New Zealanders don’t dole out rugby compliments lightly so Scott McLeod’s glowing appraisal of the World Cup match between Ireland and South Africa is worth considering. The former centre, who has been the All Blacks defence coach since 2017 after taking over from Wayne Smith, cast a critical eye on that aspect of the game in Paris.
“I was hugely impressed with the intensity of the game. The set piece pressure was huge from both sides but the defence and the movement and the collisions for as long as it was [80-plus minutes] was immense. A lot of us were really impressed while watching that game. It’s definitely the standard.
“It gets the boys buzzing. They can see it and they can feel it in the speed. It is not something that we have talked about as a group at all but the players have talked about it amongst themselves and there is a buzz that excites them. That’s the level that they want to play at, so it excites us.”
McLeod pointed to the fact that the ferocity with which both teams hit the breakdown was matched by technical excellence. “That’s what impressed me the most, the speed of play, but the collisions were clean.
“They were very clean and accurate and there was no infringing around that area. It is a bloody hard thing to do at that speed and with those collisions where those bodies are flying everywhere; both teams did that very well, it was very impressive.”
Although he smiled when admitting that he was “biased”, he was happy with the way that the match officials were allowing a contest at the breakdown. “I don’t want to make too much of a point of it because as a defence coach we like to be able to turn that ball over.
“The refs are definitely seeing that picture very clearly and they are rewarding the people that win. Even if we are not on the ball, we still want to test the skill-set of the cleaners or the people looking after that ball. I feel that the referees have got a really good handle on that.”
New Zealand play their penultimate pool match against Italy on Friday night at the OL stadium in Lyons before finishing the pool campaign at the same venue seven days later against Uruguay. The disappointment and frustration of losing the opening game against France was partially expunged in the game against Namibia. The All Blacks are fit and ready to fire.
When asked if he has noticed an improvement in Italy as a team under the guidance of fellow Kiwi Kieran Crowley, McLeod said: “Yeah definitely, we have had some good games with them over the years on tour. This year in the Six Nations, they pushed every team. Last year they won some critical games.
“They have really evolved their attack from what I can see. They had the fastest ‘ball available’ in the Six Nations. So that’s better than Ireland, that’s quick. They know their game and play it well. They are a team that can recycle the ball very fast, and they have upped their skill-set in terms of their pass and running lines.
“They keep the defenders engaged for a long time and hold them and they have the ability to play out the back or play the guy right next to them. That’s quite hard to defend. You need a certain skill-set to read what’s happening and be able to defend quickly.
“They are very good at sweeping around to an edge, trying to bunch you in the middle and then [moving the ball] to an edge, much like France do. We have plans in place on how we combat that.
“We have trained hard around our tackle height and getting out of that ruck area while [enabling] our second man, and potentially our third, to take that ball or slow that ball, because that’s what[Italy] live off. That’s what their system survives on, how they gain their confidence and enables their passion; we want to take that away.”
McLeod paused briefly in addressing one final question about whether Ireland would be a good matchup for the All Blacks in a quarter-final. “I have rats and possums on my property and that’s a trap right there. I know what a trap looks like, I know what a trap smells like and that to me is a trap right there.
“We deal with what is in front of us. Italy are a very good side and if we look too far ahead and start thinking about others, we will come undone and we can’t. Thanks for that.” The laughter had barely subsided by the time he left the room.