Most people believe we have no chance against New Zealand on Sunday and there is plenty of history to support that position. Our November under-performances against Samoa and in particular Australia have added even more weight to that argument. But if we are to give ourselves a shot at beating New Zealand there are a number of boxes we need to tick in a pretty spectacular way to create the perfect storm.
In selection New Zealand have made seven changes (two enforced) to their team. It doesn’t really matter which fifteen Kiwis take the field against Ireland as Steve Hansen has, over the past two years, built great depth into his squad. But the news that Brian O’Driscoll, Jonathan Sexton and Rob Kearney are passed fit is a huge boost for Ireland.
The experience all three players bring to this particular game is crucial against the World Champions. In bringing back Conor Murray to start and Issac Boss on the bench, Joe Schmidt has gone for physicality at scrum-half. David Kearney coming in for the injured Fergus McFadden is no surprise after his late cameo against Samoa.
Overall, considering we are facing into the third autumn game, Joe Schmidt has most of the key personnel from his original squad selection available to him.
Over the past twelve years we have played the All Blacks thirteen times and we have run them close on six occasions. In 2012 we came within three points when Dan Carter kicked a drop-goal at Rugby League Park to save New Zealand. But in every one of those tight games our defence was outstanding.
This weekend our defence will have to hold it’s shape through as many phases as necessary to get the ball back. That means not being too narrow or too spread out. We saw the effects of the defence being too narrow last week against Australia. Holding our defensive shape is just part of the equation when it comes to a good defensive performance.
We also have to tackle extremely aggressively and above all “tag” the ball in the tackle. “Tagging” the ball will prevent New Zealand offloading the ball from the tackle. The All Blacks thrive on offloads and if we if we can take that aspect of their attacking game away from them we will go a long way to a huge defensive performance.
When we have the ball we have to achieve two things. We must go forward by finding space to attack or by winning collisions. That applies whether we decide to go through or around the All Black defence.
Also, we have to hold onto the ball i.e. not turn it over in the tackle/ruck area or by handling errors. In our last two games we have lacked accuracy in our attack, which makes it easy for the opposition to deny us “go forward” with the ball.
If we can take New Zealand through multiple phases they are succeptable to missing tackles and making defensive errors. But without that continuity and “go forward” those defensive errors are unlikely to emerge.
When we kick the ball away it has to be part of a structured attack and not off the cuff. The kick has to be contestable in the air or turn the Kiwi back three giving us time to get our defensive line up-field and connected.
We have to assume our set piece will deliver the quality possession necessary for that continuity attack. Since the 2003 RWC Ireland have had a world-class line-out. The current Munster Manager, Niall O’Donovan, set those foundations during his time as Assistant Coach to Ireland. Next Sunday we should be confident of delivering quality line-out ball to launch our attack.
Our scrum may come in for some special attention from New Zealand, as it looked very vulnerable last week against Australia. But if New Zealand have a slight weakness it is at scrum time, so we should be capable generating an attacking platform from the scrum.
A functioning set piece is a must to launch our game plan. Without quality possession we will be unable to generate a continuity attack game and as a result we will spend an inordinate amount of time in defence.
To have a shot at beating New Zealand we have to create the perfect storm. That includes a suffocating defensive performance when the All Blacks have the ball. Our set-piece has to deliver quality possession, which we can use to generate “go forward” and continuity attack. If we kick the ball away it needs to be strategic enough put pressure the opposition.
Even then it may not be enough to beat this All Black team. But it would go a long way to giving us a shot.