Ireland have done the All Blacks a favour in inflicting upon them their second defeat in their last three clashes under the expert guidance of coaches Joe Schmidt and Andy Farrell.
Last Sunday’s 16-9 loss to Ireland in Dublin after the narrow 16-15 win against England at Twickenham showed the All Blacks are not next year’s Rugby World Cup hot favourites so many had supposed.
Ireland fully tested and sometimes bettered their scrum and their outstanding loose forward trio of C J Stander, Josh van der Flier and man of the match Peter O’Mahony collectively outplayed Kieran Read, Liam Squire and Ardie Savea although Savea shone individually.
Beauden Barrett and his backline failed to cope with Ireland’s disciplined rush defence and on the few occasions breaks were made, possession was kicked away through lack of confidence.
The kicking of Irish first-five Jonny Sexton was much smarter in putting Damian McKenzie under immense pressure. And it wasn’t until Richie Mo’unga and Anton Lienert-Brown came on in the second half that the backline showed any fluency with Barrett moving to fullback.
That Jacob Stockdale scored the game’s only try was testimony to both teams’ outstanding defence with the big left wing notching his 12th in 14 tests.
It was pleasing that coach Hansen and captain Read offered no excuses and offered full credit to the Irish for their win with Hansen rating them the world’s best, a status New Zealand has held for nine years.
When halfback Conor Murray, No 7 Sean O’Brien and midfielder Robbie Henshaw recover from injuries they will be that much stronger come next year’s Rugby World Cup.
Meanwhile the All Blacks selectors are little wiser despite experimenting with so many different backline combinations that have shown brilliance against weaker teams but have struggled against those who impose the rush defence clamp.
Against the likes of Ireland, England and South Africa, Mo’unga offers better attacking options in confined spaces than Beauden Barrett to wear the No 10 jersey, with Barrett moving to fullback to allow him more space to weave his magic.
Another alternative is to return Ben Smith from right wing to fullback where he is among the world’s best and try the gifted Barrett in a midfield position where his speed and courage could compensate for his lack of bulk.
While Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty have been the selectors favoured midfield combination, that of Crotty and Lienert-Brown performed better when paired last year.
Both are rock solid players who make few mistakes and Lienert-Brown has a happy knack of getting his pass away when tightly marked.
Powerful Ngani Laumape and Jack Goodhue also have their special talents. But while there is plenty of depth, the selectors have yet to find their best combo.
Some believe Ma’a Nonu, who is to team with SBW for the Blues, will help solve the selector’s problem. But, at 36, that is a forlorn hope although he claims to be as fit as he’s ever been.
The problems are not confined to the forwards.
Sam Whitelock deserves a long rest, as does Brodie Retallick who looked injured and made uncharacteristic mistakes against Ireland after his heroics against England. Ditto skipper Read.
Beaten but not bowed, the All Blacks will join Ireland as co-favourites for the world crown next year.
- Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author