The Ireland management would not have envisaged how the opening two matches of the tour to New Zealand have panned out, less so perhaps from a result perspective, more the performances. When a team preps diligently, no one anticipates a situation where performances are undermined by being sloppy and inaccurate in handling and the set piece.
The focus is on being accurate in every detail, managing the game intelligently and being ruthless in taking opportunities. Ireland managed to cover very little of those tasks adequately and the way the performance disintegrated in a nine-minute spell before the interval of the first Test was eye-opening.
It has been a less than auspicious opening to the tour and there is little to suggest that the prospects look any brighter heading to the weekend and beyond. New Zealand, the second-best side in the world rankings, will be better in performance terms than in their 42-19 victory but the more salient question is will Ireland? The jury is out on that one.
Andy Farrell and his coaching staff would have recognised the importance of momentum from the opening game of the tour and the fact that Ireland got none from their defeat to the Maori All Blacks made the task of becoming the first team in 28 years to win a Test match at Eden Park even more difficult.
Injuries complicated one or two aspects of the preparation for a squad that already looked a little light on numbers even before departing for New Zealand. For the marquee games Ireland do not deviate much in selection from the tried to trusted, so the team that started against the All Blacks was not a surprise, the selection based on a reliance on senior players and less so, in several cases, on current form.
The talent pool is quite shallow to compete in the top end Test environment, a fact that has been proven to a degree already and I feel that the overall Irish performance reflected the form of players coming into this tour.
The same areas of concern for the provinces were weaknesses against the All Blacks. The set piece is an important tenet in Ireland’s attacking patterns; New Zealand managed to easily disrupt that platform to the tune of four or five turnovers. The All Blacks tend to not give you many scrum feeds due to the high quality of their skill base.
It begs the question from an Irish perspective as to whether there is enough quality outside of the ‘first choice’ players in each position to realistically compete with larger nations?
In clutch games this season when teams have spoiled the set piece and breakdown, Irish teams have struggled. I also feel that the form of certain players coming into this series has been reflected in the results. Caelan Doris, Tadhg Furlong, Jamison Gibson-Park, Garry Ringrose, James Lowe and James Ryan have been out of sorts in their most recent run of games compared to what they are able to deliver by their own high standards.
There were flashes here and there last Saturday but brief cameos will never suffice to beat the All Blacks. History articulates that point eloquently. In 2012 Dan Carter snapped over a late drop goal in Christchurch to beat us 22-19 after they had worked the ball 70 metres up the pitch.
The following year in Dublin the All Blacks went through multiple phases in the last play of the game to snatch victory from our grasp. You can never take anything for granted against New Zealand and their ability to produce scoring bursts was once again demonstrated by Ardie Savea and Sevu Reece.
The capacity for individuals to contribute to big moments was something that Ireland lacked in the match. Farrell’s side scored well-worked team tries but moment of individual impetus were few and far between; Peter O’Mahony’s steal and chip or Lowe’s offload possibly the pick of the bunch.
Ireland were undermined by unforced errors. There were aspects of the team’s attacking patterns that were excellent but ultimately the game plan was undone by poor decisions and basic mistakes.
Selection-wise, there seems to be little wriggle room, and in direct comparison to our northern hemisphere compatriots, our squad has evolved very little when it comes to the big matches. England are almost unrecognisable from 12-18 months ago. France began the regeneration process more than two and a half years ago but are still happy to add a player here and there to the matchday 23.
It begs the question from an Irish perspective as to whether there is enough quality outside of the ‘first choice’ players in each position to realistically compete with larger nations? The short answer is that there is clearly a lack of strength in depth capable of playing in the highest echelons of Test rugby.
This has been reflected in selection with Robert Baloucoune and James Hume both being overlooked for Test minutes during the season, and Furlong and Andrew Porter starting against an exceptionally poor Italian team.
From the outside it seems that changes are only made for important matches because of injury and that those who deputise understand that their promotion is temporary. As a player it is not a great environment. If you have a jersey, you should always feel under pressure to retain it. If that is not the case, then the system is not working.
When I won my first four or five caps, I knew that no matter how I played I was merely minding the jersey for the incumbent. This season has seen a heavy bias towards the top Irish players starting in nearly every high-quality match and the tariff for that is being potentially paid now.
The narrow concentration of selection in the tight five has rendered Ireland vulnerable and New Zealand capitalised on that last Saturday. When fit and firing our starting frontrow is possibly the best in the world, Andrew Porter, Rónan Kelleher, Tadhg Furlong, with Dan Sheehan a top-class replacement hooker.
Currently though the scrum is struggling, Furlong’s clearly running on fumes and while Sheehan’s general play is exceptional the malfunctioning lineout has shined a light on his throwing. In the absence of either a 6′ 10′' Devin Toner-style player, a wily lineout caller or Sheehan’s ability to mix his throwing style, the Irish lineout has become unreliable.
Having consulted some former lineout oracles, I am not sure that this can be fixed in this campaign window. New Zealand will double down on this weakness. I counted at least three times where Sheehan had to adjust his position due to New Zealand creeping over the mark.
Ireland did little to address it, and the slow nature of the lineout call and the lack of movement and poor execution played into New Zealand’s hands. Considering that Ireland wanted to play quickly the lack of tempo out of touch was striking.
Sexton’s presence is like a comfort blanket but Ireland are going to have to learn to go to those dark places without it
I wrote previously about momentum being key in this campaign, and Ireland are now at the lower end of that scale. The selection of incumbents in the opening Test was understandable and expected. However, with the injuries to Hume, now at home, and Harry Byrne, there is likely to be little change to the starting 15.
Outside of Gavin Coombes and Bundee Aki there appear few options to freshen up the team; that would not be the case in a vibrant, healthy squad where there is genuine competition for places.
Farrell adamantly stating that Sexton can still play having passed his HIA assessments does little to inspire confidence in the other three 10s on tour.
Picking more or less the same 23 after a pretty bruising encounter from which Ireland emerged on the wrong side of the scoreboard and expecting a different result, smacks of blind faith. Changing the outcome will require more than simply tuning performance values.
Last Saturday’s game was effectively decided in an 11-minute spell in which Ireland imploded, but credit too must go to a slight wrinkle in the New Zealand shape; that and the quality of scrumhalf Aaron Smith’s passing. His ability to choose the right option is uncanny, Jordie Barrett’s try a great example. I believe Gibson-Park has that same ability, but we are not providing the same options for him that we were earlier in the season, or least often enough last Saturday to consistently stress NZ.
Ireland will look to adapt to the New Zealand attack shape, improve their accuracy in defence and feel they can genuinely go again this week. Sexton’s presence is like a comfort blanket but Ireland are going to have to learn to go to those dark places without it. That elephant in the room will need to be addressed another time as Ireland’s hopes for this tour are now shrink-wrapped into Saturday’s second Test.
It’s not about development, it’s not about depth, it’s not about opportunity, it’s about winning a match. There was a chance to look at all those other things, but it was largely ignored in picking the best available players based on class and not form in some cases.
Win and the tour takes on a new life, a new look with the possibility for a more developmental phase in the last week. Lose, and well, it really will be an all-black scenario for those final seven days.