 41-34 in a brilliant, exciting game. Williams was excellent opposite his All Blacks’ rival Ma’a Nonu, clearly coming out on top of their individual battle. He scored one try with a powerful finish and set up countless opportunities for his team mates with his offloading game. However, there was one poor offload following a searing line-break. Williams was in open field and tried his signature one-handed offload despite the fact that he hadn’t actually been tackled.

That missed pass against the Blues at the weekend betrayed Williams’ obsession with playing the ball out of the tackle. It’s as if he needs to do it every time he’s in possession. Ireland have to turn it against him, frustrate him at every opportunity. Defenders either side of the tackle need to expect it every single time, try to intercept it or get a hand to it. The Irish must be prepared for him to get the ball away and be alert and ready to react decisively.

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It’s pointless to say that the Irish centres simply need to double up on Williams in the tackle. If it was as easy as that, then he wouldn’t be top of the Super Rugby stats chart for offloading. If they can team up, then one goes low and chops him as early as possible, while the other targets his ball-carrying arm rather than trying to wrap his upper body. That second tackler has to be deadly accurate when he targets Sonny Bill’s arms. But Williams will get one-on-one with defenders, so what’s the best thing to do then? If you go in high, he has a strong fend and real power in contact.

The defender has to take him low because if he does bump them off, Williams has the pace to punish the Irish defence. The simple fact is that the Chiefs man will get the ball away in the tackle. The Irish defence must have a collective awareness, particularly the back-row as they sweep across from set-piece play, and Conor Murray/Eoin Reddan as they sweep behind the defence in phase play. When Williams makes those offloads, these guys need to be in like a flash, smashing the All Blacks’ support player.

It’s just one aspect of the All Blacks’ game that Ireland have to deal with, but it’s a particularly lethal one. The in-form Williams represents an altogether different challenge to anything D’Arcy and O’Driscoll have faced so far this season. The battle in midfield should be a treat, especially with O’Driscoll looking so sharp himself in the Heineken Cup final (as the All Blacks recognised). Saturday’s 1st test should be tasty, and there’s no doubt that Sonny Bill Williams will be central to the outcome.

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Photos courtesy: Geoff TrotterLuton Anderson.

All Blacks Watch: Series Squad Named

All Blacks

Ali Williams, Israel Dagg, Richie McCaw and Sam Whitelock are all part of the squad to face Ireland over three tests. (c) Adidas Italy.

Steve Hansen has selected his 30-man squad to face Ireland in the upcoming three-test series. The 1st test takes place at Eden Park next Saturday (kick-off is at 8.35AM Irish time). Let’s take a closer look at the players he’s picked and the kind of form they’ve been in so far in the Super Rugby season. Ireland have a seriously difficult task ahead of them if they are to get their first-ever win over the All Blacks, or even if they’re to be competitive at all.

This series comes at a far better time for the All Blacks. While Ireland’s players are at the end of a long, exhausting season, the New Zealanders are about midway through their campaigns and are at peak fitness. While the majority of both squads were involved in last year’s Rugby World Cup, Ireland’s front-liners have played far more games since then. Many of them will be running low on energy for this tour, and some will probably be questioning why they’re in New Zealand at all. Here’s the task facing them…

Hansen has gone for 2 hookers in Andrew Hore and Kevin Mealamu. Hore is the likely starter in next weekend’s 1st test, as Blues man Mealamu has been struggling with a calf injury recently. Witty 33-year-old Hore has started all but 2 of the Highlanders 14 Super Rugby games this season and has contributed plenty around the pitch. With Mealamu having been limited to just 7 starts, the last of which came in mid-April, and set to miss the first test, the impressive Chiefs hooker Hika Elliot will be drafted in as cover.

The battle-hardened Andrew Hore is likely to start at hooker. (c) Geoff Trotter.

The 5 props have picked themselves in truth. World Cup squad members Tony Woodcock and the Franks brother, Owen and Ben, return (watch the vid if you’ve got some free time, good watch!). They’re joined by the Crusaders’ Wyatt Crockett and uncapped 20-year-old Ben Tameifuna, who tips the scales at 140kg. He began the season not even expecting to see much action for the Chiefs, but an injury to Ben Afeaki catapulted the tighthead into the limelight and he has impressed with his physicality and skills. Hansen’s front-row for Saturday is likely to be Woodcock, Hore and Owen Franks. Ben Franks’ ability to cover both sides of the scrum should see him on the bench, although Tameifuna can do the same.

