As mentioned over on the TV page, I’m slightly slammed with work at the moment, but there are three genuinely tasty fixtures in this weekend’s second Round of the November Internationals that simply have to be acknowledged. So here are the things that struck me from each of the three, with this second instalment looking at Ireland versus New Zealand. I’d love to cover Wales and Fiji and Italy versus Argentina, as these matches also have the potential to provide some serious entertainment, but unfortunately time just doesn’t permit this week.
In recent times, this fixture has provided us with some classics. We were fortunate enough to be at Soldier Field in Chicago that famous November afternoon five years ago when the Men in Green claimed their first ever All Black scalp. Since then encounters between the two have always (with the exception of the most recent World Cup quarter final) been tense and tight affairs with no quarters given on either side. Saturday’s reunion between the two in Dublin promises to be no different, and with the All Blacks occasionally misfiring at the moment, Ireland must surely be approaching this match with a healthy dose of optimism. Ireland made a Japanese side, that had been World Rugby’s new darlings since the last World Cup, look like rank amateurs in last Saturday’s 60-5 training romp. New Zealand will be a totally different proposition, but there is no denying that Ireland seem to have finally thrown off the shackles off the Joe Schmidt era and appear to want to play an exciting new brand of rugby, while having mastered the skills to go with it.
While it wasn’t New Zealand’s first choice team last weekend in Rome, there were still enough established starters in it that their inability to get on the scoreboard until the 27th minute will trouble the Coaching staff. Italy were able to ask them some serious questions in the first half, and in some cases New Zealand’s answers weren’t overly convincing. New Zealand have brought out the big guns for this Saturday, but we’re still not convinced that this is an All Black side capable of sweeping all and sundry aside, and in Ireland they will face a serious challenge. We’re not saying that New Zealand won’t be extremely difficult to beat, but invincible as in years gone by they certainly aren’t and consequently Ireland are likely to fancy their chances.
Ireland vs New Zealand – Saturday, November 13th – Dublin
Ireland come into this match off the back of a very flash performance against a Japanese side that clearly had no idea what had just hit them. However, as good as Ireland looked they weren’t really tested and Saturday’s encounter will be a vastly different prospect. Nevertheless, Ireland’s new look is polished with the old guard clearly mentoring the younger talent exceptionally well. If Ireland play like they did last Saturday, then they are much more capable of moving the ball around and adapting to changing circumstances than they have been in the past. In short, they were an exciting team to watch last weekend, and we sincerely hope they don’t revert to their old patterns against a much more challenging opponent.
New Zealand have in their last few matches looked a few degrees off the boil at times, and Ireland will be keen to exploit those weaknesses and moments of self doubt in the All Black set up. The problem is with New Zealand that they are able to fix whatever is tripping them up quicker than any other team on the planet. Since the defeat to South Africa and the wobbles against Italy last weekend in the first half, they will have probably written a complete manual on what they need to change and how to do it – while making it look ridiculously easy and simple all at the same time. There are enough wise heads in Saturday’s match day XV to ensure that whatever new Standard Operating Procedures they’ve come up with are adhered to in Dublin and very little is left to chance.
All the right stuff but needs some target practise
When you’re doing everything else so well and are such a huge asset to your team, it’s really unfortunate that just one minor detail that is so crucial to your role is holding you back. You guessed it we’re talking about Irish Hooker Ronan Kelleher’s success rate in the lineout. The rest of his game is so stellar that it really is frustrating that this one detail is still too much like playing the lottery for Ireland. Against Japan, Ireland could only manage a 67% success rate when it came to throwing the darts with Kelleher on the touchline. He simply has to do better and hopefully the Irish forwards Coach, the legendary Paul O’Connell, has been working with him to get this right. Against New Zealand it will be vital and the rest of Kelleher’s skill set is such a threat to the All Blacks that if he can just tighten up his throws then he could ultimately have a very large say in Saturday’s proceedings.
