Tag Archives: Ireland

Second-Five-Eighth

Ian Madigan

Ian Madigan in Leinster colours. (c) Martin Dobey.

One of the more interesting head-to-heads during last month’s Pro 12 final was that at inside centre. While neither Ian Madigan nor Stuart Olding had a decisive impact on the outcome of that particular game, their futures in the position hold exciting possibilities for Irish rugby. Alongside JJ Hanrahan at Munster, these young players offer something different to the common concept of an inside centre.

The traditional view is that a 12 is someone to get your team over the advantage line, a big man who runs direct lines and takes out a few defenders. Jamie Roberts of Wales and Munster’s James Downey are fine examples of this ‘classic’ inside centre. These guys are 6ft 4ins and weigh around 110kg. While they are expected to offload out of the tackle, their main role is to get their team onto the front foot.

The trio of Olding (20), Madigan (24) and Hanrahan (20) come from an altogether different mould. Physically they are remarkably similar, standing at roughly 5ft 11ins and weighing around 90kg. In modern rugby, where giants like George North roam in wide spaces, these young Irish backs are a refreshing blast from the past.

It’s not really an issue of size here though, rather the different strengths that these talented youngsters offer. All three are versatile. Madigan has started at 10, 12 and 15 for Leinster. Olding has played at 10 and 12 for Ulster, but has experience at 13 and 15 at underage level. Hanrahan has been picked for Munster at 10 and 12. He too has the tools to play 15.

These are multi-skilled, complete players. What it means is that when they line out at 12 for their provinces, they offer a broad range of abilities outside the traditional role of a bosh merchant. All three are excellent playmakers. They share passing skills, vision, awareness of space and the ability to beat defenders with footwork rather than pure brawn.

JJ Hanrahan arrives copy

Hanrahan on debut for Munster this season. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

The development of the role of the inside centre is not confined to Ireland. At Toulon, the Australian Matt Giteau is the attacking playmaker in their backline. He too has a versatile past, having played 10, 12 and even 9 at the highest level. The positioning of a creative player at inside centre is popular in the Southern Hemisphere, where the 12 is often referred to as the ‘second-five-eighth’.

The perceived downside of having a smaller man at inside centre is a physical disadvantage. Of the trio highlighted here, Olding is probably the most effective ball carrier in traffic. His balance and footwork mean he is rarely smashed. But as Madigan showed on Saturday, he is more than willing to bash it up the middle when that’s required. Defensively, all three players are brave and make their tackles.

The positioning of Hanrahan and Madigan in the centre this season has to some extent been a case of needs must. With Ronan O’Gara and Jonny Sexton owning the outhalf positions at provincial level, the youngsters have had to fit in elsewhere. Next season, Madigan will be wearing 10 for Leinster, but Sexton will continue to block his way with the Ireland team.

At Munster, Ian Keatley will expect to be next in line at outhalf. For Ulster, Paddy Jackson looks being the number 10 for years to come.  Olding will also have to compete with Luke Marshall, another who had a superb season. But moving forward, there is real value in keeping Madigan, Olding and Hanrahan at ‘second-five-eighth’.

Ireland is blessed with a stockpile of strike-running talent out wide at the moment. The likes of Tommy Bowe, Simon Zebo, Craig Gilroy, Rob Kearney, Andrew Conway and Luke Fitzgerald need the ball in their hands as often as possible. With a distributing 12 on the pitch, the possibilities are thrilling.

Not only do Madigan, Hanrahan and Olding offer the passing game to get the ball wide quickly, they also possess the subtle vision and sleight of hand to slip these runners into gaps when they roam infield.

Whether through fluke or foresight, the Irish provinces have developed the role of the inside centre this season. The attacking variations that could result under Joe Schmidt are hugely exciting for Irish rugby.

Olding and Madigan are in North America with Ireland at the moment, where it looks as though Madigan will be seen as an outhalf. Strangely, Hanrahan isn’t in the Emerging Ireland squad for the Tbilisi Cup. Perhaps a big pre-season awaits?

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Photos: Ivan O’Riordan, Martin Dobey.

Bienvenue Jonny!

Sexton

Sexton will be doing this in a lighter blue next season. (c) Linda Molloy.

