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FEATURE The key to the All Blacks turning the tables on Ireland

The key to the All Blacks turning the tables on Ireland
8 months ago

The All Blacks, in beating the world’s number one team and knocking the tournament favourites out of the World Cup, have obviously put the remaining contenders on high alert.

There was no shortage of reasons at Stade de France in the World Cup quarter-final as to why the All Blacks will have everyone on edge.

There was the three brilliantly constructed tried they scored. There was the power in their scrum which had Ireland wobbling and buckling, and there was the clinical work of their lineout to pinch three throws and force their opponent to go to the front more than they would have liked.

And there was the way the All Blacks went about doing an Ireland on Ireland, by regularly isolating their ball carrier and winning penalty turnovers. Critical penalties, as so often either Ardie Savea, Sam Cane or one of the locks would find a way to make their presence felt at the most inopportune times for Ireland.

But all these qualities that the All Blacks displayed in the quarterfinal were the symptoms of one much bigger factor, which is, that it was a performance that demonstrated New Zealand’s capacity to learn, absorb, adapt and execute.

Ardie Savea celebrates scoring for the All Blacks. Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images

That’s why the sides left in this tournament will be a little more wary of the All Blacks now than they were four weeks ago – because they have shown that once again they are a team that can fix itself, evolve and, like a scary Terminator, they can pick themselves up after crushing defeats and come back harder and better equipped.

Essentially, the All Blacks have become the All Blacks again and what really them won a place in the semi-final was the stunning depth of research, analysis and hard work they have put into their defensive structure since they lost the three-Test series to Ireland last year.

Much was made before the quarterfinal about the depth of hurt they felt in losing to Ireland on home soil in July last year.

Once Ireland were confirmed as the All Blacks opponents, head coach Ian Foster was asked whether, given all the highs and lows his team had experienced since he took over in 2020, that was the most formative three weeks of them all.

“Very much, so I reckon,” he said. “I don’t think we got surprised in that series from what we were dealt but we realised that there were a couple of areas where our benchmark wasn’t high enough.

Ireland exposed serious weaknesses in the structure of the defensive screen, and the ability of the players to read what was happening around them.

“We realised that we had to make a bit of a step shift in a couple of areas to get what we needed to.”

He talked about how it hammered home to the All Blacks that they had to improve their scrummaging and how they had to become more adept at stopping rolling mauls.

What he didn’t reveal is that the most pertinent lesson the All Blacks took from that series defeat was the vulnerability of their defensive system.

Ireland exposed serious weaknesses in the structure of the defensive screen, and the ability of the players to read what was happening around them.

Veteran halfback Aaron Smith put it like this: “That was one big thing we got from July last year with our defence. Ireland showed us in those second and third tests, especially in Wellington, we weren’t good enough and we weren’t connected enough as a group.”

Will Jordan and Aaron Smith of New Zealand react after winning the Rugby World Cup France 2023 Quarter Final match between Ireland and New Zealand at Stade de France on October 14, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

What began after that series was a fundamental rebuild of the defensive structure. But it was a project with a highly specific goal in mind.

The defence wasn’t being reshaped generally. It was being reconstructed with the specific goal of being revamped to help the All Blacks beat Ireland at the 2023 World Cup.

Even in July last year, New Zealand were anticipating they would meet Ireland in the quarterfinal of the World Cup.

“Since the pools got announced we knew we had a good chance of making the quarter-final,” revealed All Blacks play-maker Richie Mo’unga after the epic 28-24 victory in Paris.

“And it would be either South Africa or Ireland and when I look back to previous camps, about World Cup and preparation and leader meetings, the quarter-final was the only thing that mattered to us, and we had to give ourselves the best chance which we did, and it was about making the most of it.”

As the game played out, the All Blacks picked the right cues and were sharper at seeing where Ireland were going.

The All Blacks, then, would appear to have rediscovered their superpower of looking at opponents, working out what they are doing and then building a gameplan that responds to the threats they know they will be facing.

What was so good about their performance in the quarter-final was the way that, as the game played out, they were able to improve their reading of the Irish attack.

Their system took a bit of time to find itself as in the first half. Bundee Aki was able to score Ireland’s first try by getting on the outside and shrugging off some weak tackling by Rieko Ioane and Shannon Frizell who were all too easily beaten on the inside.

But as the game played out, the All Blacks picked the right cues and were sharper at seeing where Ireland were going and when they were going to try to play the pass out the back.

The system cranked into fifth gear and the Irish runners were shut down behind the gainline or they had to cut back into the middle of the field where there were more black defenders waiting with a numeric advantage to pick off the turnover.

DUNEDIN, NEW ZEALAND – JULY 09: Bundee Aki of Ireland charges forward during the International Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and Ireland at Forsyth Barr Stadium on July 09, 2022 in Dunedin, New Zealand. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

So too were the All Blacks clever in the way they defended with such cohesion. They moved as one and they were so calm and composed when Ireland appeared to have a numeric advantage: there was total trust in the All Blacks system and the last man would stay wide, knowing that his inside defenders were coming across.

