There was no shame in this loss for Ireland.
They stunned world rugby in the manner of their victory at Solider Field two weeks ago. Their incision, consistency with the basics and their ability to take their chances when they came all shone. But it was New Zealand who epitomised these skills this weekend in Dublin 4. The All Blacks were on the back foot in many ways. They only had 34% possession and 30% territory and they beat less defenders (22-16). They also had a less effective maul by 50% and ruck by 6%. They coughed up two yellow cards and ten more penalties
But unlike last time out, when they had their chances they took them ruthlessly. A lot of this was down to experience, they had 59 more caps in their starting team than Ireland and it showed, as Steve Hansen’s team collectively made better decisions across the field for the duration of the 80 minutes.
The best attacking team in the world did what they did best
The other element that cannot be ignored was that New Zealand were just better with ball-in-hand: they were more creative and intuitively knew where the space was. They made less passes and runs than Ireland but crucially they had three more line breaks as that incision paid off.
Ireland set out to match New Zealand in the basics and somehow outplay them in attack on enough occasions to shock them, but the little things failed to come off for them. Box kicks were a little too long and Simon Zebo and Andrew Trimble were not quite as effective or quick at getting to breaking balls. And when green jerseys did make line breaks the support simply wasn’t there to back them up.
This lack of a rapier attack was a feature of Ireland in in defeats to Argentina at the last World Cup and in Tests 2 and 3 against South Africa in the summer and it is a worry. They need to work out a way to come up with a Plan B when Plan A isn’t working. At the moment that doesn’t happen; couple with that a tendency to force things in the red zone and you have a recipe for coming up short.
Ireland’s defence was imperfect when it was tested
In defence, Ireland came up short on too many occasions, with a 79% tackle conversion rate compared to 87% for the All Blacks. There is very little magic to this: that level of missed tackles usually leads to defeats. Ireland also displayed a tendency to over commit men to the breakdown, getting sucked in and leaving gaps out wide – it led directly to Malaki Fekitoa’s opening try.
Despite all this, Ireland deserve credit. The All Blacks were always going to give one of their grade A performances following their admittedly under par performance in Chicago.
Losing Robbie Henshaw, Johnny Sexton and CJ Stander early doors was a hammer blow to their chances and left them without their two key attack men in the backline and their most consistent carrier with the exception of Sean O’Brien. Any side would struggle to implement their game plan in the face of losing that trio.
O’Brien’s performance was one of the major positives for Schmidt. He still looks rusty – the knock-on with the tryline opening up in front of him showed that – but the directness and tackle-breaking ability he shows just makes him a guaranteed starter when fit.
Can Ireland play attacking rugby like New Zealand?
The question for Ireland is do they have enough in attack to get to where they really want in world rugby? To be able to challenge the best week in, week out, on a regular basis.
That question has two elements? Firstly, strategy. Secondly, personnel.
Five tries against New Zealand last week shows that the strategy has the ability hurt anybody.
In terms of personnel, you would think certain players have the ability to come in and add something. Either Iain Henderson or Ultan Dillane look the best suited to partner Devin Toner in the second row and definitely add a dynamism Ireland need.
In the backline, the question mark over whether Ireland need Ian Madigan’s magic in the last quarter of a tie like this is still there.
In the centre, Garry Ringrose gave the kind of display that showed he is ready for this arena of Test rugby. Perhaps he is even ready to start these big games, alongside Henshaw at second centre, pushing Payne out to fullback where he can be far more effective as an attacker. Bundee Aki’s availability next season adds a valuable option that is likely too hard to ignore.
The defeat throws up a lot of questions but Ireland most of all deserve credit. This was the first time New Zealand scored less than four tries in a match this year, and 21 us the lowest points haul by the All Blacks this year. These are not small feats and they give Ireland plenty of hope going into the clash with Australia next weekend.