If you thought next year’s Rugby World Cup was going to be a doddle for the All Blacks, then the results from the past two weekends would have shaken that belief in all but the most diehard of fans.
The loss to Ireland on the heels of the narrow escape against England (and the earlier loss to South Africa) showed that gap has well and truly closed. No longer can the All Blacks absorb the first 50-60 minutes of games and then use the depth of the bench and superior fitness to put matches away in the final quarter. And no longer can they rely on attack to win them matches.
We might deride the north for their “negative” mindset, but all that matters is scoring more points than your opposition and not how many you score. Both England last week and Ireland this week were superior defensively to the All Blacks. When former AB Nick Evans said during the week that he felt England were tactically superior there was some open derision of his comments here. Now that Joe Schmidt – one of the best rugby brains on the planet – has done the same, well…. questions will need to be answered.
Ireland were simply the better side, with the better game plan and ability to execute it. And remember that they won without Conor Murray, Sean O’Brien (arguably the best in the world at their positions), and midfielder Robbie Henshaw. The All Blacks were missing only Joe Moody and a fully-fit Dane Coles from what you’d venture is the first-choice XV, without accounting for the interchangeable parts in jersey’s 12-15. The Irish were well disciplined, and easily out-did the All Blacks on that front as well even of you exclude those penalties given for not releasing.
Clearly Hansen, Foster, & co have some work to do over the months ahead. And I wonder if that might include an SOS to Wayne Smith who is clearly being missed in the setup and at least Schmidt’s equal in the thinking department.
So what of this morning? The three senior forwards – Read, Retallick, and Whitelock – each had one of their worst outings in a black jersey; big Brodie in particular was well off-par and it summed up his day that that game ended when his hands failed him once again. Liam Squire was again an early casualty, and by forcing Scott Barrett into the fray it complicated being able to take one of the locks off later. Aaron Smith is shadow of who he was even a season ago and it was no coincidence that the energy went up several notches once TJ Perenara entered, Damian McKenzie was caught well out of position for the game’s only try, and the midfield combo lacked punch. Ireland’s forwards were outstanding; Healy, Best and Furlong had the measure of their opponents up front, and Peter O’Mahony and Josh van der Flier were superb. Add O’Brien and CJ Stander and the Irish might have the best loose forward quartet going at present.
One final thought; Wayne Barnes was excellent. His communications and explanations were clear – even if Nisbo, Marshall, and Wilson insisted in talking over the top of them – and was never rushed in making a decision. He might want to look at the aerial challenge between Kearney and McKenzie again, but he could have easily (and really should have) had the All Blacks down to 14 after a spate of penalties in the first half. If anyone on the field today showed they were a sure thing for the decider in Japan next year it would be the London lawyer.
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