While archaic French rugby laws mean that clubs can’t announce signings for next season until April, Jonny Sexton to Racing Métro 92 is one deal that we know is done and dusted. Club president Jacky Lorenzetti has distanced himself from the move a little over-exuberantly perhaps but we know that Sexton will be playing in France next season. So what should he expect?

Racing’s origins stem back to 1890 when a rugby section was added to Le Racing Club de France, originally set up as an athletics club. Their first Bouclier de Brennus came just two years later and the club had an extremely successful early period, winning another two national titles in that era.  A barren spell followed, with just one title coming in 1959, until the late ’80s, when a group of talented players led Racing back to the forefront of the French game.

The self-entitled Le Show Bizz was a gang of five Racing players who decided to combine serious rugby with a renewed sense of fun. Stunts like wearing berets for an entire match, donning pink bow ties on the field and painting their faces black before games were commonplace. Le Show Bizz were a sensation, even going on to release a pop single (so bad it’s worth a watch) and set up the Eden Park clothing brand. On the pitch, they were just as incroyable, winning the club’s most recent French title in 1990. (Check out this fascinating article by Le Rugby for more on Le Show Bizz).

The loss of that generation resulted in a downward spiral for Racing, and they fell out of the spotlight down in Pro D2 until 2006, when billionaire Jacky Lorenzetti decided to return the club to its former glories. Lorenzetti, who made his money in real estate through his Foncia firm, bought a 61% stake in the club and announced that they would be in the Heineken Cup by 2011. After heavy  investment from their new owner, the 08/09 season saw Racing, led by Andrew Mehrtens, finish top of the pile in Pro D2.

Chabal

Before the Sexton signing, Sebastian Chabal was possibly Racing’s biggest transfer coup. (c) Christophe Cussat-Blanc.

With big money spent on the likes of Francois Steyn, Lionel Nallet and the mythical Sebastian Chabal, Racing finished a creditable 6th in their first season back in the Top 14. Even better followed the next season, with a 2nd-place regular season finish, and a last-gasp semi-final defeat to Montpellier. Last season, another positive 6th-place secured more Heineken Cup rugby for the Parisien club.

Which brings us to the current campaign under head coach Gonzalo Quesada. At the outset of the season, Lorenzetti stressed the importance of stability after the club’s rapid rise. He said the club “remains ambitious, but we don’t have defined goals”. Both he and Quesada spoke about instilling a strong spirit and identity within the club. Unfortunately, these seemingly sensible intentions appear to have had the opposite effect. While it’s far from a disastrous campaign, Racing sit 8th in the Top 14 (7 points off the playoff positions) and were knocked out at the pool stages of the H-Cup.

Despite the arrivals of big names like Dimitri Szarzewski, Luc Ducalcon and Maxime Machenaud, Racing appear to be lacking in any real leadership at the moment. Despite Lorenzetti’s hopes, Racing find themselves at something of a crossroads, still lacking a clear identity. This is expressed in the inconsistency which has seen them beat Toulon away, but lose at home to Mont de Marsan. Lorenzetti has recognised that Racing need to get their momentum back next season, with his recruitment drive the most obvious sign.

The signing of Sexton will give Racing a clear leader on the pitch next year. This season, with Jonathan Wisniewski having missed much of the action through injury, Olly Barkley and Mathieu Belie have shared the number 10 jersey, with neither of them nailing it down. Sexton’s confident leadership skills are exactly what Racing needed to secure. The aforementioned laws on announcing signings ahead of April means that we can’t know for 100% who else Racing have signed, but it looks almost certain that Sexton will have Jamie Roberts playing outside him.

Stade Toulousain - Racing Métro

The 2010/11 season saw Racing reach the Top 14 semi-finals, so far the peak of the club’s achievements under Lorenzetti. (c) Frederic Salein.

In a league where scrum is king, the signings of Northampton props Brian Mujati and Sione Tonga’uiha should give Metro the platform for Sexton to unleash his backs. Springbok second-row Juandre Kruger is another who will be joining next season. In the back-row, Dan Lydiate is rumoured to have agreed a deal. If Lorenzetti has indeed added these world-class players to the existing quality in the likes of Machenaud, Szarzewski, Juan Martin ‘El Mago’ Fernandez, Benjamin Fall and Juan Imhoff, then Racing are going to be a seriously strong side next season.

