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FEATURE 'The All Blacks have quietly morphed into Ireland'

'The All Blacks have quietly morphed into Ireland'
1 month ago

The All Blacks have quietly morphed into Ireland, in what must be the ultimate example of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.

The signs the All Blacks have looked long and hard at the Irish playbook and liked what they have seen, have been prevalent throughout the 2023 Test season.

There’s the way they have become a possession team, prepared to hold the ball through 20-plus phases to break a defence.

That newfound patience was best illustrated in the first Bledisloe Test of 2023, when they scored a try just before half-time, having rumbled through 21 phases in which 12 different players carried the ball until the space opened for Will Jordan to score in the corner.

This was classic Ireland – a team renowned for holding possession, which they did superbly last July when they beat the All Blacks in consecutive matches.

They were outstanding at retaining the ball in that series – patiently grinding the All Blacks down through their constant ability to have ball carriers on their feet, ready to go.

And this is where the All Blacks have again borrowed from Ireland. The big theme for their forwards this year has been the speed at which they can get back on their feet and into play.

Ireland world ranking
Ireland beat New Zealand on their own patch in a three-Test series last July. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

That wasn’t a priority last year, but it is now, because the All Blacks saw how effective it made Ireland when their players were only ever on the deck for a split second.

“Keeping on our feet and getting people around the ball, that is something Joe [assistant coach and former longtime Ireland supremo Schmidt] is driving,” said veteran lock Brodie Retallick after the All Blacks had beaten South Africa in Auckland.

As Wallabies coach Eddie Jones noted after the first Bledisloe Test: “The big thing I see with them is their work rate is incredible.

“Tactically, they’ve probably simplified their game, but they were great off the ball, really first class, and that’s what we aspire to be.”

Then there is the issue of body height – again a lesson from the Ireland series. This year the All Blacks have placed a strong emphasis on being lower in the collision zones.

Ireland’s success in retaining possession and recycling it quickly lies in the ability of their ball carriers to win the collisions, and they do that because they hit contact in dynamic positions.

It’s a big improvement from where we were. We’re more mobile, we’re more skilled with ball in hand, better ball carriers. And there’s plenty of them.

And the importance of getting this right was highlighted by head coach Ian Foster when he gave his thoughts about why the All Blacks had struggled in the opening 20 minutes in each half against the Wallabies.

“I thought we coughed up the ball at the start of each half through our exits. Which is something we didn’t get quite right, mainly through the height of our carry and they were good enough to create problems.”

Body heights are just one part of the equation in the quest to emulate Ireland.

The All Blacks are also now benefitting from having eight players in their pack who are comfortable carrying the ball.

Last year when the All Blacks played Ireland, they had Nepo Laulala and Karl Tu’inakuafe at prop – neither of whom were renowned ball carriers.

Ireland had props who could take people on, make good progress with ball in hand and throw their weight around defensively.

The difference that made was tangible, as it meant there were times when the All Blacks were under siege from this green wall of attackers.

Ian Foster led New Zealand to the Rugby Championship title earlier this year. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

And while this problem was evident in 2022, it’s something the All Blacks have been trying to fix for five years.

Again, it was a problem which surfaced against Ireland, when the All Blacks lost in Dublin in 2018. The then head coach Steve Hansen saw his front-rowers were lacking the skills, mobility and influence of their Irish opposites, and he delivered a mandate to New Zealand’s Super Rugby coaches to try to do something to fix it.

The improvements he wanted were never quite delivered, a point he made the day after the All Blacks had unveiled the 33 players they were taking to France.

Hansen said he felt it was a stronger squad than the one he had picked in 2019, and specifically highlighted the higher calibre of prop going to France.

“I think back to the last World Cup I was concerned about our front-row, this front-row they are going to be able to pick this year is going to be outstanding,” said Hansen.

“It’s a big improvement from where we were. We’re more mobile, we’re more skilled with ball in hand, better ball carriers. And there’s plenty of them.”

So too are there strong traces of Ireland in the way the All Blacks have set up their midfield – both in personnel and strategy.

Last year they played David Havili at inside-centre – a handy ball player and decision-maker but not the same sort of crunching, direct threat as the 108kg Jordie Barrett, who has given the All Blacks another destructive threat in the midfield.

Mostly Barrett has been tasked with hammering the ball forward, in the most direct route available and even Rieko Ioane has spent most games doing much the same.

The wraparound has been Ireland’s signature move for the past decade and the All Blacks have incorporated it into their repertoire.

What’s noticeable is both are running straighter lines and gone is the old All Blacks habit of drifting across the field and making it easier for defences.

The tighter alignment has enabled the All Blacks to pull defences into the middle of the field and leave space out wide.

They have just had to learn to be patient about when to finally shift the ball to their wings.

The backline has also more regularly played a little deeper, which has meant that a la Johnny Sexton, Richie Mo’unga has been content to operate behind the forward pods, biding his time to pop up at first receiver and make an impact.

And, as was seen against Argentina, the All Blacks have lifted the number 10 wraparound directly from Ireland.

They scored a superb try when Jordie Barrett surprised the Pumas defence when he passed ‘out the back’ to Damian McKenzie who was looping behind.

He arced around and straightened into a huge hole before passing to Beauden Barrett who scored.

It was a try which showed how lethal McKenzie can be on the wraparound and we can expect to see Mo’unga used in the same way during the World Cup as he’s just as quick and agile.

The wraparound has been Ireland’s signature move for the past decade and the fact the All Blacks have incorporated it into their repertoire is irrefutable evidence they have scrutinised the world’s number one-ranked team and borrowed heavily from them.

And maybe that’s not such a surprise, for two reasons. Firstly, Ireland have troubled the All Blacks more than any other team in the last seven years.

Since the Irish won for the first time in Chicago 2016, the rivalry has been intense – with the All Blacks winning the return fixture in Dublin that year, before losing two years later in the Irish capital.

New Zealand exacted revenge when they hammered the men in green in the 2019 World Cup quarter-final but since then, it is two-one to Ireland.

Secondly, since August 2022, the All Blacks have had Schmidt working as their attack coach.

Aaron Smith says Joe Schmidt has made a big impact on his rugby since joining the New Zealand coaching staff. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Schmidt, of course, having led Ireland between 2013 and 2019.

He was the man who modernised Ireland’s game plan and took them to another level, and his influence within the All Blacks has already been substantial.

“He was a game changer for me,” veteran halfback Aaron Smith said earlier this year.

“The way he saw the game, he had clips from training, he had clips from games way back, he really just gets rugby and he got my mindset.

“Joe wasn’t showing me clips of me running, he was just showing me opportunities, he was showing me what other nines had done and if it’s in your brain, that’s what happens, things just react.”

The great fascination now is thinking about what might happen should the All Blacks meet Ireland at this year’s World Cup.

Can the All Blacks out-Ireland, Ireland? Or will the real Ireland be too good for the aspiring version?

Either way, if they meet, it’s going to be a clash to remember.


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