Gregor Paul: Ireland need to want to play with the ball not without it

Leading New Zealand rugby writer says Ireland must learn from Argentina template

When all is said and done at this World Cup, the All Blacks will say a little thank you to Ireland for beating France in their final Pool D clash.

Forget all the stuff bout 2007 that was written in the build up to New Zealand’s quarter-final clash. They always wanted to play the French because the All Blacks saw Ireland as a better balanced and more dangerous opponent than France.

The cold, clinical analysis, which turned out to be spot on, was that the French were poorly equipped in the key physical areas and didn’t have the players or patience to keep the All Blacks under sustained pressure. Playing France allowed the All Blacks to show their incredible array of skills and just why they are World Cup favourites.

If it had been Ireland, all that would have been different. Or rather if it had been a full Ireland team rather than the Ireland-Lite that was forced into action against the Pumas, it would have been different.


The way the All Blacks saw it, Ireland would have taken them into some tricky spots, kept the outcome in doubt until the last 10 minutes and demanded a reasonably large emotional and physical investment to get the job done.

All Black head coach Steve Hansen is an admirer of Joe Schmidt and his coaching philosophy. Hansen can see what Schmidt has done: he's instilled the same sort of attention to detail that permeates the All Blacks.

Two differ

He’s made players take responsibility for all aspects of their performance and lifestyle, just as Hansen has done with the All Blacks. But where the two differ is in the vision they each have for their respective teams. Ireland’s greatest strength is also their greatest weakness.

Hansen has built what he calls a triple-threat game. It’s an entirely simple philosophy that says there has to be space somewhere on the field and it will be found by either running, passing or kicking into it.

It's a game plan that caters for expression of skills, of which the All Blacks have plenty. They want to keep the ball, use the ball and – a little like Newcastle United under Kevin Keegan – they say if the opposition score four tries, they will reply with five.

The impression of Ireland is that they don’t want to play so much rugby and are ambivalent about having the ball.

They kick and chase superbly. They get off the line sharply and the forwards are the best in the world at getting under the ball carrier and holding him up.

Ireland are a side that can build the pressure and squeeze opponents and the All Blacks knew that’s what they would try to do them if they had met in the quarter-final. It would have presented them with a significantly tougher challenge than the one France posed but Ireland’s conservatism would inevitably have been their undoing.

That sort of grinding gameplan doesn't work so well against Southern Hemisphere opposition. Endlessly hoping to force opponents into making mistakes or having such a low-risk profile might work in the Six Nations, but it's a recipe for disaster when taking on the likes of the All Blacks, Australia and South Africa.

It is also, as Ireland discovered, not the right way to play Argentina either. The Pumas have evolved into the team they now are precisely because they learned what Ireland still haven't – that a significant level of skill and adventure has to be developed to have any hope of beating the big boys.

No ambition

Argentina were, probably, about where Ireland are now when they first entered the Rugby Championship in 2012. They had the scrummaging power, the lineout smarts and physicality across the field to believe they were going to be competitive – but their overall skill level with ball in hand was relatively poor and they had virtually no ambition or desire to play with any continuity.

That all changed when they hired former All Black coach Graham Henry as a consultant. He persuaded them they had a fundamental decision to make: they could continue on the path they were and remain sporadically competitive. Catch the likes of Australia on a bad day and sneak the odd win. Victories would be few and far between he reckoned, but that was their choice.

The alternative he encouraged was to kick less and run more: use the scrum to launch attacking moves rather than as a mechanism to force penalties. Build a counterattack game and largely encourage all players to look for space and not contact as a first instinct.

It’s taken a few years for the transition to play through, but all those who have watched the Rugby Championship since 2012 could see the growth in the Pumas and have seen them build pace and creativity into their landscape.

Argentina have learned how to use the ball – to be the masters of their own destiny by using possession in a way that suits their players. They have learned that to be a genuine threat, they have to be willing to find and create space and then exploit it.

In the old days, they were only willing to keep the ball for long enough to win the chance to kick penalties.

There is a lesson here for Ireland; that they stand now where Argentina did in 2012 with a simple choice to make.

If Ireland want to become a semi-final team, then they have to develop a greater set of attacking skills; more composure to execute those under pressure and adopt a new mindset that says they want to play with the ball, not without it.

Gregor Paul is head rugby writer for the New Zealand Herald on Sunday