Off the pitch, the president secured the future services of Castres’ current coaching duo Laurent Labit and Laurent Travers as early as last summer.  Both coaches enjoyed respectable playing careers; Labit, a fullback, played for France A, while Travers, a hooker, won the Heineken Cup with Brive in 1997. Upon retiring, the pair became co-entraineurs at Montauban, then in Pro D2. Within two seasons, Labit and Travers had the Southern club back in the Top 14. Another two season later, the coaching duo had led Montauban to Heineken Cup qualification for the first time in its history.

Castres swooped for the promising coaching team in 2009, and they have steadily improved the side over the last 3 seasons, making the play-offs each year and reaching the semi-final stage last season. The 44-year-olds are highly rated in France, and signing them as a team was a sensible move on Lorenzetti’s part. He will hope the undeniable success of the pair continues in Paris.

A further statement of Racing’s ambitions off the pitch is the planned new stadium in Paris. Les Ciels et Blancs currently play in Stade Yves-du-Manoir, with a capacity of 14,000. It’s a stadium with huge history, but in its current state doesn’t really befit a club of Racing’s ambitions. Construction on the new 40,000 seater stade, named Arena 92, is set to commence soon. Originally planned to be completed in 2014, Lorenzetti has pushed that date back to the end of 2015 due to repeated resident protests, as well as rising costs. When the stadium is eventually built in the Nanterre arrondissement, it will be a stunning home. 

Nearby, in Le Plessis-Robinson, the club recently opened a world-class training facility. It’s a truly cutting edge training base, with comprehensive recovery, analysis and strength/conditioning areas. It looks like the kind of place that would be a joy to work and train in. Check out the video below for the full guided tour from Racing’s manager Pierre Berbizier.

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All in all, it’s an overwhelmingly impressive package and you can see the obvious draw for Sexton, money aside. However, he really is the key to it all. Spending mega bucks and having the best stadium and training facilities count for nothing if you don’t have the right players on the pitch. Sexton will be the focal point for the whole club over the next two seasons, and maybe even beyond. He will be the man the coaches build their side around; a side which Lorenzetti hopes will create a whole new Show-Bizz era. It’s a massively exciting project, and one that will be followed intently all over Ireland.

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Photos courtesy: Linda MolloyChristophe Cussat-BlancFrederic Salein.

Taking a Leaf From Spain’s Book

Espana

Spain have taken maximum benefit of Barcelona’s incredible success. Lessons? (c) Euro 2012.

Spain confirmed their position as one of football’s greatest ever sides with that stunning 4-0 win over Italy last weekend. Each of the four goals were beautiful creations, coming from the Spanish insistence on keeping the ball on the ground, passing and moving into space. Barcelona’s influence on the Spanish team is undeniable. The Spanish national team has taken the Barca model and, if not replicated it completely, used its strengths as guiding principles. There is a lesson in that for Irish rugby.

Barcelona have dominated European football since the 2008/09 season. In that time, they’ve won La Liga three times, the Champions League twice, and the World Club Cup twice, amongst other trophies. The entire club operates on a philosophy of creative, passing, attacking football right up from their famous La Masia training facility. The senior squad is largely made up of locally-born Catalans, or at least Barca-educated players who love the club. They’ve built the club from the roots up, and have been hugely successful, winning trophies in style. They have been the greatest side in European club football for the last four years.

Leinster have dominated European rugby since the 2008/09 season. In that time, they’ve won three Heineken Cups, and finished runner-up of the PRO12/Celtic League three times, topping the regular season table twice. The province operates on a philosophy of creative, passing, attacking rugby, right up from their underage teams. The senior squad is largely made up of Leinster-born players, or outsiders who have bought into the ethos. While maybe not at Barca’s level of youth development, they have strong background roots in place. They’ve built the province from the ground up, and have been undeniably successful, winning trophies in style. They’ve been the greatest side in European club rugby over the last four years.

Leinster

Core players for Leinster, core players for Ireland. (c) Ken Bohane.

For Spain’s national team coach, building his team on the Barca model has been  a no-brainer. The availability of players like Pique, Busquets, Xavi and  Iniesta meant del Bosque would have been foolish not to allow them to form the spine of his team in their unique style. That’s exactly what he has done. While Spain’s style is a modified version of the Barca system, the influence is clear. The team has been built around the incredible assets of Xavi and Iniesta, with players from other clubs adapting to the demands. The results have been incredible, with Spain deservedly winning the last three major tournaments they’ve played at.

