While this was a very good performance from Ireland, it’s not as though it can’t be improved upon. In some ways it was similar to the 15-6 win over Australia in RWC11 – you couldn’t fault the intensity of the players on the pitch, or the decisions made by the management in selection or substitution, but tactically there’s still quite a lot of ground for improvement. That’s encouraging. It’d be downright grim if you had played as well as you could possibly play and not beaten a team who weren’t at their best.
For starters, Rob Kearney is not hitting the same standards that he set during the Six Nations. Of course New Zealand kick the ball in the air an awful lot less than most Northern Hemisphere teams, but try and remember any standout aerial takes on Irish kicks from the Cooley man – I’m not sure there has been one over the two tests.
Ireland need to find a way to get him on the ball more often in attack, especially when we’re down some potent wingers. In the first test we saw him shrugging off Sonny Bill Williams, and there was a similar party-trick display against Tony Woodcock on the New Zealand 22 in the second half of the second test. Kearney needs to be a little more assertive in coming in as first receiver in broken play, and the gameplan needs to accommodate this. Ireland should try and give the All Blacks a different look, make them react to a different threat in a part of the field where they’re not expecting it.
The Leinster fullback is explosive in traffic, with a good side-step, clever spin-outs and a big fend … that’s where his strengths lie. He’s not a mazy balance runner like Dagg, most effective in open space, nor is he a big line-hitting monster in the outside channel like Chris ‘Laytho’ Latham. Laytho was 193cm [6'4"] and 103kg [16st3lbs], and once he got into the red on the revs counter he was a bloody hard man to stop – forty test tries in nine years will attest to that. Kearney is a more stop-start sort of runner, and Ireland need to look to get him on the ball much more often close to the gainline, so he can try and put a move on defenders with his quick feet.
There was an understandable nervousness from both Irish wings about coming in from their posts and trying to get on the ball in the middle of the park, because the All Blacks had been so accurate in taking advantage of defensive lapses wide out in the first test. However, as a result neither Andrew Trimble nor Fergus McFadden were ever really in the game when Ireland had possession. Trimble in particular only got on the ball five times in the entire match. Working hard as a winger means a lot of running off the ball: you have to come in to the middle looking for it, you have to collect some big hits when used as a decoy and then get back in position quickly, you have to chase kicks, make tackles and then get back to cover the clearing kick. The workrate of Doug Howlett is absolutely exemplary in this instance. He has the experience to know where he should be at all times – not just in defense, but when his team are on the attack.
If you contrast the performances of Trimble and McFadden with that of Digby Ioane for Australia at the weekend, there’s an enormous difference in how often the two Irish wideouts got on the ball, where they took it and the damage that they did.
As a back three attacking threat, there was very little cohesion, little invention, and really very little to write about. Missing Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls and Luke Fitzgerald, Ireland are down three intuitive attackers and dangerous runners – both Andrew Trimble and McFadden have the tendency to put the head down and seek contact, especially at test level. They’re also short on experience of playing together regularly, especially in counter-attack. The counter-attacking play of Howlett/Earls/Jones in the second half of the 2010-11 season was a bright spark in what was otherwise a pretty grim season for Munster, and Ben Foden and Chris Ashton always look better when they’re in the same team. Practice and experience of playing as a unit bring more value than is sometimes recognised.
Ireland’s attacking threat came in the middle of the pitch, largely through Jonny Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll. Ronan O’Gara arrived on the pitch for the injured Gordon D’Arcy [now out of the tour with an injured calf] with half an hour to play, and he did a fine job at out half, directing attacks well. D’Arcy himself looked better than he has for a number of months in a green jersey, and defended the potent Carter-Williams threat well. His performance in this test was more geared towards defense and distribution than in his 2004-07 heyday, more like a second five-eighth than the flash-footed inside centre of yore. Again, the experience of the settled Leinster midfield has a certain value, even though D’Arcy doesn’t have the pace nor offer the attacking threat that he used to. Should that make him a shoo-in for selection next season? No – but it’s a strength that shouldn’t be overlooked either.
Interestingly, it looked like Sexton moved into the outside centre slot on a number of attacks once O’Gara was on the pitch, with Brian O’Driscoll stepping into the inside centre role. Sexton has great acceleration for a No10, and it was a good tactical wrinkle to see. It’s a pity that our back three weren’t able to read him as well as you’d hope.
Ireland have a third test in which to try and bring more of a threat to their attacking game. With D’Arcy out of contention due to injury, the No12 jersey is again open for competition. It’s impossible to know at this juncture whether or not Keith Earls will be available for selection – if he is, The Mole would imagine that the O’Driscoll/Earls partnership will be tried again. If he’s not – and I think it’s more likely that he won’t be – there are a few options: Wallace, Sexton and McFadden.
As a defender, Paddy Wallace is as brave as they come, but may struggle with the size and athleticism of Sonny-Bill Williams in the No12 channel. Ireland’s midfield defense has been based on shutting SBW’s offloads down, and it has worked to an extent I wouldn’t have thought possible given his outstanding Super Rugby form. Wallace has had one of the best seasons of his career for Ulster however, and would be the form choice in a one-off test match. An O’Gara-Sexton midfield gives two excellent kicking options, but O’Gara has been targeted in defense before by New Zealand, and it’s easier to gameplan for him if he’s named in the starting line-up rather than if he comes off the bench, as Wales proved in the RWC11 quarter-final. Fergus McFadden has played most of his rugby for Leinster over the last two seasons in the No12 jersey, but it just doesn’t seem like Kidney sees him as a centre.
The Mole think it’s likely that Wallace will be a straight swap for D’Arcy, and that he’ll roll off after fifty-odd minutes for O’Gara to come in at outhalf and Sexton to move one slot out. Wallace’s good form might have seen him on the plane in the first place, and he has been a favourite of Declan Kidney’s during his time as national coach. Bringing in a 32-year old for a one-off test mightn’t be seen as the most progressive of substitutions by some, but Kidney will be forced to make changes late in the game anyway as fatigue comes into play: I can’t imagine that he’ll start pushing the pieces around the board before kick-off anymore than he already has to.