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Gordon D’Arcy: Why Ireland must starve All Blacks of possession

The task of beating New Zealand is enormous but these players have done it before

Ireland’s CJ Stander and Josh van der Flier tackle New Zealand’s Richie Mo’unga at the Aviva Stadium last November. Ireland must deny the All Blacks possession and momentum. Photograph: billy Stickland/Inpho

Playing these men in black stays with you forever.

I’ve been soaked and sodden in the trenches of a dark New Zealand winter. Those midweek Lions games in 2005. I’ve been speared on my head by Ma’a Nonu at Lansdowne Road not six months after the same fate took a season from Brian O’Driscoll.

The All Blacks do not like to lose and they are willing to do whatever it takes to prevent it. Maybe this is their final too. It’s certainly ours.

Johnny Sexton knows how to finish them off. He has both failed and succeeded in this endeavour. These games don't leave you. They have no place to go. So they linger.


I remember Nigel Owens awarding that scrum penalty in Christchurch in 2012. I’ll never forget Dan Carter’s drop goal. We came agonisingly close to catching them that night.

Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip, Fergus McFadden and Jonathan Sexton watch as New Zealand’s Dan Carter scores a match-winning drop goal in Christchurch in 2012. Photograph: Anthony Phelps/Reuters

Want to know how? Simple. We muscled up. Nobody went missing. That's how we stayed in a Test match with the All Blacks, right to the bitter end. We played our game. Kicked to the corner. Sexton landed his penalties. Conor Murray scored a try.

Beating them is another matter. I never got to taste that but Conor and Johnny have. They know.

How can it be done? Simple. You frustrate them to the point of error. Every man has his breaking point. If the whistle of Nigel Owens – one of several leading males in the epic tale that is about to unfold – shrills on 80 minutes with big fat zeros beside the names of Beauden Barrett and Ardie Savea when it comes to offloading and line breaks then victory will belong to Ireland.

This is possible. We have done this to them before. Visualise it happening again. Barrett had 26 carries for 49 metres, beating eight defenders, in the 2018 game at the Aviva. Such numbers cannot be allowed to reoccur.

I remember 2013 like it was last week. The agony of that loss will never fade but I know the hurt fuelled the boys who carried the torch to Chicago. I could feel how that victory brought our national rugby team to the majestic heights of last November's titanic win in Dublin.

The task of beating New Zealand is enormous. Only France, South Africa and Australia have managed it at the World Cup. Each defeat is a game for the ages.

The Irish wins over New Zealand come with excuses (if the Kiwis want but they usually opt for revenge). In Soldier Field, New Zealand desperately missed their engine room of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. In Dublin last year they were coming off the end of a long hard season and seven days beforehand England had softened them up at Twickenham.

A chance

That’s not to take away from two brilliant Irish performances.

I’m just saying this is a World Cup quarter-final. I am just writing with the memory of those scintillating double blows the All Blacks inflicted on the mighty Springboks not a month ago. I am also saying we have a chance. Nothing more, nothing less.

In 2013, I remember blocking the offloads of Nonu and Ben Smith with the same levels of concentration I employed to make sure my technique was flawless when putting these powerful runners to ground.

So far in Japan, Barrett has four clean breaks, 14 defenders beaten and two offloads. Keep those numbers intact. Savea has been man-marked by Ireland in the past. Do it again.

I am not asking for the impossible to become reality. Just that previous discipline, defensive standards and levels of concentration are repeated.

The players will relish this week. The game plan will be tweaked ever so slightly from previous New Zealand games but it will be enjoyable training sessions. Familiar. High intensity stuff where everybody is tuned in. There's one or two players who are hoping almost beyond hope Joe will change his mind and select them. There are guys with niggles swallowing pain to run hard Tuesday morning out in Urayasu Park.

I know what Johnny, Pete and Rory will be like. Rob and Cian too. These are men who between them have won and done it all in rugby. Well, everything but play in a World Cup semi-final. Not all of them are going to make it. Sacrifice is needed.

Japan are playing like Ireland are meant to be performing at this World Cup. It all comes down to phenomenal work rate. When you don’t break the gainline, yet the entire backline is set and holding their depth, you always have a chance on the next play.