However, in Ireland, building the international team in the incredibly successful Leinster model hasn’t been a no-brainer for Declan Kidney. While the spine of Ireland’s team is Cian Healy, Jamie Heaslip, Jonny Sexton, Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney, they have not been encouraged to play in a similar manner as they do at Leinster. I’m not suggesting for a second that Ireland should just name the Leinster team as their international XV, but rather that the team’s style needs to be built around the strengths of that spine. While Ireland won the 2009 Grand Slam, their performances since have been generally weak.

The limited amount of time an international coaching team gets with their players simply adds to the argument. Del Bosque recognised this and allowed his key men to play in the manner in which they train every single day at their club (Barca). Why wouldn’t he have done so? Ireland haven’t done the same thing though. I’m not saying that Kidney should just say, “Go out and play like Leinster lads” but allowing some continuity for his spine players from province into international set-up would only benefit Ireland. One of Kidney’s strengths in times past has been his belief in giving key players the responsibility to dictate play on the pitch. Now he needs to bring that back into action.

Vicente del Bosque

There are similarities between Vicente del Bosque and Declan Kidney. (c) Universidad Europea de Madrid.

Kidney and del Bosque are similar figures, which makes their difference in approach harder to understand. Both men are reserved, dignified and give very little away to the media in interviews. Neither is renowned as a true ‘coach’, in that they don’t do too much hands-on work on the training ground. Their strengths lie in motivating players and creating a harmonious atmosphere within the squad. Del Bosque has been quick to recognise that he has an amazing asset in Barca and their tactical approach, but has Kidney done the same with Leinster?

I’m sure players from Munster, Ulster and Connacht have cast jealous glances as Leinster have gone about their business of winning H-Cups in spectacular style. Similarly, Spanish players like Xabi Alonso, Iker Casillas and Jordi Alba would’ve watched Barca and wanted to experience being part of it. Every single one of them, football and rugby players alike, would have felt that they had the ability to contribute and better such a system. The Spanish players have been given the chance to do so, and their joy has been clear. I think the Irish players from the other three provinces would have similar feelings if Ireland were unleashed with a Leinster-style gameplan.

Spain have extracted the utmost advantage and benefit from the once-in-a-generation resource that is Barcelona FC. Have Ireland done the same with Leinster?

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Photos courtesy: Universidad Europea de MadridMarc Puig i Perez, UEFA Euro 2012.

Miserable End to Ireland’s Season (Part 1)

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Ireland’s season ended in the worst possible way on Saturday, a 60-0 annihilation by the All Blacks. The narrow loss in the 2nd test had given us all hope of another strong performance, but Ireland turned in their worst display in recent memory. While the All Blacks were at their excellent best, Ireland were at their unacceptable worst. Regardless of injuries to Ferris, O’Connell and Bowe, and the oft-repeated excuse of a long, arduous season, Ireland should never lose a game by 60 points.

One of the most frustrating aspects of this loss was that Ireland suffered from the same weaknesses that affected them in the 1st test, and throughout the rest of the season. The passive nature of the defence was the prime example. Ireland have shown that an aggressive, proactive defensive system suits them far more. The 2nd test in Christchurch, as well as the 17-17 draw with France in this year’s Six Nations showed that Ireland are far harder to break down when get up hard off the defensive line. On Saturday, this failed to happen and the All Blacks ran riot.

The first of the All Blacks tries came about after something of a lucky bounce after Aaron Smith kicked through. The hosts went through several phases, keeping their attacking shape superbly, particularly as they went left-to-right. Conrad Smith then made a big surge and Ireland were caught numbers down on the right-hand side. Pause the video above on 9:17 and you’ll see Paddy Wallace has recognised that the All Blacks essentially have a 4 v 3 and is signaling for help. Aaron Smith’s usual quick service allows Sonny Bill Williams to use his footwork and then Cruden gets the offload away for Cane to score.

All Blacks vs. Ireland

(c) Geof Wilson.

