The only constant is change. In the realm of sport, where careers last one-tenth of a lifetime, one year can be like a decade. To stay at the top, you have to keep evolving, and this is one thing that the All Blacks have excelled at.
If Ireland believes this is the same All Blacks team they beat nearly a year ago, they will lose in no uncertain terms.
To understand the mindset of what this team is about, read this quote from All Blacks’ centre Conrad Smith from the Weight of the Nation documentary after the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
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“We had changed a few things, prior to the World Cup. We wanted to be a team that kept evolving our game. These other teams are going to start playing better and they’ll catch us if we sit still and use the same tactics.”
Stand still and be caught or evolve and push forward. It’s a brave thing to do, abandon what is working before its expiry date in search of something that might not. But this is what the All Blacks have been doing even when the stakes are as high as a Rugby World Cup, as far back as nearly a decade as Smith’s admission tells us.
Just because it’s a World Cup year, doesn’t mean innovation stops.
What other team would drop one of the fastest, most powerful, edge-weapons in the world in Rieko Ioane at the ripe age of 22?
What other team would move the back-to-back World Player of the Year into a new position at the 11th hour?
What other team would send an all-time great to the bench in Ben Smith, right on the cusp on the World Cup?
The answer is one. No top team has made more change in 2019 than New Zealand, with England perhaps a close second.
The ruthless search for success has no time for sentiment, ego, or favouritism. Sub-standard performance has consequences which can be cruel at times, but it brings forth new opportunity.
George Bridge and Sevu Reece weren’t in the picture when the All Blacks lost to Ireland, but their form for the Crusaders couldn’t be ignored any longer. Ardie Savea could not get a look-in past Sam Cane, but is now starting alongside him. Talk of Richie Mo’unga starting for the All Blacks was watered down by Hansen himself last year before he thought ‘maybe I’ll just start both’.
With just a truncated Rugby Championship left before the Rugby World Cup, the All Blacks threw out the old and in with the new, debuting new patterns in Buenos Aires against Argentina to start the tournament.
A week later Beauden Barrett was shifted to fullback to accommodate Mo’unga as they doubled down on evolving with this new style of expansive fast-width play.
The stunning loss in Perth saw the pair of Ioane and Smith moved aside for Bridge and Reece so normal practice could resume at Eden Park in the return clash.
Since that historic night in Dublin, Ireland have gone the other way. The Six Nations campaign was rocked when England came in and punched the side in the mouth in the opening weekend.
From there, the side stuttered through and frustration became visible as basic execution let the side down. Without being on the inside no one knows the full story but from the exterior, it just didn’t seem right.
With Schmidt’s impending departure announced well in advance, the side has lost some of its mojo. Perhaps the fear factor of the man who demands perfection in the small details is gone when they know he won’t be there in a few months’ time. An over-reliance on set-piece plays can turn this side into zombies when they don’t work, especially without leaders like Sexton on the field.
There is still little to no emphasis on counter-attacking rugby, in contrast with Leinster who encourages it. It comprises of a third of the game, perhaps more, and stats will prove that nearly half of all tries come from these moments. Is it an under-utilised factor for Ireland? When Ireland’s carry-game is stuffed like it was against Japan and England, things seem to fall apart.
Win or lose, after this World Cup, the first question asked should be, how much have Ireland evolved from 2018? Did they hold onto players a year too late? Have they explored every option to evolve their attack?
In the same way that Hansen has explored putting Barrett and Mo’unga on the field at the same time with a complete system change, Schmidt hasn’t gone that way with Carbery and Sexton. Carbery’s form at Munster piled pressure on Sexton and sparked a similar Barrett-Mo’unga debate among fans.
When the chance presented to use a secondary playmaker at fullback in-tandem with Sexton, Schmidt used midfielder Robbie Henshaw in a move that backfired against England’s kicking game in that Six Nations opener.
George Ford was a ‘starting’ casualty from England’s doomed 2018 Six Nations campaign, but Eddie Jones has brought back the Ford-Farrell axis for this World Cup and it has worked well. Things change, and if there were doubts over Carbery at fullback a few years ago, it might not be the case now.
There is no denying that Ireland found a recipe for success against the All Blacks over this World Cup cycle with two wins and one loss being the best record against them over that time. Having lost to them the last time they played, there will be no illusions over Ireland’s ability.
Over the last 12 months, there are noticeable differences in their approaches. The All Blacks are coming with a new team, with a new system, and it will be unrecognisable to the one that failed in Dublin. Are Ireland excited or daunted by that? And then when that unfamiliarity hits them in the face on the field, where will they go?
“I’d be surprised if they were scared of us but they definitely know that we can come and play and that we can beat them,” Irish winger Andrew Conway explained after their final pool match against Samoa.
That’s exactly why everything has changed to the way the All Blacks are playing in 2019.
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