“After the series at home last year which really hurt, we had to look at the fundamentals of the defensive game within the All Blacks,” says defence coach Scott McLeod.

“A big part of that was that in Super Rugby in New Zealand, they tend to defend the man. They line up on a man and they defend the man, whereas that doesn’t work against teams like Ireland, against Italy and France and we knew we had these teams, more than likely, at this World Cup.

“We had to develop our ability to defend the ball so wherever the ball is we have to put people in front of it and what we have learned is that Ireland make you do that over and over again.

“They force you to make a decision about the ball and that was the most pleasing aspect [of the quarter-final victory], we have built the players’ skill sets from last year and we have learned some really hard lessons and then against Ireland, for the majority of the time we got that right.”

Defensive systems are built on analysis and research, but the success of the execution depends greatly on attitude and desire.

The All Blacks were torn apart by Ireland last year but not in Paris when it mattered and the victory was a tribute to the strength of their analysis and rugby intelligence.

But so too was it a tribute to their self-belief – a quality that perhaps owes its existence to the confidence the players have built in their coaching team in the last 15 months – which was evident in a stunning way in the last four minutes of what was arguably the best knock-out game in World Cup history.

Ireland refused to believe they were beaten and mounted a 37-phase attack in their effort to save the game with the try they needed.

That New Zealand were able to not only keep them out for that long was impressive, but to do so without conceding a penalty was incredible and the depth of composure, confidence and conviction in how they are and what they are trying to do was undeniably proven in those last minutes.

Defensive systems are built on analysis and research, but the success of the execution depends greatly on attitude and desire and no one could doubt the depth of emotion it took for the All Blacks to stay so committed for so long at such a critical juncture.

Aaron Smith, Ian Foster and Scott McLeod. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

“I think the most impressive thing was the control and mental resilience,” says Jordie Barrett.

“To not give away a penalty in 37 phases and then Sammy Whitelock, with 151 tests, to come up with a play like that, it was unbelievable. We have got a defence system there that Scott McLeod has built that was basically for Ireland.

“We had to defend a lot tighter, their short passes, going out the back to [Johnny] Sexton – they just pick you off if you are a bit wide. Our system worked and there was some great ticker in that last play.”

Wherever the All Blacks were in the last four years, they are suddenly back to where they need to be at this World Cup.


CuzzyG 245 days ago

Yes Good reads on defence, well structured defence pattern were a big man is available at ruck to turn over the ball. What superb tries too.
You can’t coach that, ABs we’re calm and trusted each other.

Poe 245 days ago

Learn, absorb, adapat and execute. Almost sounds like a well coached team. What an unusual opinion...

Donald 246 days ago

Basically, is Paul suggesting that defence won the game? Well, it helped, especially with J Barrett’s holding up & that tackle sequence at the end. However, if NZ hadn’t scored more points, particularly via tries, like that by Mo’unga & Jordan, would they have prevailed? Of course not. Therefore, any idea that ‘D’ wins games is a 1/2 truth as well as & a 1/2 lie.

IOW, when in possession, score, when not, stop the opposition from scoring more.

Bob Marler 246 days ago

Steve Hansen?

B.J. Spratt 247 days ago

Well done Cyril! Couldn't have backed them with stolen money. Best Test I have ever seen. Packed full of drama.

Cyril 247 days ago

I have no doubt from the start the All Blacks will take this world cup ,after all they went through ,the bad comments of many all over the world ,i never stop believed in them ,My boys deserved this,100% ,and believe me they gonna take it..

B.J. Spratt 247 days ago

Some are saying in Ireland that Joe Schmidt beat Ireland with "His" defense system.

Joe Schmidt joined Auckland Bues as assistant to Leon MacDonald, in 2021, Crusaders beat them 29 -6 in the semi final. Same defense system.

In 2022 Crusaders beat them 21 - 7 in the final. Same defense system
In 2023 Crusaders beat them 52 -15 in the final. Same defense system

8 Crusaders from 2021 played against Ireland.
6 Crusaders from 2022 played against Ireland.
6 Crusaders from 2023 played against Ireland.

So suddenly Joe Schmidt came up with a “Defensive Plan" that he never used when coaching at the Blues for three years.

A same Defensive System that 8 players in the AB’s have been using for 3 years. . .

Joe Schmidt was a good coach for Ireland. Ronan O Gara brought that watch the ball not the man at the Crusaders.

Northandsouth 247 days ago

This article also shows why a possible final between South Africa and New Zealand would be so absorbing. Both have been laser focused for months/years on their two potential quarterfinal opponents: the team they beat on the weekend and each other. Both will have plans within plans within plans for exactly this match up. May the best team win, if they get through their semis #gotheblack #respectthebok

atawhai 247 days ago

Great article...

JD Kiwi 247 days ago

I hope we still know how to defend against Argentina and South Africa!

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