The try reminded me of the first score we conceded against Wales in the Six Nations this year. We were caught numbers down in a narrow channel close to the touchline, but in both cases, Ireland’s defence could have been more aggressive. Obviously, it’s preferable never to be outnumbered, but it will happen and there must be a strong reaction, especially the close to the try-line. SBW’s little bit of footwork made Wallace and Earls momentarily sit back on their heels, when they, and Kev McLaughlin outside them, needed to be far more decisive (Watch from 8:05 for the entire passage of play).

The second All Blacks try came directly from 1st phase ball off a scrum, something of a rarity in international rugby. I don’t want to take anything away from Cruden’s magical offload, but again Ireland’s passivity was central. The All Blacks were playing off a scrum going forward, but still Ireland’s defence just wasn’t good enough. As soon as an outhalf attacks the gain line like Cruden did, the defence needs to step up and close down the space around him. Cruden was never going to be able to throw a long pass in that situation so it’s time to bite in and hit someone.

All thoughts of drifting across the pitch should have left the Sexton, Wallace and O’Driscoll’s minds. They should be looking instead to get up off the defensive line  and smash Cruden. But pause the video at 15.30 and you’ll see Sexton planted on his heels and Wallace actually taking steps backwards. Yes, the scrum went forward, giving the All Blacks a big advantage but these are still elementary errors. Fergus McFadden is completely ineffectual sweeping across behind the ‘D’. He doesn’t even lay a hand on SBW as he bursts through. Again, a lack of intent in defence. (Watch from 14:53).

All Blacks vs. Ireland

Ireland’s defensive line speed simply wasn’t quick enough. (c) Geof Wilson.

SBW’s second score, just 7 minutes later, was perhaps the weakest of the 9 Ireland conceded. Again, it was an effective All Blacks attack, with quickly recycled ball and lots of momentum. But to be cut apart by a simple switch that close to the tryline is poor. Unfortunately, Paddy Wallace was involved again. Between himself and Dan Tuohy, Williams simply had to brought down, especially as the bodies were in the right positions defensively. The line speed was again slow and Cruden had plenty of time to skip and burst on a wide angle, setting Williams up. (Watch from 20:45).

After the 1st test, I wrote that Ireland needed to cut out the unforced errors, highlighting how each of the All Blacks’ 5 tries that day stemmed from Irish mistakes. Well, try 4 was horribly similar to some of the tries we conceded in the 1st test. Seconds after throwing a pass straight into touch, Brian O’Driscoll dropped a switch pass from Wallace on the All Blacks’ 22, and the most clinical team in the world punished Ireland to the full extent. It was shocking inaccuracy to botch a simple switch, and summed up Ireland’s lack of accuracy and directness in attack.

That 4th try, from Ben Smith, came in the 23rd minute, and Ireland didn’t concede another until the 43rd. So what happened in between? Ireland actually enjoyed plenty of possession during this period, but failed to make it count. The Irish attack was blunt to say the least, with just 1 clean line-break in the entire 80 minutes, from lock Donnacha Ryan. The main attacking play Ireland looked to use was a simple screen, putting the pass behind a decoy runner, to a deeper lying player running on a wide angle.

All Blacks vs. Ireland

(c) Geof Wilson.

With the All Blacks’ defensive line speed very quick, it simply didn’t work for Ireland. The lack of accuracy even extended to simple plays like this. Check out 30:20 for one example of the move, with Ireland actually conceding a penalty because of their poor timing. In general, the New Zealanders were hard up off the line. Ireland needed to be far more direct, as they were in the 2nd test, when our main carriers got on the ball and ran hard, from depth. Even if we insisted on running these screens, the ‘decoy’ player needed to be hit a few times to really question the All Blacks defence.

To come away from that extended period of possession scoreless pretty much condemned Ireland to a heavy defeat. Over the 80 minutes, Ireland actually had slightly more possession than the All Blacks, around 56%. To be beaten 60-0 in that situation is hard to understand and accept. Ireland’s attack rarely looks built to break down the particular opponent it faces. How often do we see an attacking tactic that picks out an opposition weakness? Very rarely. With Less Kiss in charge of both defence and attack, he is simply too stretched, and both aspects of Ireland’s game are suffering. Ireland’s need for a top-quality, innovative attack coach is now glaringly obvious.

Look out for part 2 of this analysis, where I’ll look closely at the 5 tries Ireland conceded in the 2nd half and see what lessons can be learned from them. As always, any comments would be greatly appreciated, so please add one below!