Part of the fix
Given that James Ryan is a given in Ireland’s second row, it’s always a conundrum as to who to put alongside him. For a game of this stature it would appear that the Coaching staff have gone with Ian Henderson’s consistency and familiarity with the role, as well as his ability to get under the skin of his opponents come lineout time. Tadgh Beirne often gets the call, but we’d argue that for a match like this it’s better to have Beirne who is equally at home in the back or second rows, available on the bench to fill in where impact is most needed as the game unfolds. Instead put your specialist second rower Henderson in alongside Ryan at the start. Furthermore, we feel Henderson is often overlooked in Ireland’s decision making when it comes to selection and it’s good to see him get the game time he so deserves in such a high profile game.
Battle royale of the 8s
Ireland’s Jack Conan was one of the most consistent players of the recent Lions tour to South Africa and one of Ireland’s best in this year’s Six Nations campaign. Ireland seem to have no shortage of quality back rowers, but Conan is rapidly starting to standout as one of the Northern Hemisphere’s very best. What Conan is to rugby North of the Equator, Ardie Savea has been the same to South of it and for a couple of years now. That the two are dynamic and powerful ball carriers is stating the obvious, but it’s their ability to spot gaps and gain valuable metres for their sides that marks them out. Once either of them have ball in hand and open space in front of them they are very hard to bring down, allied to a defensive set that ensures that opportunities in the loose for their opponents from the breakdown are few and far between. Savea may have the edge in securing turnover ball for his side but when it comes to run metres Conan is your man. As a result the contest between these two will be one of the highlights of the afternoon.
New Zealand have long struggled, much as Ireland have with Conor Murray, as to who will replace Aaron Smith at scrum half when the legend eventually hangs up his hat. TJ Perenara seems to blow hot and cold too often for some, Brad Weber has also shown similar promise but seems to only have been recently discovered by All Black management and sadly for this match is out injured. Finlay Christie also appears to have been overlooked till recently. At 27 he is not exactly a spring chicken but like Weber has caught the eye of a Coaching team that until recently seemed to only have eyes for Perenara and Smith. With the World Cup rapidly approaching, New Zealand needs depth in the position and Christie and Weber are both key in that regard. Although Christie struggled to find his feet initially against Italy after coming off the bench after only 9 minutes for the injured Weber, he was the catalyst and scorer of New Zealand’s first try of what had been till then a fraught match for the Men in Black. He gets to start off the bench again this week, but if the pressure gets to Perenara expect to see him sooner rather than later and the contest between himself and Irish veteran Conor Murray will do wonders in furthering his apprenticeship.
As good as he was against Japan the key question simply wasn’t answered
While there was naturally a great deal of excitement about James Lowe’s performance in last Saturday’s romp against Japan, the elephant in the room when it comes to the Irish winger was not addressed – that of his defensive skills which have proven suspect too often. Japan simply didn’t require him to exercise much in the way of defense for the full eighty minutes. Therefore we learnt very little in terms of whether or not Lowe has addressed this major weakness in an otherwise impressive toolkit. We would hazard a guess and say no. While he may look less suspect at club level with Leinster, the men in Blue are so dominant at PRO 14 and now URC level that any deficiencies are usually papered over by the rest of his teammates. On Saturday, he’ll be up against All Black try scoring sensation Will Jordan and if he hasn’t improved in this area then it could well be a very long day at the office for Ireland. Fortunately Mr. Reliable for Ireland, Keith Earls is standing by on the bench should things unravel, and the Munster man’s overall skill set will put many an Irish supporters’ mind at ease, with try saving tackles being one of his specialities.
We have to confess to being more than just a little excited for this one. It should be an absolute cracker, with both sides capable of claiming the day’s honors. Both teams are playing an exciting brand of rugby, with Ireland in particular seeming to have found a new lease on life. It should be intensely physical but also a contest where both sides will seek opportunities to run the ball. New Zealand may have the edge in that department, but they won’t be discounting Ireland’s master tactician Johnny Sexton who like the rest of his team seems to have embraced Ireland’s new approach to playing a more open game. Two teams with everything to prove and a rather feisty history of late should provide for a riveting game you won’t want to miss on Saturday and one that at this stage is simply impossible to call!
Next up England vs Australia!