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'We let ourselves down': All Blacks coach demands improvement against Ireland

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Lorenzo Di Cola/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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All Blacks assistant coach John Plumtree has challenged his side to produce a vastly improved performance against Ireland on Sunday [NZT] after disappointing itself against Italy last weekend.

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The All Blacks stumbled to a 47-9 victory over the Italians in Rome last Sunday [NZT] in a result that perhaps flattered the Kiwis given their disjointed and error-ridden display.

Held scoreless for much of the opening half, the New Zealanders didn’t really pull away from the Six Nations minnows until the final quarter of the match, when they scored four of their seven tries.

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Prior to that, the All Blacks only led by 21-9 with 17 minutes to play as the Azzurri applied defensive pressure with their quick line speed and contested strongly at the breakdown at Stadio Olimpico.

All of that culminated in a shaky All Blacks showing that few players stood out in, something of which Plumtree acknowledged while speaking to media ahead of this week’s highly-anticipated clash against Ireland at Aviva Stadium.

“We’re happy with a couple of the performances from the boys. Obviously there were some players that weren’t happy, but, as a team, we probably let ourselves down as well,” he said of the Italy test on Wednesday [NZT].

“I think a lot of players out there were trying really hard, and sometimes when that happens, a lot of mistakes happen.

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“We’ve drawn a line through that and we move onto the next [match], so all I can say is there’s a lot of excitement amongst the whole group. Whoever’s selected, the ones who are left out, as usual, have got a job to do to help the others prepare.”

Given the magnitude of the Ireland fixture, a multitude of changes from the All Blacks team that faced Italy is expected, with this week’s side set to resemble something similar to the lineup that was named to play Wales in Cardiff a fortnight ago.

The full-strength All Blacks ran rampant against the Welsh as they chalked up a 54-16 victory at Principality Stadium, but Plumtree anticipates a much sterner test from Ireland after they thumped Japan 60-5 in Dublin last weekend.

That result, which came on Irish playmaker Johnny Sexton’s 100th test for his country, was far more emphatic than what many thought it would be considering the growing strength of the Brave Blossoms.

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However, Plumtree said it was indicative of how good Ireland can be, especially in front of a passionate crowd at Aviva Stadium, which will be sold-out when the All Blacks play there for the first time since their defeat to the hosts three years ago.

“I know the mindset of the Irish boys,” Plumtree, who served as an assistant coach for Ireland under former head coach Joe Schmidt between 2013 and 2014, said.

“I spent a pretty short time here, but [All Blacks scrum coach] Greg Feek has probably got more experience than anyone.

“He’s coached over 100 tests with Ireland, so he’s probably a better guy to ask, but, in my short time here, I could see they were very passionate about who they are as people, who they’re playing for.

“They know exactly who they’re playing for, and they believe in themselves as a rugby team.

“They had some mixed results last year in the Six Nations that they were a bit disappointed in, but they could show they were building something nicely after pretty much dismantling Japan, which is not an easy feat these days because Japan is not a bad side.

“We know what a tough challenge this is going to be, and the boys know that the Irish boys respect the All Blacks, absolutely, but we know we’ll have to work hard and earn everything on Saturday night, as a forward pack and as a team.”

New Zealand’s task of winning a test on Irish soil for the first time since 2016 will be made tougher by the blend of youth and experience evident throughout Ireland’s squad.

Many of the players Plumtree coached during his time in Ireland are still part of the national set-up, while current boss Andy Farrell has blooded some promising talent to create a well-balanced side capable of beating the All Blacks for a third time in five years.

“I think they’ve gone through some changes since the World Cup. Certainly a lot of changes since I was here,” Plumtree said.

“If you look at a couple of the foreign players that have now become eligible, Bundee Aki, James Lowe. You’ve still got a couple of key leaders there, Iain Henderson, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, Cian Healy.

“There are some boys there that, like I said, know what success looks like against the All Blacks.

“They’ve also been involved with a pretty successful era under Joe Schmidt, so those younger guys in that team will be feeding off those older boys, and they’ll be building a lot of excitement around this weekend, facing us.”

It’s for that reason that Plumtree regards this weekend’s test as the toughest assignment the All Blacks will have faced on their end-of-year tour thus far.

“We understand the Welsh challenge was there for us. We did well, they were missing a few key players, and we were too good on that night, but this is a totally different challenge, and, again, it’s one that we’re looking forward to,” he said.

“We know that [it is one of] the last two big games of the year for us, it’s been a pretty long road, but it’s come to this point. We’re really energised, actually.

“It’s an old cliche, and I’ve probably said it five times already on this call, but the boys are bouncing and can’t wait.”

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