- By Kevin McCarthy
The ground is about to hit the All Blacks running. Three tests against Ireland are a refreshingly bracing way to start the international season – rather than opposed training runs against willing but sacrificial makeshift Pasifika teams.
It’s admirable too that the Irish have taken on more than most teams would consider wise – three tests, and two mini-tests against the Maori. Three weeks of staunchness, but coach Andy Farrell with his gimlet eye no doubt believes Ireland doesn’t want to go to the World Cup again without some reality checks about performing consistently in a compressed time frame.
Essentially Ireland must nail its first- ever win on New Zealand soil – or face a pretty real prospect of leaving these shores with five losses from five.
From that, you’d take it the home side were brimming with confidence and momentum. Which of course they aren’t. But this isn’t Dublin at the end of the season, and the All Blacks go into the series as favourites of sorts.
So rather than results, the post-mortems are likely to be inevitably about the team’s strategy, the combinations, and yes, is Ian Foster up to the job.
Hence the flurry of commentary about five things the All Blacks must fix. Or some such. The usual suspects – physicality, beating line speed, the kicking game.
Physicality is an interesting one. One writer said the All Blacks needed to dominate up front and intimidate again. Wouldn’t that be great. But actually, for most of their history, the All Blacks have not required that to be successful – which is good, because generally our pack has never been able to rely on route one to victory.
What they do, and what they need to do, is get something close to parity at set-piece and breakdown – and to avoid getting rocked back on their heels to such an extent that the rest of the side begins unravelling. Think the Blues in the super final as an example – or more pertinently, the 2019 world cup semi against England.
There are always times in the match when one side will be pushing on hard, and its those this team needs to learn to navigate. For me, its that problem solving which marks the champion All Black versions, of which this is yet to become one. Last year against France, they shifted gears in the second half, and began to rattle the until-then dominant French pack. They couldn’t sustain it, and it should have come earlier, but it was working.
The warning signs will be if we see the backs playing cross field, shovelling the ball on, or aimless kicking. That’s usually at the point at which the team has little ball, and fewer ideas.
There is one physicality where the All Blacks need to match or exceed the Irish and that’s in the defence. It’s not that defence is poor with the current team iteration, but certainly nothing does more to sap an attacking opposition than meeting a wall.
I should say we shouldn’t pin too much on this opening match or series for either side. The World Cup is a long way out. But the road is starting to shorten. The Irish, based on the dirt trackers we saw midweek, are capable attackers when they get the ball – so nothing new there.
As for early disruptions, Covid-19 is nothing like what the 2011 squad when through in that home world cup. So, it should be something the All Blacks successfully weather in the backs and the sort of resilience they need to have.
I would be surprised if Ireland can win this first one, but of course, that should be their best chance. Expect a close one.