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Gordon D’Arcy: Ireland must capitalise on the doubt they created in All Blacks

New Zealand’s prep for summer tour will focus on how Ireland played in Six Nations

As a player you sometimes need to be reminded to savour every positive moment on a pitch because you never know when it might be your last. Regrets and mistakes are part and parcel of life, never mind sport, but it’s important that you don’t let them define you.

Things don't fall your way, fine move on and try to salvage something from the disappointment. I wasn't always that philosophical. I can remember sitting in a hotel lobby in Rome in 2007, watching French number eight Elvis Vermeulen score an injury time try against Scotland to deny us a Six Nations title on points difference.

We conceded two late tries against Italy in chasing a points bonanza and there was an immediate sense of, "what if we had just settled and hadn't tried to force the play in the end game".

Denis Hickie had spoken before the match about how important it was to give everything on the pitch because it might be the last opportunity. We weren't privy to the fact at that stage but he retired shortly afterwards. He honoured his words and was brilliant that day.

It came to mind when I started to think about Ireland's 2022 Six Nations Championship campaign and I honestly believe that Andy Farrell and the team can't have too many regrets. They wrung pretty much every last drop out of the tournament in terms of achievement based on how the five games panned out.

Sure, you can look at the opening period of the game in Paris and demand a better start, but the Irish team showed character in clambering back into the contest, one that they could still have won at the death.

Big black shadow

There is a big black shadow looming in the summer and that's the next challenge for the group but with it comes the opportunity to break through one of the last few remaining glass ceilings in Irish rugby: a victory over the All Blacks on New Zealand soil.

Scott McLeod, the All Blacks’ defence coach, won’t be short of footage when it comes to Ireland’s new-look attack so it’s reasonable to surmise that Farrell and his coaching team are going to have to add more layers.

Even by the end of the Six Nations as Scotland demonstrated at the Aviva Stadium last Saturday, opposition teams had begun to find a way to stymie some of Ireland's attacking plays. Scottish centre Chris Harris was well aware of the wrap play following a lineout that yielded such easy yards in the wider channels earlier in the tournament.

Ireland without access to quality lineout possession is akin to an engine without fuel

He demonstrated why he was selected for the Lions in South Africa, by being able to defend as well as tackle to a high level. His shape, timing and positional sense frustrated Ireland on several occasions and he offered an example of how the opposition may respond to that specific threat in the Irish attacking playbook.

Previously, France had focused on stopping it at source, obliterating the Irish lineout in the opening 40 minutes of that match at the Stade de France. England were able to deliver the same outcome this time at scrums. While both the lineout and scrums were fixed at half-time in those games, which demonstrates an adept group of coaches, it does highlight an area that opponents will scrutinise.

Ireland without access to quality lineout possession is akin to an engine without fuel. For the short and medium term we cannot rely on a single source of energy from which to base the majority of our attacking patterns.

New Zealand will be thorough in their preparation ahead of the summer Tests and won’t want to replicate what happened during their Dublin defeat last November where they elected to contest very few lineouts: recall how badly that turned out as they struggled to cope with the Irish maul.

Ireland did not get the same latitude in the Six Nations, because the analysts were doing their jobs. For the first time in ages, New Zealand will not be only focused on themselves and that single-minded belief they will win if they play their game. We don’t need to create doubt anymore, it is already there, Ireland now needs to capitalise on it.

New Zealand’s prep will focus front and centre on how Ireland played during the Six Nations Championship. They won’t disregard the lessons from the last match between the countries but the analysis will pick apart Ireland’s performance minutiae from the tournament just completed.

The days of New Zealand players not knowing the names of their northern hemisphere counterparts is over, especially given the pressure on them to atone for that defeat in November and produce typically high-quality displays in front of their supporters. That's a pressure in itself but one that Ian Foster and his coaching team will relish.

Just as Ireland will measure progress in how they fare, the All Blacks will have plenty of performance benchmarks of their own that they will want to hit. Farrell and his coaching team have two choices when it comes to the composition of the touring party; one of those is not really viable.

He can’t simply rest some frontline players and cast the net wider under the auspices of selecting from further down the depth chart with an eye to a World Cup. It won’t be a case of changing the players and delivering the game plan to keep things fresh.

Irish rugby doesn’t possess the depth of quality in playing resources to copy the strategies or development blueprints of Grand Slam champions, France and England, who are both building squad depth to the required size for a World Cup from players who fit the age and form profile.

France are a lot further along this curve in that planning quite obviously hasn’t compromised their ability to win matches in the short term. It’s a very successful twin-track approach.

Smart man

England head coach Eddie Jones is certainly burning through his contacts book in terms of handing out opportunities; the rhyme and reason behind his selection policy isn't immediately obvious to those outside the inner circle. You certainly couldn't accuse the Australian of consistency in personnel terms and that also applies to the coaching team during his tenure.

The English RFU’s backing of Jones is based on a belief that persevering with a coach that has registered three outright Six Nations wins and got England to a World Cup final in Japan is the right thing to do. Jones is a smart man and a very capable coach as he has previously demonstrated and has a standing within those committee rooms.

That’s the reading at face value. An alternative view is that the English union doesn’t possess the money to pay him off. The Italians saved England from a fifth place finish for a second successive Six Nations campaign.

The French will likely continue to add players on their summer tour to Japan and will most likely find a few fresh faces. Ireland does not have that latitude to venture down this path. So the second option is to find another layer to our attack, one that can yield the results we need.

This is not a new starter play from scrums or lineouts to get into the wide channels; good defenders will be able to adapt if we try to recreate the same outcome with a slightly different process. One of the challenges over this tournament has been how we restart our play if the initial carry isn’t quick or the possession clean.

I believe we saw the beginnings of our attack evolving against Scotland

Ireland have been devastatingly efficient when our quick rucks have been at 60 per cent-plus in matches and it is no coincidence that this was dramatically lower against England and France. Now that the opposition, including New Zealand, is spending time trying to stop us there, Ireland need to broaden the base for their attacking game.

One obvious area to focus on is achieving quick rucks from broken play. How Ireland field kicks and counterattacks on turnovers can be areas of the game that would create greater attacking diversity.

The team set-up needs to be brave and ambitious, for example adding a player in the backfield such as Caelan Doris to carry back with the hope of creating a quick ruck for Jamison Gibson-Park to move the ball.

On turnover ball, there is a minimum requirement to make two passes to ensure that the next ruck is as far away as possible. Defences will always tend to set up and get their spacing from the first ruck, so there is almost always space in the wider channels.

Extremely patient

However, I believe we saw the beginnings of our attack evolving against Scotland with massive overloads on the short side. Ireland were extremely patient, not straying from their principles of possession, territory and then scoreboard pressure.

The core values of the Irish attack will be tested by five games in under four weeks in New Zealand, as will be the strength in depth with 40 players likely to tour. There is little scope to change or redesign the attack template at this stage in a season but a massive opportunity to enshrine the philosophy of heads-up rugby.

When we slow the ball down to kick, we pose a very different threat and it feels that we do not regather as many balls as previously did. The aerial dominance of the Rob Kearney and Shane Horgan era is not realistic at the moment, we tend to kick to release pressure rather than genuinely kicking to compete.

This is always going to be a fundamental part of the game but it is not one at which we are built to excel. Pace, tempo and speed of mind have been our friend in recent months and our performances have been really enjoyable to watch. There is competition for places brewing, Farrell will want this to continue and get a few fresh faces in against New Zealand.

It’ll be an interesting casting process over the next few months.