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.
It’ll be interesting to see if we can back-up this performance on Saturday. Deccie is great for the once off’s and the chip in the shoulder stuff. It worked wonderfully for his two stints in Toyota Park but I don’t think it’s really a good way to approach internationals. There will always been a bit of room in rugby for Ciaran FitzGerald style “where’s your fucking pride”, it’s a physical sport after all. But the game has by and large moved on. Anything less than an equal showing this Saturday will see us roundly beaten, and if I’m honest we never looked like doing anything more than knicking a win. Another gear has to be found to win the bloody thing. Whether this management / team / team and management have it thought – therein lies the rub.
However, after the despair of the first Test, I certainly see a faint flicker of hope. I just hope we weren’t sandbagging them in the first game and then planning on springing on them in the second. I was listening to Joe Rogan on his podcast (he of Fear Factor fame), but he also does play-by-play for the UFC and even had a few pro fights in it a few years ago. Anyway, he was basically saying in fighting if you are going for a knock-out and miss it – you’re fucked. You’ll have spent all your energy and if your opponent has survived he has more left in the tank.
As for team selection, I’m leaning to J-10, PW and BOD, and would be really interested in J-10, Ferg and BOD, with Trimble on the right and Zebo on the left. Either way I think gives us more edge in attack, though possibly frail defensively (Zebo positioning and Trimble kicking especially).
Gah, so many typos. Please ignore them.
I didn’t realise ‘Laytho’ was such a unit.
Incredible game and what rugby test matches are supposed to be like. All the June tour games were great this weekend.
Clearly not a game for the wings. You wouldn’t know McFadden was playing. Same with Savea if it wasn’t for a couple of errors.
Bit puzzled by your line “His [Darcy’s] 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.”
I thought a second five-eighth was just NZ terminology for an inside centre – what is the distinction I’m missing here?
We did an article sometime back where we looked at inside centers in some detail and how you could account for guys who play the position entirely differently [like Matt Giteau and Jamie Roberts] sharing the same title:
“In contrast, there are two completely different schools of thought when it comes to the duties and the required strengths of No12s. Nor is it a simple NH/SH divide. While both the Australians and the New Zealanders use the term second-five eighth to describe their No12, both have strayed away from a Northern Hemisphere understanding of it in the recent past in terms of selection and game plan.
For clarity’s sake, it makes sense to try and apply some rudimentary characteristics to the two different titles, and thus distinguish between them. The Mole looks on an inside centre as a player who is primarily a ball-carrier, and the second five-eighth as player who is primarily a distributor. Those distinctions are the Mole’s own: Kiwis call Ma’a Nonu a second five-eighth. He would certainly fall into the Mole’s category of an inside centre, although to be fair to Nonu, his distribution has improved an enormous amount since his early career … “
I getcha, the distinction certainly makes sense in the case of Darcy, who had a superb game defensively. I also seem to recall him shoving Murray out of the way at the back of a ruck at one point in order to ensure that quick ball came and momentum was maintained.
I try to classify centres according to 3 types, though there is a huge element of mixing: there are steppers (Mafi, D’Arcy), converted-outhalves/2nd 5/8 (Wallace) and bosh merchants (Downey, Maggs).
Good examples of blurring the lines would be someone like de Villers (especially) or Roberts who are intelligent classy footballers that can put their head down and go throw themselves into contact. There are even rare players with legitimate claims to be all three, but I wouldn’t say that if I hadn’t seen Felipe Contepomi play.