There are 4 locks in the squad, 2 of whom are uncapped. World Cup winners Sam Whitelock and Ali Williams are retained, while Luke Romano and Brodie Retallick join the squad. Williams is fortunate to be included at all after some uninspiring performances for the lowly Blues. Whitelock is an almost guaranteed starter, but it will be interesting to see who is alongside him. Retallick has just turned 21, but is already first-choice at the table-topping Chiefs and is a real physical specimen. Romano is a late developer at 26, having come through at Canterbury under Rob Penney.

In the back-row, Richie McCaw and No.8 Kieran Read are undroppable. The Highlanders Adam Thomson and Victor Vito of the Hurricanes are competing for the No.6 shirt. Thomson started the season in spectacular form, but Vito has gradually hauled his rival in with some physical displays. The momentum probably favours Vito now, but Hansen is likely to go for Thomson’s superior experience. 20-year-old Sam Cane is another fresh addition, but is still not a starter at the Chiefs so is here largely for experience. He looks to be the heir to McCaw at 7.

Captain McCaw has started the last three Crusaders games after recovering from a foot injury. (c) Stefano Delfrate.

Hansen’s selection at half-back has been greeted with plenty of controversy in New Zealand. Piri Weepu has been included despite being blatantly out of shape and form. He has spent plenty of time riding pine for the Blues and with the likes of Andy Ellis, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and 20-year-old sensation TJ Perenara having been left out of the squad, pressure will be on Weepu to step up for this series. Uncapped Highlanders No.9 Aaron Smith will provide the competition. He possesses a lovely, long pass and will surely see game time.

Dan Carter is back to full fitness and looking sharp so he’s the clear first-choice at first five-eighth. Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett are the other two outhalves in the squad. Cruden has been an important part of the Chiefs excellent season, and appears to grow in confidence every single week. He will be keen to get back on the international stage. 21-year-old Barrett has been the fulcrum of an exciting Hurricanes backline, making New Zealand finally look well-stocked behind golden boy Carter.

The four centres that Hansen’s gone with are Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams and Tamati Ellison. SBW has been one of the standout players in Super Rugby, and surely he can’t be ignored for a starting place alongside Smith. Nonu hasn’t been at his best for the Blues, looking tired at times. He went straight from RWC 2011 to Japan, then back into Super Rugby without a break and it appears to have caught up with him.

Nonu has struggled for form. (c) Luton Anderson.

29-year-old Ellison is an interesting but deserved inclusion. He made his only All Blacks appearance back in 2009, before spending two years in Japan. Now back in New Zealand with the Highlanders, his well-rounded game has earned him a return to the international game. Ellison has the versatility to cover the back-three as well as both centre positions, making him a valuable squad member.

Finally, to the back-three and there’s no let-up in the calibre of players. Israel Dagg will start at full-back and his threat is well-known. With World Cup wingers Cory Jane and Richard Kahui both out injured, there will be two new wide men. The uncapped Julian Savea has been a powerful presence for the Hurricanes. 7 tries in 11 starts for the  21-year-old tells the story. Zac Guildford has hit form at exactly the right time with his two tries against the Highlanders on Friday taking his season’s tally to 6.

Hosea Gear turned down a move to Japan in order to pursue his All Blacks dreams, but hasn’t been as prolific as his competition in Super Rugby. Still, 4 in 14 games isn’t bad and the 27-year-old has gas as well as more experience than Savea and Guildford. His teammate Ben Smith has been at fullback all season, but can play on the wing too. Whichever way Hansen goes with his wingers, he’ll be picking players in form.

Hosea Gear

Hosea Gear will be hoping to add to his 8 caps. (c) Geof Wilson.

It’s a seriously strong squad, laden with quality. If Ireland can beat these All Blacks, it will be their greatest result ever. I can’t pretend that I’m confident ahead of the first test but I’m as hopeful as ever. It may be the end of a long season for the Irish players, but the chance to beat New Zealand in their own back yard doesn’t come around too often. Ireland have nothing to lose, and Declan Kidney needs to stress that. Let’s have a go!

New Zealand name their team and bench on Thursday. Who do you think Hansen will pick? Do Ireland have a hope in hell? Drop a comment below with your contributions!

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Photos courtesy: Adidas Italy, Geoff Trotter, Stefano Delfrate, Luton Anderson, Geof Wilson.