Liam Toland: All Blacks are not perfect – but Ireland need to be

There are a million things New Zealand do better than us but Ireland can still prevail

At half time in the World Cup final, the All Blacks arrived back out on the pitch five minutes early: to do what? Clearly, Steve Hansen had his priorities as he had them conduct four-man laterals such as are completed in every warm-up in every rugby ground in Ireland – but with a difference. How many passes does every New Zealander, regardless of position, make every match?

Well, a better stat is the number that come off a turnover ball; or better again, how many are flat, right on the gainline, almost forward, with every receiver liable to break a tackle? It infuriates me that we don’t practice these skills at underage level but then expect a better outcome.

Off scrums, they maximise the five- metre defensive line by setting up really flat, getting the ball flat through the hands and always getting beyond the line of scrummage.

Off lineouts, they align deeper but arrive flat and with tonnes of options.


Off turnover, they are devastating.

They also have the haka. Why do our athletes stand in front of it knowing it has delivered 44 home wins in a row since September 2009 and that it has not lost to Ireland in 111 years?

As John Le Carré noted, it was Ernest Hemmingway who insisted on putting himself into harm's way for his chosen art as this raised his threshold of fear, because in battle, as in love, desire escalates.

There's no doubt desire will be high in the Irish dressing-room. But I'm so disappointed that both Seán O'Brien and Peter O'Mahony are not on the bench to be sprung with 20 minutes to go. Add in Iain Henderson and all of a sudden my modest optimism from last Friday is ebbing.

So can Ireland win? Of course they can, especially as those "new" New Zealand players, although brilliant, have yet to experience Northern Hemisphere rugby and are vulnerable to what ifs.

What if "we" are behind to a team we've never lost to? Remember we are down Luke Romano, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. So what if Devin Toner steals our lineout ball? What if the Irish scrum performs as it did in the June 2012 second Test?

What if Johnny Sexton manages green grass like they've never seen before? Certainly better than Springbok outhalf Elton Jantjies? What if they are put into a place they've never been? Sexton can put them there; Jantjies could not.

What if the heart and fringes of the breakdown are targeted by the Irish? Hence, dictating New Zealand’s style of tackle onto the Irish ball-carrier is crucial to the evolving recycle. Pace hurts even the All Blacks and their ruck fringe and heart is vulnerable.

How New Zealand defend this is so crucial, as we know Ireland have a wide gameplan from deep that narrows as it approaches the opposition line. Hence New Zealand will need to be sucked wider or there’ll be little space to exploit in our traditional channel of attack.

Eke out space

I wonder what phase Ireland wish to do their damage? For example, will they want to avoid giving New Zealand lineouts? Ireland need to move the point of contact wider, initially, in order to eke out space around subsequent breakdowns to get up the heart of the ruck where Simon Zebo can have a hugely positive influence.

But these gaps are only available off very quickly recycled ball. By the way, hooker Dane Coles is especially quick off the tail in defensive lineouts. Ireland could use his speed to get behind him from an off-the-top lineout; just a thought.

What defensive system Andy Farrell employs will be fascinating. How will Ireland counteract their flat attacking line off their scrum? The chop tackle will provide fruit for the Irish jackal to manage New Zealand, especially severing the flow to outhalf Beauden Barrett's line breaks, which otherwise will put pressure on Ireland's midfield. Over-committing to the breakdown will kill Ireland. Our secondrows must be lively there.

Of course, there are a million things New Zealand do better than us. Coles (check out my piece September 23rd) has as much skill, vision and execution as any Irish back – and he’s a hooker. When you factor in, pace and their ability to expose space, it’s becomes a hugely daunting task.

But take their short lineout with props sandwiching their two beanpoles and Kieran Read in the middle. Nothing unusual in the two tallest guys getting Read into the air and their openside acting as scrumhalf ripping and feeding out wide around the tail. That Jerome Kaino is the second receiver is something we'll expect from CJ Stander and that the resultant recycle has the pods following the ball is even a bit old school (unlike Connacht's set-up for instance).

They appear to follow the ball in attack, which is especially potent, as any half- break can be supported way better than in the Connacht system. And should it break down, they have numbers. But they execute with remarkable accuracy and make decisions within decisions to expose the most minor of defects in defence and with massive variation centring on scrumhalf Aaron Smith’s flat passing; keep watching him off every lineout.


Barrett at 10 is sensational; he has a fullback’s pace and, with Coles, makes up my favourite back and forward combo. But Read is still the consummate rugby player.

Still, they make plenty of mistakes. At half-time against South Africa they had less possession, more penalties conceded and more missed tackles, but spent more time in the killing zone with half the handling errors, scoring three tries to one.

Finally, I wonder whether referee French man Mathieu Raynal will have the confidence to penalise cynical All Black fouls in their 22 and also use his cards when they are obviously playing the odds against an Irish attack. That might help.