Rugby World Cup: Five talking points from Ireland’s defeat to New Zealand

A substandard performance pockmarked by rank kicking, handling errors and poor execution

After a disappointing 46-14 loss to New Zealand, Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt reflects on another quarter-final exit in a rugby world cup.

 

The result in many respects informs the post mortem. Ireland were hammered on the scoreboard and the only point of dispute is to analyse how much of the pain and landfill of points conceded was self inflicted and what portion was down to the periodic excellence of New Zealand. The short answer is ‘a lot’ in the first instance and ‘a little’ in the second.

The 46-14 scoreline brooks no argument but it was the manner of the defeat in captain Rory Best and coach Joe Schmidt’s final game with the national side that will smart more than the final margin. Ireland’s performance was appreciably substandard, pockmarked by rank kicking, handling errors, poor execution and flawed decision making.

Tadhg Beirne claims a lineout ahead of New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick during the Rugby World Cup quarter-final in Tokyo. Photograph: Hannah Peters/Getty Images
Tadhg Beirne claims a lineout ahead of New Zealand’s Brodie Retallick during the Rugby World Cup quarter-final in Tokyo. Photograph: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Selection

Hindsight offers 20-20 vision but there’s no doubt that Schmidt’s decision to put faith in some of the senior figures rather than opting for in-form players backfired on the day. Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell, Dave Kilcoyne, Rhys Ruddock, and to a slightly lesser extent Tadhg Beirne, have been standout players for Ireland during the tournament.

Schmidt invested in good faith in those he chose but in several cases it didn’t elicit the response he needed. And while the aforementioned quintet might not have changed the outcome they might have elevated the quality of performance.

The Ireland coach spoke afterwards that they had a number of players nursing knocks going into the game, something that they had tried to keep quiet in the build-up, and it does partially explain the shortfall in dynamism, energy and power. Some of Ireland’s players looked tired mentally and careworn physically.

However, it cannot camouflage the playing rut from which Ireland have struggled to emerge for much of 2019 and the fact that individual loss of form was compounded by a gameplan that was affected and infected as a result.

In time of crisis Ireland became narrower and more predictable in attack, kick too much ball when unsure and when looking to inject a higher pace have been undermined by a skills or decision making breakdown. Other countries changed personnel and playing orientation over the past couple of years to be World Cup ready, none more so than England and New Zealand.

Conor Murray launches a box kick during the quarter-final against New Zealand. Photograph: Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images
Conor Murray launches a box kick during the quarter-final against New Zealand. Photograph: Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images

Kicking game

It was dreadful for the most part, missed penalties to touch, kicks that drifted to a different postcode from the chasers, cross-kicks that didn’t require the All Blacks to even get off the ground to win the ball, thereby handing time and space, two absolute ‘no-nos’ against the All Blacks, and allowing New Zealand to counterattack under no initial pressure.

The kicking turnovers came at crucial times and were symptomatic of the general malaise. Ireland’s accuracy in execution terms was noticeably off kilter but undoubtedly the most disturbing was the sub-par, kicking game which was miles below standards expected; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray and Joey Carbery must all take responsibility.

Ireland scrumhalf Conor Murray is tackled by New Zealand scrumhalf Aaron Smith. Photograph: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images
Ireland scrumhalf Conor Murray is tackled by New Zealand scrumhalf Aaron Smith. Photograph: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images

Static runners

Once again Ireland were quite narrow and predictable in their carrying game but what was even more debilitating was that more often than not the receiver took the ball either standing, or shuffling forward. Contrast this with New Zealand’s carrying, where the passer had multiple options, all of whom were charging onto the ball, from deep and with impeccable timing.

The All Blacks also looked to keep the ball alive in and through the tackle and were effective in popping up passes from a prone position to the supporting player; it was perfectly showcased in Codie Taylor’s try but there were so many other examples.

When Ireland’s ball carriers, for the most part easily identified, did take possession to the gainline they were met by two or three New Zealanders. If not driven back, it slowed ruck ball and forced Ireland to throw numbers into the ruck to rescue possession.

Ireland’s Rob Kearney is tackled by New Zealand’s Kieran Read. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Ireland’s Rob Kearney is tackled by New Zealand’s Kieran Read. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Turnovers

It didn’t matter whether through poor kicking or handling but the rate at which Ireland offered possession back to their opponents completely undermined any desire to control territory and possession. Ireland conceded 11 turnovers in the first half and 17 in total. Any hope they had of sustaining pressure and taking New Zealand through the phases evaporated with each mistake; some induced by pressure but too many that weren’t.

New Zealand comfortably defended Ireland’s lineout maul and with no attacking traction from the set piece, shut down a large tranche of the latter’s attacking playbook.

New Zealand’s Matt Todd is given a yellow card by referee Nigel Owens. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
New Zealand’s Matt Todd is given a yellow card by referee Nigel Owens. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

Discipline and defence

Ireland’s tackle completion rate was down at 79 per cent, missing 29 of 137, and that can be partly explained by the fact that giving New Zealand time in possession and on the ball will invariably lead to mistakes in defence. As the game went on Ireland took a few gambles in shooting out of the line, but the All Blacks identified this and had no problem in ensuring that the pass reached the intended receiver.

One statistic that stuck and struck to some degree was that New Zealand conceded 12 penalties to Ireland’s six with the teams sharing the possession stakes, 50-50 and yet the All Blacks won the match by 32 points. That’s a two-to-one penalty count in Ireland’s favour and yet they still didn’t land a blow until the game was effectively over.

It’s an unfortunate way for Best and Schmidt’s time with Ireland to end, both wonderful servants to the cause. Unfortunately professional sport rarely accommodates sentiment when the outcome is up for grabs.

Ireland’s World Cup misery continues but however acute the disappointment it shouldn’t subsume into a negative light the contribution of the captain and coach or tarnish their respective legacies that are overwhelmingly memorable and successful.

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