Thursday 14 December 2017

Lessons to learn from Aviva agony - but Ireland must bring new ideas too

Members of the Ireland squad during a squad visit to the Chicago Bulls training facility yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Members of the Ireland squad during a squad visit to the Chicago Bulls training facility yesterday. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

As painful as the memory is, Ireland will dip into their 2013 experience against the All Blacks this week, even if they don't want to.

Much has changed since that fateful afternoon at the Aviva Stadium, but there is a template that Joe Schmidt's side can draw on as they prepare to do battle with the world champions for the first time since.

In Chicago on Saturday, history beckons once again and the head coach looks likely to put his faith in his most experienced players for the most difficult task in rugby.

Nobody has beaten New Zealand in 18 attempts and most have not come anywhere close, so where does Schmidt start?

Breakdown ferocity

The tone for that brilliant first-half performance three years ago was set at ruck-time as Ireland tore into the All Blacks with a controlled fury that knocked them off their stride.

Ireland's Garry Ringrose plays basketball during a squad visit to the Chicago Bulls training facility. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland's Garry Ringrose plays basketball during a squad visit to the Chicago Bulls training facility. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

They disrupted the All Blacks brilliantly while also providing Conor Murray with clean, quick ball and they did it without conceding a penalty for the first 34 minutes. Nigel Owens' lack of fussiness helped, but they stayed within the rules and stunned their opponents.

New Zealand's speciality is turning every single possible moment into a contest for possession, but they had the tables turned on them in Dublin and, if Ireland are to succeed in Chicago, they will need to do the same again.

Either Aaron Smith or TJ Perenara are used to an arm-chair ride at ruck-time, but Ireland will look to counter-ruck at every possible opportunity and put the awesome Kiwi backline on the back-foot.

The All Blacks are, of course now forewarned about the levels Ireland can get to and will look to dominate themselves, while their ability to shift possession through their off-loading game could negate the Irish influence.

But if Ireland can put pressure on the ball-carriers, then those off-loads become risky.

Attack the fringe

With ball in hand, Ireland are unlikely to do anything particularly flashy at Soldier Field, and Australia showed that there is potential softness around the New Zealand ruck.

Schmidt has been preparing for this clash for months, looking for any chink of opportunity, and while Steve Hansen's team don't give up much, there has been evidence that hard running from depth and good foot-work can expose gaps in the defensive line.

If Ireland can provide Murray with quick ball, expect him to hit CJ Stander and Jordi Murphy regularly and look to build pressure through a ground-and-pound game.

They will hope that the All Blacks' discipline slips and affords them points or position to attack.

Dominate the set-piece

When they weren't piling into rucks like men possessed, Ireland spent the first half of the 2013 clash marching New Zealand backwards with their maul.

Hansen would never have envisaged taking on the Six Nations side without Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano and must put his trust in one of two uncapped second-rows alongside Patrick Tuipulotu, who has 10 caps.

That means Ireland will have singled out the lineout as a real area of opportunity to put pressure on.

The Irish maul has been somewhat under-used in recent times, but it remains a weapon they shouldn't be afraid to use.

And if they can disrupt Dane Coles' throw and put pressure on an inexperienced caller then they can make hay on New Zealand ball.

At scrum-time, both teams will want to play off the set-piece and all eyes will be on Tadhg Furlong, who steps into Mike Ross' shoes.

If he can steady things on his side and allow Jack McGrath to attack Owen Franks, then it will be a good day's work.

Control the air

No Schmidt game-plan would be complete without a well-worked-out kicking game, and Rob Kearney's expected inclusion is a signpost that the ball will spend some time in the air on Saturday.

The onus is on Murray and Johnny Sexton to kick with great accuracy and the chasing line to remain in contact, because any looseness will be punished by a team who love nothing more than to attack off fielded ball.

In Ben Smith and Israel Dagg, New Zealand have two world-class aerial talents, but Ireland have had joy kicking to Julian Savea in the past.

Again, Ireland will look to exert pressure through their kicking-game, but they would be hesitant to over-use the tactic given New Zealand's capacity to hurt teams with their counter-attack.

Get off the line

Again, Australia showed Ireland that strong line-speed can shut down the All Blacks' opportunities in their recent meeting at Eden Park.

Sure, the Wallabies still conceded six tries but they were undermined by a combination of awful individual errors and bad luck.

Andy Farrell prefers his team to get off the line fast and get in the opposition's faces and Ireland will hope to hit hard and early to prevent the New Zealanders getting over the gain-line and freeing their hands.

Expect Ireland to identify and target specific risky ball-carriers to try and force turnovers.

Back the bench

New Zealand do most of their damage in the second half, bringing on players of real impact to drive home their advantage and keep the pace high.

In 2013, Ireland couldn't live with the speed and intensity for 80 minutes but should have a strong bench to call on this weekend, with Sean Cronin, Ultan Dillane, Cian Healy and Josh van der Flier all capable of coming in and increasing the tempo.

Garry Ringrose is another who can offer a point of difference in attack if he is introduced for his debut, although Joey Carbery and the reserve scrum-half - either Luke McGrath or Kieran Marmion - are unlikely to see action unless Sexton and Murray are struggling.

Schmidt has options and he shouldn't be afraid to use them early as his side go chasing history.

They could pull off the perfect game and still not win, but while the bookies are giving them no hope there is a steely belief in the Irish set-up that they can pull something special off if they carry out their game-plan well and bring the right levels of intensity.

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