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‘Ireland were too good’: How Scott McLeod fixed All Blacks’ defensive woes

By Finn Morton
Assistant Coach Scott McLeod talks to Will Jordan during a New Zealand All Blacks Training Session at Hutt Recreation Ground on July 25, 2022 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Last year’s historic series defeat to Ireland has already defined the current All Blacks team, but that might not be a bad thing. It’s a piece of history that will live on forever, but how the New Zealanders responded is especially telling.

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After winning the first Test at Eden Park by a significant margin, the All Blacks went on to lose their next two matches at home. Ireland rejoiced as they began to celebrate their first series win in New Zealand.

It was a painful defeat for the All Blacks and their fans. Speaking on NZR+, playmaker Beauden Barrett said, “It’s not like someone’s died but it’s probably the next worst thing.”

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But almost 16 months later, the All Blacks look like a completely different team on the defensive side of the ball.

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Playing against the Irish in a blockbuster quarter-final earlier this month, the men in black held firm as Ireland built up 37 phases of attack in the pursuit of what would’ve been the match-winning try. The All Blacks backed that up a week later, too.

New Zealand made 421 tackles in those two Tests as they booked their place in their fifth Rugby World Cup final. Defence coach Scott McLeod has spoken about the change that’s worked wonders for the All Blacks.

“When we look at last year in particular, where and how we got beaten, we were tending to [use a] ‘defend the man’ system. Ireland were too good last year in being able to put the ball into spaces and play through us,” McLeod told reporters.

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“A lot of that is coached in Super Rugby in New Zealand and I do know that northern hemisphere sides in particular will target Kiwis who play up here because they know they are going to be man-focused rather than ball-focused, so we had to shift our skillset in the way we looked at things as defenders.

Knockout

New Zealand
South Africa
11 - 12
Final
Argentina
New Zealand
6 - 44
SF1
England
South Africa
15 - 16
SF2
Wales
Argentina
17 - 29
QF1
Ireland
New Zealand
24 - 28
QF2
England
Fiji
30 - 24
QF3
France
South Africa
28 - 29
QF4

“So we planted the seed earlier this year with the leaders, got them to work right through the Super and then it got tested early on – throughout all the games we have been tested quite thoroughly on that. However, when the push came to shove, particularly with Ireland who were going to test us the most, it stood up and that was really pleasing.

“It’s relevant against the South African boys. You don’t need to make as many decisions on the ball but you still need to be able to see where the ball is going and watch the influence on the bodies in front of them. That has probably been the biggest shift for us and we will see if it can hold up again.”

But the All Blacks’ toughest test awaits. New Zealand will take on fierce rivals South Africa to determine Rugby World Cup glory in France.

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The Springboks are the defending champions, but the All Blacks will be hungry to complete their return to the top of the rugby world.

“There are a lot of aspects of our game that are working so that builds belief,” McLeod said.

“It’s something we have been working on for quite a while so to see it work under those moments in quarters and semis is very pleasing. It is just about harnessing it now and going again.”

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mitch 41 minutes ago
The Wallabies team Joe Schmidt must pick to win back Bledisloe Cup

Rodda will be a walk up starter at lock. Frost if you analyse his dominance has little impact and he’s a long way from being physical enough, especially when you compare to Rodda and the work he does. He was quite poor at the World Cup in his lack of physicality. Between Rodda and Skelton we would have locks who can dominate the breakdown and in contact. Frost is maybe next but Schmidt might go for a more physical lock who does their core work better like Ryan or LSL. Swain is no chance unless there’s a load of injuries. Pollard hasn’t got the scrum ability yet to be considered. Nasser dominated him when they went toe to toe and really showed him up. Picking Skelton effects who can play 6 and 8. Ideally Valetini would play 6 as that’s his best position and Wilson at 8 but that’s not ideal for lineout success. Cale isn’t physical enough yet in contact and defence but is the best backrow lineout jumper followed by Wright, Hanigan and Swinton so unfortunately Valetini probably will start at 8 with Wright or Hanigan at 6. Wilson on the bench, he’s got too much quality not to be in the squad. Paisami is leading the way at 12 but Hamish Stewart is playing extremely well also and his ball carrying has improved significantly. Beale is also another option based on the weekend. Beale is class but he’s also the best communicator of any Australian backline player and that can’t be underestimated, he’ll be in the mix.

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