Tony Brown is coaching at Joe Schmidt levels of proficiency. But, have no doubt, Schmidt has everyone tuned into a tactical blueprint that can deliver in Tokyo.

The Samoa game wasn't enough evidence for me to be truly confident. The players in the team give me confidence. Nothing in the last 11 months does. In the Six Nations, defeats to England and Wales did serious damage to Ireland's chances at this tournament. The August recovery from Twickenham, those warm-up victories over Wales, would not prove enough to get them out of trouble against Japan. Not without Johnny.

The talk this week from the Ireland camp about external criticism was baffling to me. There is no need. None of this should matter. Do or die on Saturday or 2019 goes down as a very poor year for Irish rugby. Not as bad as 2007 but up there with 2003 and 2011.

Monumental displays

This is Ireland’s World Cup final. I hope selection is based on form not sentiment. I certainly don’t place any weight on the fact New Zealand haven’t played a real Test match for a month or pulled on the black jersey for two weeks. None at all.

New Zealand coach Steve Hansen respects Joe but not enough to mention the name of his team. He didn’t use the word “Ireland” in his press briefing. For the All Blacks this is all about how they perform. I presume Ireland have a similar attitude (except when it comes to man-marking Barrett and Savea).

Ireland’s Conor Murray celebrates Robbie Henshaw’s try in Chicago which clinched Ireland’s first victory over New Zealand. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

What needs to happen is Ireland must frustrate the hell out of New Zealand, imprint the word "Ireland" in their psyche forever more, and that starts in the same place they hurt them in Chicago. Iain Henderson and James Ryan need to overshadow Retallick and Whitelock. They must overpower two of the biggest and most powerful men to ever wear the black jersey. They need to disrupt the lineout and deliver a flawless Irish set piece that yields tries via the maul.

They both need to produce monumental displays. Both men are capable of doing this. It is in both of them. If Ireland are to smash the glass ceiling, the names Henderson and Ryan must ring out around the skinny alleyways of Shinjuku deep into Sunday morning.

The same applies to Peter O’Mahony in his war against . . . everybody. Really, it is the Munster captain against Sam Cane. Josh van der Flier will be making tackles, getting up clearing rucks, making more tackles, clearing more rucks. Same goes for CJ Stander.

O’Mahony needs to make plays. Again, we know it is in him.

Something never seen before will need to happen. Could it come from Dave Kilcoyne?

I was lucky to play with players such as Trevor Brennan, Trevor Hogan, Kurt McQuilkin, Keith Gleeson who proved that hard work beats talent every day of the week. Especially on a Saturday. That can be Kilcoyne.

I’m on about the front five a lot. This is where New Zealand are always beaten. That and close to zero missed tackles along with a penalty count that is in the low end of single figures. In the 2018 match the All Blacks were only allowed nine offloads and five clean line breaks across their entire team. That is how they are stopped. Never let them get started. Ireland coughed up five penalties to their opponents’ 11.

I remember 2013. I remember the super human feats of Richie McCaw when it dawned on him – after Johnny’s penalty sailed wide – that there was a sliver of hope he could avoid being the first All Black captain to lose to Ireland. I remember a young Barrett’s desire to get on the ball. I remember Ryan Crotty.

Great players

New Zealand still have great players in their ranks – there is no denying that – but I’m still to be convinced Sonny Bill Williams is the same dominant force we saw turn the 2015 World Cup final with a power carry and offload for Nonu. They don’t have a Conrad Smith type midfielder anymore. Or a McCaw (despite Savea being a spectacular hybrid flanker).

Ireland must frustrate the life out of them. Ireland must be ready to ruin the inevitable shift of Barrett into outhalf. Before that, they must cut down Richie Mo’unga’s ability to control the game like a traditional second five-eighth.

Own them in the aerial contests.

In 2016, Ireland posted 40 points to beat them. Not sure this team can repeat those heights. It must be a different game. It must be a Test match of messy, ridiculously high levels of intensity.

Give New Zealand precisely what Hansen is expecting – Murray's box kick to contest by Keith Earls or Andrew Conway and Johnny to create scores like no other 10 can – no alarms and no surprise.

Win it playing Schmidt’s rugby. Starve them of possession. That is the only way.