I’ll put my hand up and admit I did not see that Irish performance coming in the 2nd test. In fact, I had predicted another heavy loss for Ireland. I’m delighted that I was proven utterly wrong. The physicality ferocity shown by Declan Kidney’s side was something we haven’t seen since the shock win over Australia at last year’s World Cup. In the immediate aftermath of the 2nd test, I wrote about the frustration caused by Ireland’s inconsistency. If Ireland fail to put in a similar performance tomorrow, is this tour a failure? What do we need to see tomorrow to call it a success?
Obviously, Kidney and his squad will demand a similar level of intensity from themselves this weekend. Ireland showed in that 2nd test that they’re a match for any side when they front-up physically and work hard for 80 minutes. That needs to become a given for Ireland. While I recognise that it’s impossible to be at 100% every single weekend, Ireland need to push themselves to the limit every time they take to the field. Regardless of tactics, moves and other technical aspects, that determination and focus should be mandatory.
The difference in attitude between the 1st and 2nd tests was stark. Frankly, the approach to the 1st test was not up to scratch, and the players themselves will recognise that. It’s true that the All Blacks were nowhere near their best last Saturday, but that shouldn’t enter the equation. The fact is that Ireland gave Dan Carter and his buddies less scope to run riot than they did in the 1st test. So first off, and most importantly, Ireland need to match last weekend’s physicality and intensity. Even without that elusive first win, that would be progress.
In terms of game plan, Kidney and Les Kiss must stress the importance of taking points from our visits to the All Blacks’ third of the pitch. There were too many missed opportunities in that regard last time out. Spilled ball, accidental offsides and overthrown lineouts have to be cut out. While I’m not suggesting that Ireland slow down their possession, patience is important. One of the encouraging things about the 2nd test was how Ireland worked hard to keep their shape in attack, particularly in the build-up to Conor Murray’s try.
While Murray was eventually forced to slow things down just before he snuck over, the phases preceding that were impressive. The forwards worked hard to get into good positions to carry ball, and there were options out the back too. That meant Murray had less to think about it at the base of the ruck, and as a result, his service looked quicker. Ireland’s defensive breakdown work has been a real strength on this tour, but as pointed out by Kiss, we need to be more clinical in cleaning out rucks in attack. The ball needs to be on a plate for Murray.
In defence, Ireland are always at their best when they’re proactive, rather than reactive. By that I mean they need go looking to make hits, rush up hard at times to shut down the All Blacks and generally put them under pressure. Of course this requires excellent communication, something that was patently absent in the 1st test. Again, the 2nd test brought great improvement but there were one or two occasions when Ireland sat back in defence, notably in the build-up to Aaron Smith’s try. The Six Nations loss to Wales this year showed how badly a soft, drifting defence suits Ireland. Another aggressive defensive effort would be further progress.
It goes without saying that Ireland should target the scrum, particularly with Romain Poite refereeing. He will always reward the side going forward, so more of what we saw in the 2nd half of the 2nd test is necessary. Ireland’s mindset at the scrum can develop into a destructive one. In terms of personnel, Declan Fitzpatrick should be given 20 or 3o minutes in order to continue his progress. He showed real promise in the 1st test and wouldn’t represent a huge risk.
It’s a positive that Dan Tuohy, Donnacha Ryan, Fergus McFadden, Peter O’Mahony and Kevin McLaughlin are all getting more exposure to international rugby. They will all greatly benefit from it. Ryan in particular has stood out and is starting to look really comfortable at this level. Tuohy has had two tests to find his feet and needs to match his second-row partner tomorrow. McFadden may not be a natural winger, but similarly he needs to show some attacking edge to repay Kidney’s loyalty.
To sum it up, if Ireland show a similar level of intensity and physicality, continue to improve their attacking shape, keep their defence proactive, attack the scrum and demand more from the new faces, this tour will have been a genuine success. It may seem like quite a lot to ask for, but these players will demand it of themselves. After the 1st test, I never imagined I would be saying that Ireland have developed on this tour. Regardless of the result tomorrow, if Ireland turn in a similar, or even better performance than the 2nd test, that would represent clear positive progress.
Photos courtesy: Geof Wilson.