Ireland forced New Zealand into a deeply uncomfortable place at the Aviva stadium, largely unrelenting in their physical and tactical application, playing with courage and belief and in doing so being true to the principles of a gameplan that has produced two handsome victories in the Autumn Nations series. It was a victory for the ages in style and substance.
It’s not a question of getting carried away. Perspective belongs to the beholder. There is a counter-argument for those who feel that New Zealand had a collective off day, that they were tired at the end of a long season or that it was a “friendly”, but I can vouch from personal experience that the All Blacks don’t do friendly matches; everything you get, you earn.
No team is immune to pressure, even the world number one ranked team. Ireland hassled and harried New Zealand into making poor decisions and on foot of those basic errors ensued.
At no stage did the Irish players doubt the gameplan or shrink back into a more conservative approach. They kept going and that was a key to the win
And yet the All Blacks could have won the game, that remarkable rope-a-dope goal-line defiance in the first half as Ireland tried to pummel their way over the line, allied to a moment of creativity that gave them a 10-5 half-time lead.
Will Jordan’s try in the second half highlighted the All Blacks’ capacity to strike in a heartbeat. Two sharp passes from Richie Mo’unga and David Havili gave their team-mate a little leeway; he finished brilliantly. Akira Ioane’s correctly disallowed try was yet another reminder of their potency from quick, front foot possession.
New Zealand have dominated opponents on both sides of the ball in virtually every game this year and are masters of transitioning from defence into attack: you blink, they score.
That’s what makes Ireland’s win all the more outstanding. At no stage did the Irish players doubt the gameplan or shrink back into a more conservative approach. They kept going and that was a key to the win. A team expends more energy defending and it can leave the tank pretty depleted when it comes time to attack.
New Zealand had to make so many tackles – 235 in total and more than double their opponents’ tally – that when they did get a chance to attack they made some uncharacteristic mistakes. That also drains energy levels when you’re chasing a game.
Keith Earls’s tackle on Sevu Reece was a classic illustration, forcing the New Zealander into a poorly directed pass. When a team is trying to survive on meagre rations every mistake is amplified, chipping away psychologically.
Caelan Doris showcased his prodigious talent to a wider, international audience. If there were doubts about his capacity to influence a game from blindside flanker, they were put to bed. He was outstanding in a backrow that was balanced and perfectly suited to the style that Farrell and his coaching team are looking to encourage.
During my time with Ireland the backrow of Stephen Ferris, David Wallace and Jamie Heaslip was arguably the best and one that provided the best balance in blended skillsets for that unit. Doris, Josh van der Flier and Jack Conan look like being pretty serious rivals.
Once described as being predictable with the ball, now the variety of ball carriers and playmakers has given Ireland an attack that is on par with their peers
When New Zealand are in their pomp – I have been in Irish teams on the receiving end of some of their premier performances – their backrow stands out. How often would you marvel at the athleticism of players like Jerome Kaino, Victor Vito, Kieran Read and one of the sport’s greatest players, Richie McCaw, as they cast a long, black shadow over matches?
On Saturday, the New Zealand backrow was outplayed, a legacy of a dominant Irish tight five that pulled Ethan Blackadder, Dalton Papali’i and Ardie Savea into a firefight at the breakdown and on the gain-line.
Ireland bossed the collisions and the All Blacks needed supplementary numbers to try to stem the flow of green shirts into their backfield. Conan and Doris were able to roam the wider channels while van der Flier, apart from his usual duties, has added a very effective carrying role, coming onto the ball from deep and at pace. It adds value.
Conan’s speed and evasion in the wider channels has been a joy to watch, while his durability has been impressive. Injury-free and buoyed by the confidence that the Lions tour would have instilled, his talent is obvious for everyone to see.
Doris is the crown jewel in the backrow. His contact work is exceptional, setting him apart from anyone else in Irish rugby at the moment. His ability to find soft shoulders in tight areas, to shift his balance and the long powerful strides make him extremely hard to defend – as New Zealand hooker Codie Taylor will attest.
There were other elements to celebrate in that try: Rónan Kelleher’s power through contact, James Ryan’s clear-out, the speed and presentation of the ruck ball, and Jamison Gibson-Park’s sympathetic pass. That’s how to play heads-up rugby.
