If you are receiving the rugby approbation of Kiwis, you must be doing something right. It is not granted to teams from outside New Zealand easily, not without stone-cold proofs. More often than not, it has to be prised from some icy fingers of ingrained opinion.
The Ireland tour of ‘the Shaky Isles’ in 2022 was a perception changer down south. Despite Ireland’s success in northern competitions, and an excellent recent record against the All Blacks dating back to the latter stages of the Joe Schmidt era – the men in green now have a record of five wins and three losses against New Zealand since 2016 – Andy Farrell’s charges were not really rated a chance to beat the All Blacks in the Test series.
When push came to shove, it would be the same old story again. Maybe one heroic performance splitting a couple of resounding victories for the home side. In the event, Ireland not only won the series, they did it by playing the better attacking rugby of the two nations, and by sticking to their rugby ideology. Now that was something new, and it woke New Zealand up to what was happening in other corners of Planet Rugby.
On Sky Sport’s The Breakdown program, ex-All Blacks wingman Jeff Wilson spoke for many when he commented:
“Last year they [Ireland] proved something to themselves. They came down to New Zealand and they beat the All Blacks in the series.
“They created history, and they continue to create it on the back of their absolutely fantastic structures in the way they play the game.
“They have got creativity, and they have the ability to use space. There is nothing in their game they don’t have.”
His comrade-in-arms, ex-New Zealand fullback Mils Muliaina chimed in, “I love their innovation. They came down here and they demolished us and they went back and did the same [up north, winning the 2023 Grand Slam].”
While there has always been respect, and grudging admiration for the physicality and set-piece excellence of the Springboks, what really wakes New Zealanders up are those two words – creativity and innovation.
Once the thumb was removed from the historical dyke, the flow of compliments just kept on coming. Listen to these comments from Chiefs’ half-back Brad Weber, made during the knockout stages of the Super Rugby Pacific tournament:
“To be honest, we are all copying the Northern Hemisphere.
“It used to be the other way around, right? Where we were the innovators and they would be copying us.
“But I have to be honest, we have been watching a lot of the attack plays they have been doing up north and we have been really enjoying them.”
While there has always been respect, and grudging admiration for the physicality and set-piece excellence of the Springboks, what really wakes New Zealanders up are those two words – creativity and innovation. When it comes from a northern nation the eyes really do begin to widen, and all the senses go on red alert.
It is over 50 years since it last happened, with the tour of New Zealand by Carwyn James’ 1971 British & Irish Lions. That tour transformed the attitudes within New Zealand rugby, and it became the foundation-stone of Sir Graham Henry’s rugby philosophy with first the Auckland Blues, and then New Zealand in their vintage, 85-per-cent-plus winning years between 2004 and 2019.
The man himself once lent me his copy of the book from that tour The Lions Speak: How We Beat the All Blacks. It was extraordinarily well-thumbed, pages had fallen out and been taped back in; there were numerous tags, folded corners and a running commentary along the side of every page. ‘Ted’ never forgot that I had it and after a 12 month hiatus, he asked for it back.
“The Lions of 1971 challenged the way the game was played in New Zealand, and this time we really had to sit up and take notice,” Henry wrote in his own book, Henry’s Pride: Inside the Lions’ Tour Down Under. “They revolutionized our sterile training patterns and jump-started the development of our back play and the 15-man game.
“Can you imagine those All Blacks outfits of the 80’s existing without the example set by the 1971 Lions? Or the likes of John Gallagher and Christian Cullen developing into world-class attacking full-backs without the example set by J.P.R Williams? For years afterwards, the book from that tour, The Lions Speak, was my rugby bible.”
To its eternal credit, New Zealand rugby took the lessons of the 1971 Lions on board for longer, and far more completely than its counterparts in the north. Those sides coached by the holy trifecta of Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen were always ahead of the bunch in terms of attacking innovation, and that was their point of difference. The All Blacks of that era could always score more tries, more quickly than anyone else.
Over the past two or three seasons, Ireland has taken on that mantle with a team squarely-based on the attacking philosophy and innovations of Stuart Lancaster and Leo Cullen at Leinster. Andy Farrell and Paul O’Connell have added a titanium-hard edge to the defence and forward play, and Ireland are where they are, sitting at number one in the men’s world rugby rankings.
They had the best try differential in their 2023 Grand Slam season – a massive +14 tries over five games – and they have already chalked up 20 tries in two World Cup games without playing particularly well. The machine may be purring along in third gear, but it is still doing the business.
The difference with those old All Blacks teams of yore was always the sheer volume of attacking IQ embodied in players like Kieran Read, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and the two Smiths, Ben and Conrad. Ireland are fortunate to have their own version of that battery of rugby intellects in the form of Johnny Sexton, Caelan Doris, Garry Ringrose, Mack Hansen and Hugo Keenan.
On attack, Ireland problem-solve quicker than anyone else in the contemporary game. In their first match versus Romania, their opponents gave them what they wanted. Romania offered Ireland the full width of the field without the men in green having to work for it. The attackers consistently overlapped the defenders opposite them and ‘stretched the corner’:
Once Ireland had established that they could go to the edges without much defensive interference, they went to their bread-and-butter, an accurate short passing game linking forwards and backs together on the inside, between the two 15-metre lines:
This is pure Leinster, exploring the width of the pitch in order to stretch the spaces between tacklers and force more defensive decisions, and more one-on-one tackles to be made in the middle of the field. It is a reversal of the traditional fortune cookie-wisdom of ‘going through them [first] in order to go around them’.
Ahead of the second round of matches, the Tongan coaching staff had clearly studied Ireland’s play and came up with their own defensive solutions, based around matching the attacking width upon which Ireland thrive:
In contrast to Romania, there are two men in either 15-metre corridor protecting the width of the field, and there is no overlap. Only seven more minutes had elapsed before Ireland had an answer to hand:
Tonga are still spreading their last defender out wide, as far as the zone between the 15-metre and 5-metre lines, and their inside defence only has eyes for Johnny Sexton at first receiver. That leaves an inviting space back towards the site of the ruck, and the veteran No 10 exploits it not with the easier in-pass – short to Josh van der Flier (in the red hat) – but the longer and more difficult version to No 8 Doris, whose mates are already outnumbering the ‘Ikale Tahi in that area.
Once the Irish brains trust has made their diagnosis, it was simply a matter of looking for the right opportunities to administer the correct vaccine:
Once again, Tonga are matching width well beyond the 15-metre lines, and there is space right up the middle of the Tongan D. Ireland work a nice move between No 12 Bundee Aki, scrumhalf Conor Murray and centre Garry Ringrose to make the initial break, and then exploit the four-on-two advantage in numbers in the support/scramble zone further downfield. Johnny Sexton symbolically converted the try, surpassing Ronan O’Gara as Ireland’s leading points scorer in the process.
Sexton may be the brains of the Irish operation but he is by no means alone. The Ireland of 2023 is perhaps the closest approximation to the world-beating rugby intellect in the All Blacks circa 2009-2018. For Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and the two Smiths, read Caelan Doris, Peter O’Mahony, Johnny Sexton, Garry Ringrose, Mack Hansen and Hugo Keenan.
It is primarily attacking IQ, and perhaps that is why New Zealand players, coaches and pundits have warmed to the Emerald Isle after their series win in 2022. They see something of the All Blacks of yesterday in the Ireland of today, a continuation and upholding of the same rugby ideology. Ask Graham Henry or Wayne Smith who they would most like to see winning the World Cup 2023, and they will probably nod their agreement and say, ‘if it cannot be New Zealand, let it be Ireland.’ The torch moves on, even if it is not always passed within the same nation.