Ireland produced a heroic performance to beat New Zealand 40-29 in Chicago on Saturday, ending the All Blacks’ record 18-match winning streak and recording its first victory over the world champions in 29 Tests spanning 111 years.
The Irish, inspired by the death of their former forward Anthony Foley last month, held off an All Blacks fightback after leading 25-8 at half-time and edged the try count five-four at Soldier Field to seal a famous win.
We know New Zealand are a great side and we knew we would have to
go out and attack them.
– Rory Best (Ireland Captain)
Ireland had New Zealand on the ropes early in the match and made them pay when prop Joe Moody was sent to the sin bin after eight minutes for a foul tackle. The All Blacks scored the first try in the fifth minute through centre George Moala, but when they were down to 14 men, Ireland hit them with two tries by their back row. Ireland kicked two penalties into touch close to the New Zealand line and from the lineouts, first Jordi Murphy then CJ Stander went over.
Following a Beauden Barrett penalty, the Irish scored a third try after 32 minutes when scrum half Conor Murray fielded a high kick from Johnny Sexton and was brought to ground near the line, but recovered to scurry over under the posts. Ireland’s 25-8 half-time lead was equal to the previous biggest deficit conceded by the All Blacks at the interval of any Test match when Australia led them 20-3 in 2011. New Zealand suffered again early in the second half with the Irish routine of penalty to touch, lineout and driving the ball over with winger Simon Zebo scoring as the defence was caught a man short on the blindside to give Ireland 30 points, equaling their highest ever score against New Zealand.
Replacement scrumhalf TJ Perenara cut the deficit with a try from Dane Coles’s off-load in the 51st minute, converted by Barrett as the All Blacks threatened a comeback. A try by full-back Ben Smith in the corner, beating last-ditch attempts to stop him by Zebo and Andrew Trimble, brought New Zealand within eight points after the conversion. A Murray penalty was followed by New Zealand’s fourth try in the 65th minute, scored by replacement forward Scott Barrett on his Test debut with brother Beauden converting, that put the All Blacks within four points.
However, the fighting Irish, who had faced the New Zealand haka before kicking by forming a figure of eight in remembrance of Foley, who died aged 42 last month, had the last word. Centre Robbie Henshaw broke through a flailing defense to score with replacement back Joe Carbery converting.
Ireland, whose best result in 28 previous games against New Zealand was a 10-10 draw in 1973, had come agonisingly close to ending the drought in Dublin in 2013, conceding a converted try at the death that allowed the All Blacks to win 24-22.
The teams meet again in Dublin in a fortnight after New Zealand visit Italy and Ireland host Canada next weekend.
ANALYSIS: They were billed as the greatest All Blacks team we’ve ever seen, and yet the weaknesses were there if you dug deep enough.
Ireland found a way to exploit those weaknesses, going at the heart of the All Blacks and in many respects, beating them at their own game.
DEFENSIVE LINE SPEED? ✓ – Ireland did this superbly, giving the All Blacks no time to settle into their short, sharp and speedy passing game. Whenever New Zealand took the ball from the back of a ruck or maul, Ireland rushed up extremely fast and cut off the options to spread the ball wide. They gave the All Blacks a taste of their own defensive medicine.
By pressing up fast they dominated tackles, and won the ruck battle, something we signalled as being vital two weeks back. New Zealand still won 92 per cent of their breakdowns, but they had to commit more men to the ball in order to do so. The ball was slow and messy, and the All Blacks weren’t able to dominate from what has been a solid platform of late.
STOP THE SHORT PASSING? ✓ – For the most part, Ireland were able to stop the All Blacks from making their dangerous short passes out wide, instead funnelling much of the play through the middle of the field. The most vital thing in stopping the All Blacks’ short passing is preventing the men out wide getting the ball in acres of space, and there were few times the likes of Savea or Naholo had space to move.
Despite that, Ireland weren’t perfect. Scott Barrett scored from a beautiful short ball from Liam Squire, and there were other moments where an All Black would punch through the line thanks to a nice running angle and that extra, short pass the All Blacks have made an art-form. But clean breaks tell the story. Only eight for the All Blacks in the game is well below what we’ve come to expect of late. Twelve was the lowest number of clean breaks they had in a Rugby Championship match, with 24 their highest.
FOCUS EARLY ON? ✓ – We haven’t broken down the stats on this just yet, but Ireland certainly stopped the All Blacks from scoring early in their possessions.
What we found was that 81 per cent of All Blacks tries take five phases or fewer, meaning it was vital to be switched on defensively early in their possession. Ireland certainly did that. The All Blacks always looked threatening as soon as they had gained possession, moving up field with pace while spreading the ball wide. But Ireland were strong in defence and prevented the All Blacks from scoring. They took it a step further by often bundling a wide man into touch, or there were two occasions when they held an All Blacks played up and forced a maul, winning a turnover.
KICK THE BALL OUT? ✗ – The theory here was that the All Blacks counter attack is so good, you’d rather send the ball into touch and take your chances with what is usually a dominant lineout. That didn’t really happen to the extent we’d suggested, but what Ireland did was much better than we could have imagined.
Instead, Ireland took New Zealand on with challenging, well weighted high balls. Even Ben Smith was out-jumped on a couple of occasions. One memorable take from Simon Zebo saw him claim the ball and roll over the top of Smith to retain possession. The key was Ireland’s depth of kicking. They always put the ball into a place where it was contestable, making it hard for New Zealand to claim. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton were superb with the boot, and their fellow backs were superb in the air.
CONTEST THE SET PIECE? ✓ – Yes, Steve Hansen made the colossal error of playing only one lock, and the All Blacks lineout suffered. But you also have to give credit to Ireland, and Devin Toner in particular, for messing with Kiwi heads. Toner was a huge presence in the lineouts, disrupting many balls intended for the likes of Kieran Read at the back, and as a result set piece quality was as poor as it’s been in a year.
During the Rugby Championship, New Zealand scored 15 tries from set piece situations, and a common theme was perfect ball quality from those situations. That means no pesky opponent making things slower, disrupting your business. Ireland didn’t let that happen at all, and New Zealand’s lineout was a shambles in the first half as a result.
WORK THE INSIDE BALL? ✓ & ✗ – Ireland did make use of the inside ball on occasion, noting the All Blacks rush defence and attempting to work the ball up the middle of the field. But more often than not they were doing what the All Blacks do and throwing one extra pass to find gaps, and change the angle of attack. It wasn’t necessary to make passes on the inside as a result.
ATTACK THE FRINGES? ✓ – Anyone see Conor Murray’s try? He unlocked the door in the defence Aaron Smith was supposed to be defending and ghosted over. Argentina and South Africa had success attacking the edges of the ruck with short passes. Ireland did the same. By dominating the ruck they got quick ball and were able to make good metres in those areas.
Perenara made things better when he came on, but attacking Aaron Smith on defence is a must for opposing teams.
DON’T BE AFRAID OF PENALTIES? ✗ – Honestly, it didn’t come to that. Ireland dominated the other aspects of the game so well, they never needed to penalise and test Beauden Barrett’s boot.