Soldier Field, Chicago. Host to rugby history on Saturday – Ireland overcoming the All Blacks 40-29 for the very first time in 111 years. Cue Irish jubilation. All rugby fans alike, you have to admit it was a pretty epic feat. The Irish were moments away from doing the job three years earlier back in 2013, but a Ryan Crotty try in the 82nd minute broke Ireland hearts and that long awaited win had to be put on hold. Enter the class of 2016.
But let’s put this win into perspective – the All Blacks record-breaking win comes to an abrupt end after an incredible run of 18 consecutive wins. The most of any Tier 1 nation. Ever. Ireland had never won a game against New Zealand. Ever.
Irish Coach and Kiwi Joe Schimdt said in the week that his team wouldn’t show any fear against an all-conquering All Blacks side. His players certainly lived up to that and then some. But more so the manner in which Ireland went about their business against the world champions seemed to stun the rugby world. Attacking them and playing them at their own game are statements that have been used a lot in the immediate aftermath. But breaking it down, just how did Ireland get the better of a team that have been untouchable for the last five or so years?
The Irish had clearly done their homework as far as the breakdown was concerned. In defence, it was clear the message was to not commit men unnecessarily at the ruck. The All Blacks are notorious sucking defenders in to the breakdown, especially when the half-backs are as potent as they are in attack. But this wasn’t the case with Ireland – they refused to get pulled in. This meant the Irish defence was bolstered with the players that would have been competing in the ruck. The All Blacks struggled to penetrate the defence as space and gaps weren’t there to attack. As the game grew, the gaps did start to appear – during the All Black comeback, in particular Scott Barrett’s try late on. In attack, the Irish were just as good – the loose forwards were everywhere and always quick to clear out to give Conor Murray quick ball and get on the front foot. Essentially it meant that players Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read couldn’t get a foothold in the game. And it was clear from the stats – Ireland winning 95% of their rucks and 100% of their mauls as opposed to 94% and 60% respectively for the All Blacks. It was a department that Ireland had clearly worked on.
The All Blacks are used to playing the possession game – starving teams of the ball and waring them down in defence to gain the upper hand. Conversely, Ireland did just that – dominating the first half with 67% of the possession in cruising to a 25-8 lead. For the All Blacks, it’s only the third time they have ever given up 25 points in the first half of their 549-test history. Being on top in the possession stats creates errors in the defence. Having to defend for long periods, players lose concentration and the defenders tend to drift further infield and become narrower. Ireland exploited this during their phase play; getting quick ball at the breakdown and using their strike runners before the attack drifts further out and wide players like Simon Zebo were able to score. The Irish didn’t have as much ball in the second half, but when did it was used effectively and were still able to score twice more.
Any one of the Ireland players could have been given the man-of-the-match at the end of the game, but none of them deserved it more than Conor Murray. Probably his best ever performance in the green jersey, he was everywhere during the game. It was evident in itself that he had worked on his game specifically for the All Blacks clash. The number of kicks he made during the game was significantly lower than he would usually – it would only give the ball back to the All Blacks and this wasn’t the game plan. Instead, he executed the ball in hand strategy perfectly giving his attacking runners the precise pass to create the phases and get over the advantage line. But when the scrum half did kick – his box kicking in particular – was right on the money, giving his chasers the perfect opportunity to compete and on a number of occasions win the ball and use it as another platform to attack.
It’s clear that the rugby world witnessed something special. Schmidt and his players pulled off the perfect game plan. To score six tries against the All Blacks would have been unheard of before kick-off and scoring 40 points – only two teams have ever scored 40 points against New Zealand: France and South Africa.
Ireland now need to back it up with another performance as the All Blacks come to the Aviva Stadium on the19th November. Perhaps the All Blacks will need to bring Wyatt Crockett with them – they haven’t lost a game since 2012 (England) where Crockett has featured and he didn’t play on Saturday. Either way, New Zealand will want to right the wrongs of Chicago and will undoubtedly be a resurgent side seeking redemption. Another win for the Irish and they’ll be in dreamland.