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Photos courtesy: Geof Wilson.

Can Ireland Finish on Positive Note?

All Blacks vs. Ireland

Ireland need to back up last weekend with another strong display. (c) Geof Wilson.

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.

All Blacks vs. Ireland

Ireland’s attacking shape was better in test 2. (c) Geof Wilson.

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.

All Blacks vs. Ireland

Ireland should attack the All Blacks’ scrum. (c) Geof Wilson.

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.

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Photos courtesy: Geof Wilson.

All Blacks Far Too Clinical

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Ireland started this game well and enjoyed the better of the opening 20 minutes. Their attacking play was very encouraging after some of the stodge served up in recent years. Sexton looked to put width on the ball and got his backline running from depth. The outhalf also added a few well-judged kicks in behind the All Blacks to mix play up. Ireland managed to create several openings (see Keith Earls at 22.05 in vid) but crucially didn’t take any of these half-chances.

The All Blacks were uncharacteristically sloppy during that period and indeed, after the opening quarter, the handling errors were 5-0 in Ireland’s favour. But the hosts recovered in supreme fashion. Savea’s massive hit on Kearney in the 18th minute (27.00) allowed Carter to stroke over a gorgeous penalty from half-way to make it 9-3 on the scoreboard. With that, the All Blacks started to take control. A sustained period of pressure inside the Irish 22 ultimately led to the game’s first try.

Ireland actually managed to repel the original attack and O’Brien won one of many Irish penalties at the breakdown. That phase of defending clearly tired the Irish as first Sexton got very little distance on the penalty and then Murray’s poor box kick was clinically punished by the All Blacks. The scrumhalf’s kick went from Ireland’s 22 to the NZ 10 metre line, far too long. The Irish chase could perhaps have been better, but Murray’s kick is the dream scenario for a counter-attack.

Reddan

Reddan needs to start next Saturday. (c) Nigel Snell.

The All Blacks recognised the situation immediately. They were ruthless in taking the opportunity. Earls and McFadden should have done better with the switch between Conrad Smith and SBW, but it was clearly advantage to the attacking team in that situation. Smith took out two defenders, then so too did Williams with his offload. Carter actually had three options to give the scoring pass. A sniff of a try and every single one of the All Blacks snapped into action. Clinical. (Starts at 34.35).

That was actually Murray’s second overly-long kick of the game. Check out 21.40 for a similar kick earlier in the game. This weakness in Murray’s game is something I’ve mentioned before. Munster conceded a strikingly similar try against Northampton earlier this season. Overall, the kicks summed up a poor display from the scrumhalf. Before the game, I backed him to provide speedier service than usual but it didn’t happen. Reddan must start next Saturday, especially if Ireland look to spread the ball again. All Blacks’ debutant Aaron Smith showed Ireland exactly what they were missing with his crisp delivery. Smith has since claimed he wants to speed the game up even more next weekend.

The 2nd All Blacks try also originated from an Irish mistake. In the 34th minute, Ireland knocked a penalty into the corner 5 metres from the NZ tryline. An efficient lineout followed and then Murray hit O’Driscoll on a flat line. The captain threw a poorly judged offload and the All Blacks countered the length of the field. After the match, O’Driscoll spoke about the need for Ireland to be more patient in attack. I’ve no doubt he was talking about himself. It was a superb opportunity for Ireland to score before the break, completely wasted. (Starts at 43.57).

Sexton

Sexton had a positive game. (c) Ken Bohane.

3 minutes after O’Driscoll’s offload attempt, Savea bashed over Kearney in the left-hand corner. While Israel Dagg showed decent footwork and a nice pass to put Savea down the touchline, the try really showed that Fergus McFadden is not an international-level winger, defensively at least. He’s a centre and should play there from now on. Essentially, the situation was a three-on-three and there was no need for McFadden to bite in. NZ exposed him badly, taking two phases in close after the lineout and then attacking down the blindside in McFadden’s channel. (Starts at 48.06).

So Ireland went from an attacking situation where they could have reduced a 16-3 deficit just before the break, to going in 23-3 down at half-time. This was further compounded by conceding within 5 minutes of the second-half. There’s a strange similarity here between Ireland’s rugby and football teams this weekend. Trapattoni’s men conceded in the 43rd and 48th minutes, while Kidney’s side let in scores in the 37th and 43rd minutes. Both 5-minute spells proved to be decisive in the games. Something in the Irish psyche?