Kelleher produced a hugely physical and composed performance that belies his years; there’s little doubt that working with Paul O’Connell has facilitated that development and I’m pretty sure given him a greater understanding.
Rather than defaulting to a maul, Ireland used the lineout to condense the New Zealand forwards and attack in softer, wider channels. The maul was employed as a tempo change rather than the primary assault. It’s those nuances within the patterns that make a difference.
Once described as being predictable with the ball, now the variety of ball carriers and playmakers has given Ireland an attack that is on par with their peers. The decision-making is shared, thereby less reliant on Johnny Sexton to provide all the creativity.
Garry Ringrose slotted into first receiver seamlessly, a welcome outsourcing of that role, but there's no doubt that the catalyst for much of what Ireland did so well was provided by Gibson-Park and James Lowe.
Ireland’s scrumhalf quickened the tempo by shifting the ball and forcing Irish players onto it whether they were fully set or not. The upshot is that if the attack is hustling to get set then the defence will be under huge pressure; inadequately spaced or poorly set defenders will be sucked into desperate decisions.
Gibson-Park’s vision was perfectly illustrated in the build-up to the Lowe try. He chose to hit Ringrose and Doris when there were easier passes on, both of whom made significant yardage and helped to condense New Zealand’s defence. It’s about choosing wisely from the many options in those circumstances. It’s a skill that should not be underestimated.
Thrilling to watch
Lowe roamed where he pleased and broke the gain-line time and again, racking up the metres as he often broke the first tackle. It was thrilling to watch. A coach doesn’t have to tie Lowe down to detail because the player has a keen instinct as to where he can do maximum damage. Farrell trusts Lowe to go hunting for the ball and invariably his team-mates will benefit from what he delivers.
The tackle on Rieko Ioane was a pivotal moment but so too was the one on Will Jordan that also saved a try. As a player you are always challenged to get better on parts of your game. Lowe went away and worked on where he needed to improve and that has paid dividends for both the individual and the team.
There are lessons to be learned from the last time that Ireland beat the All Blacks, in 2018, in that there was no release of the pressure valve and it manifested in the following Six Nations. Matches of that nature take an emotional as well as physical toll.
Farrell will know that he needs to make changes for Sunday's game against Argentina for a variety of reasons, one of which will be to protect players from themselves
There is a heap of rugby to be played in the coming months and the majority of the players in the Irish camp need a bit of distance from the game, regardless of minutes played before last Saturday, if we are serious about being successful in the Six Nations and heading for New Zealand next summer with a positive mindset.
Shane Lowry put it well after he won the British Open when he suggested that nobody tells you how to come down the mountain. The Irish team has two major climbs ahead.
Ireland have enjoyed two great wins over Japan and the All Blacks with largely the same group of players. Farrell will know that he needs to make changes for Sunday’s game against Argentina for a variety of reasons, one of which will be to protect players from themselves. No one is going to not want to play.
Argentina will provide an abrasive, physical challenge up front that a team has to meet head-on. You need to be fresh mentally and physically. There are other considerations. Ireland have a system of play and it’s time to find out who can adapt to the demands. There’s no point in trying to force square pegs into round holes.
Johnny Sexton’s injury is an unfortunate legacy from the All Blacks match but he probably wouldn’t have played at the weekend. Joey Carbery should get a chance to run a Test match from the first whistle, with Harry Byrne getting some minutes from the bench. Conor Murray and Craig Casey might also get a chance in a similar structure.
Robbie Henshaw will return, Dan Sheehan, Tom O’Toole, James Hume, Robert Baloucoune, Gavin Coombes and Ryan Baird will be hoping to make the matchday 23 in some capacity. Several players from the bench may start. Farrell will want a win over the Pumas to complete a clean sweep but at the same time aware that it is an opportunity to look deeper into the playing group.
With the incumbents performing at such a high level having set lofty standards, Farrell can now ask players to show him why he should choose them. He wants competition for places. You, as a player, never get to pick your opportunity, but this is as good as they come; let’s see who sticks their head above the parapet.
Farrell’s ahead of the curve in terms of what Ireland have achieved through the first two matches, and that allows wriggle room to chop and change in looking past the 80 minutes against Argentina at the Aviva stadium on Sunday afternoon.