La Rochelle boss convinced opportunity knocks for Andy Farrell’s side but warns that away Tests bring a whole new set of challenges
Ronan O’Gara is too shrewd to have words put into his mouth – and so when he’s asked whether he feels this All Blacks’ side is ‘vulnerable’ ahead of tomorrow’s opening Test at Eden Park, he’s well able to sidestep the headline.
Vulnerable is too strong, but the Ireland great believes the current crop have a real shot at making history over the next three weeks.
Two years at the Crusaders, and a keen eye for trends at the top of the game, leave the Corkman wondering if the home side are still searching for the right blend.
Ireland are a more settled team; 10 of their starting XV remain from the win over the All Blacks in Dublin last November, with eight New Zealanders still standing from that week.
Throw in Covid-19 robbing them of three players who would almost certainly have been involved and four members of the coaching ticket, including chief Ian Foster, this week, and there’s been enough to open the door. Although the dirt-trackers lost to the Maori on Wednesday, O’Gara believes the Test team have a golden opportunity.
“There were a few important messages or opening shots fired (on Wednesday), in the fact that even in winter rugby in New Zealand, there’s a big emphasis on skill level. You could see that the Maoris were very adapt at playing, passing and running the ball, their lines of running, their speed on the ball was very impressive,” O’Gara said.
“At times, when they accelerated they left Ireland for dead, so there’s some interesting takeaways from that. In transitioning from defence to attack, New Zealand teams are very good at that – their skill levels are very good, and they made a nuisance of themselves at the breakdown.
“We see the opposite now to what it looks like in November in the Aviva to Waikato, Eden Park, Dunedin in June.
“Everything is flipped on its head now.
“It’s probably for the Test team to show what they’re made of, because I genuinely think there is a huge opportunity.
“In a long time watching New Zealand, it’s (never been as) hard to select their team, probably five positions aside.
“You look at the backline and it’s a team that would never really had even trained together (before this week). Leicester (Fainga’anuku) on the left wing, I coached him at the Crusaders, he’s a really good player but really inexperienced . . . it’s not a backline which is, shall we say, very established.”
He points to the second-row combination of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick as a source of strength, the presence of captain Sam Cane and Scott Barrett in the back-row as excellent operators. And yet there is inexperience in the front-row and indecision at half-back, where they’ve gone back to Beauden Barrett after picking Richie Mo’unga for a period.
“Over the years their strength was probably their consistency of selection,” O’Gara said.
“Now it seems it’s a team that changes frequently, epitomised by Beauden Barrett at out-half . . . a phenomenal player but, like so many other players, he has, I suppose, one or two elements of his game which can be put under pressure at Test level.”
The presence of Joe Schmidt in the opposition camp is another fascinating subplot – and O’Gara believes the former Ireland coach can have a big influence.
“There’ll be a big focus in New Zealand on themselves, as there is with a lot of great teams. Once they feel they have themselves right, then they aren’t too worried about the opposition,” he said. “History tells you to respect that.
“I think the fact that Joe is at pitch level is a very interesting dynamic. If he can put a little bit more structure on their attack and capacity to naturally play, especially at home. I was probably shocked by their change of speed and tempo in a five-second period the other night with a wet ball.
“You can imagine if you get the structure of Joe Schmidt with the chaos of their transition and turnover game, it could make them really interesting to watch.”
This series, O’Gara believes, will answer a lot of the questions that linger over this Ireland team.
“I remember not so long ago the strength of Irish rugby, according to some people, was the strength in depth,” he said.
“Now all of a sudden there is a little bit of panic without a ball being kicked in a Test match. We will have a much better idea on Saturday night.
“But you also have to factor in the fact that the games at home are very, very different to Test matches away.
“For me, that is possibly the most interesting thing I will be watching on Saturday.
“In Lansdowne Road, it was easy to perform. The sign of a real Test player is his capacity to perform away from home.”