Savea’s hattrick try just after half-time was the killer blow. Once again, the All Blacks’ possession stemmed from an Irish error. Attacking down the short side, o’Driscoll left a pass behind Earls and NZ won a lineout. Again, the All Blacks immediately recognised the opportunity. While it wasn’t quite a quick lineout, the ball came out of touch sppedily. Sonny Bill banged it up the middle, then Earls got too narrow in defence, allowing Retallick to offload. In that kind of space, Carter, Dagg and Savea are lethal. Simon Zebo should have done better with his covering tackle, but the damage was done earlier. (Starts 58.35).

This guy’s pretty good eh? (c) Adidas Italy.

With Carter kicking accurately from the tee that was 30-3 and Ireland done and dusted. They managed a consolation score after good work from Rory Best. McFadden got the chance to show his pace but it was an opportunistic try rather than a cleverly constructed score. (Starts 1.06.15). Thomson crossed for the All Blacks’ in the 55th minute immediately after the impressive Declan Fitzpatrick left the field. Ireland’s scrum went backwards and with Heaslip’s head down trying to scrummage, the space was there for Read to offload. (1.14.14).

The All Blacks became less clinical after that score, which meant that Ireland were spared more punishment on the scoreboard. They didn’t score again until the 78th minute, when Conrad Smith straightened his line in between two inexperienced players, Darren Cave and Zebo. One of the two should have got a hit in on Smith, but both made bad reads and the classy New Zealander went through untouched. Both players will have learned from it, and hopefully they get a chance to improve next weekend.

So positives for Ireland? I was really impressed with Fitzpatrick on his debut. He certainly dealt with the considerable challenge of Tony Woodcock, and Ireland’s scrum was really solid until his departure. Hopefully, his glutes are ready for next weekend and he can get at least another 40 minutes in. Interestingly, Ireland dominated at the breakdown, winning lots of turnovers. The first 20 minutes was encouraging from Ireland. If they can be inspired by the All Blacks’ clinical finishing, we should see a few more scores on Saturday.

Still, the All Blacks will get stronger too. They are playing with a bit more freedom now that the World Cup monkey is off their backs. They are on a different level to Ireland, and it would be a miracle to beat them in the next two tests. However, there’s still value to be taken from the games. More of the attacking intent, cut out the unforced mistakes and see guys like Tuohy, Zebo, Fitzpatrick and Cave learn lessons from the step-up.

What did you make of the game? What changes would you make for next weekend? Who did well and who did poorly in your opinion? As always, any comments are welcome!

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Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane, Nigel Snell, Adidas Italy.

All Blacks Watch: The Debutants

(c) Aftab Uzzaman.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has named three uncapped players in his team to take on Ireland in the 1st Test tomorrow. None of the selections are very surprising, with Brodie Retallick, Aaron Smith and Julian Savea all deserving their chance. So how have they earned their first caps for the best international team in the world? Let’s take a closer look at each player and the form they carry into this series.

Second-row Brodie Retallick turned 21 only a week ago. He was an integral part of the New Zealand Under 20s side who claimed a 4th successive Junior World Championship title last year. From there, the 121kg lock went straight into an ITM Championship (the level below the likes of Canterbury, where new Munster coach Rob Penney had so much success) campaign with Hawke’s Bay. Retallick played a key role as the ‘Magpies’ earned promotion to the ITM Premiership, coincidentally beating Aaron Smith’s Manawatu side in the final.

In Ireland, lack of size and strength is very often an issue with our young second-rows. That’s never been a problem for the freakish Retallick. In fact, he has actually dropped weight since his school days, where he tipped the scales at 126kg. That made him hard to get off the ground at the lineout but he has since shed a few kgs and is now superb in the air. He’s also the tallest player in New Zealand rugby at almost 6’9′. His physical readiness meant Retallick went straight into the Chiefs’ first XV in this year’s Super Rugby campaign.

Retallick takes a switch off SBW at Chiefs’ training. (c) One Arm Photography.

The Chiefs sit top of the overall table coming into this break for the international tours. Retallick has been important to the Chiefs’ success. His work at the lineout has been impressive and his engine is huge. The 21-year-old is exceptionally fit. He recently beat Brad Thorn’s long-standing beep test record for a tight-five forward in New Zealand. That highlights Retallick’s impressive work ethic. He’s 6th in the Super Rugby tackling charts, with 169 in just 12 games.

Another of the lock’s strengths has been his work at the breakdown. Not in the sense of steals, but rather his effectiveness in cleaning out rucks during the Chiefs’ attack. Encouragingly, Retallick turned in perhaps his poorest display of the season in the Chiefs’ last match, a thrilling 41-34 win over the Blues. The 21-year-old forced a few offloads and passes and generally looked a little uncomfortable. From an Irish point of view, hopefully the added pressure of an All Blacks jersey results in something similar on Saturday.

Aaron Smith takes over in the 9 jersey. World Cup scrumhalf Piri Weepu has been struggling badly for fitness and form, but is still included on the bench. Smith is one of a number of exciting young 9s coming through in New Zealand at the moment, with TJ Perenara and Tawera Kerr-Barlow both unlucky to miss out. Smith’s form for the Highlanders means he is deserving of this chance though. His swift and accurate passing has been eye-catching, and much appreciated by the All Blacks selectors.

(c) Highlanders Rugby.

Back in 2008, Smith came off the bench for the New Zealand U20s as they beat England 38-3 in the final of the first-ever Junior World Championship. Following that success, he spent three seasons playing ITM rugby for Manawatu, pushing his way into the Highlanders Super Rugby squad last year, making 3 starts. However, it was the 23-year-old’s form in Manawatu’s run to that Championship final at the tail end of 2011 which really saw Smith announce himself. That convinced Highlanders coach to give Smith the starting role ahead of All Black Jimmy Cowan this year.

Smith has admitted that his focus at the start of this season had been getting starts for the Highlanders, and hadn’t even entertained the notion of an All Blacks cap. His superb performances have been one of the unchanging factors of an inconsistent Highlanders side this season. It seems like an idiotic thing to say about a scrumhalf but you’d be surprised how many don’t do it well – Smith’s main strength is his beautiful passing. He generally doesn’t offer as threatening running game that Perenara or Kerr-Barlow do. In terms of positives for Ireland, Smith is relatively inexperienced, and by his own admission, never expected to be where he will be on Saturday.

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The third new cap is left wing Julian Savea of the Hurricanes. The 21-year-old has been marked out as an All Black for some time now. In 2009, at the age of 18 and fresh out of school he played for the New Zealand Sevens team. The following year his 8 tries helped the NZ U20s to the JWC and saw him named 2010′s IRB Junior Player of the Year. A brilliant ITM Cup campaign for Wellington followed, with Savea scoring 8 tries in 12 games. A full All Blacks call-up would surely have followed sooner than now, but for a poor 2011 season.

The 6’3″ winger progressed to start 7 games for the Hurricanes but was generally quiet and didn’t manage to score a Super Rugby try. An ineffective ITM campaign followed with Wellington and the buzz around Savea died a little. However, this season has seen that buzz reach new heights thanks to his spectacular form for the Hurricanes. 7 tries in 11 games doesn’t tell the whole story. When you see that he’s in the Top 10 for metres gained (817), has made 4 try assists and 8 clean line-breaks you start to get the idea.

(c) Hurricanes Rugby.

At around 105kg, Savea is a big unit. He uses his power to great effect and regularly boshes defenders into the ground (1.14 and 2.07 in the vid below are becoming typical). However, he has neat footwork and general skills too. His Hurricanes teammate Beauden Barret has called Savea’s attacking arsenal the “triple threat“. So any signs of respite for Ireland? While the Hurricanes’ attacking game has lit up Super Rugby (they’re comfortably the top-scorers despite sitting 6th), their defence has been very poor (2nd worst in the table). Savea has been part of that weak defence, and is certainly more interested in attacking. Despite the fact that he’s a big unit, if Ireland can send some traffic down his wing, they may get some change out of the youngster.

The fact that the All Blacks have included three uncapped players does not mean that they’re putting out a weakened or experimental team. The rookies Smith, Retallick and Savea have each earned the chance to wear the famous black jersey. Still, it’s natural that Ireland will view their inexperience as a chink in the armour.

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Photos courtesy: One Arm Photography, Aftab Uzzaman.