November 2018 Test Matches

Ireland vs New Zealand

Saturday, November 17

Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Kick-off: 19:00 GMT, 21:00 SA time
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)
Assistant referees: Mathieu Raynal (France), Marius Mitrea (Italy)
TMO: Rowan Kitt (England

Ireland take to the field at the Aviva Stadium on the back of their tenth consecutive home win in last weekend’s victory over Argentina. This was a first in Irish rugby history. On Saturday they will be looking to extend that unbeaten run to 11, and they want to do it in style, taking down the world’s No.1 team, the All Blacks.

Of course, Ireland are currently ranked No.2 in the world, and based on their ranking they are probably the one team that could dethrone the All Blacks at next year’s Rugby World Cup, and perhaps even knock them off their lofty perch at the top of World Rugby’s rankings.

The All Blacks have a rating score of 93,58 and Ireland have 90,12. Precisely how an Ireland win would affect the ratings is a little difficult to work out. Try as I might, I cannot wholly fathom the thinking behind the World Rugby rating system, with all kinds of factors that can influence the points awarded or deducted for a specific match.

We do know that there are five possible outcomes that can affect points changes: winning, losing, winning by more than 15 points, winning by up to 15 points, or a draw.

But!

Just to complicate things, the home side is treated as though they are three rating points better than their current rating. We are told that this has the effect of ‘handicapping’ the home side as they will tend to pick up fewer points for winning and give away more points for losing. In this way, the advantage of playing at home is said to be cancelled out.

Effectively, on Saturday, Ireland will be ranked second in the world on 90,12 points, but when they take to the field, although they will still be ranked second, they will be much closer to their visitors on points, as they will have a hypothetical 93,12 points…

If you understand the whole thing, you are a better mathematician and statistician than I.

World Rugby Rankings aside – This is probably the biggest Test match of the 2018 November Test season. England might have tried to claim that last week’s Test at Twickenham was bigger and more important, but the reality is that when No.1 plays No.2 there can be no doubt about the status of the game.

Ireland come into this Test with just a little bit of an edge to their preparations. There is a feistiness about them, a hint of “revenge” and “payback” and all kinds of talk about ill-feeling between the two teams, more especially from the Irish side.

That ill-feeling is all about the way things panned out the last time the All Blacks visited Dublin.

The All Blacks arrived in Dublin carrying their own dose of ill-feeling and resentment. The Irish had, just two weeks earlier, beaten the All Blacks in Chicago, a maiden win for Ireland over the men in black. The men from Aotearoa were not happy with that loss, and they were focussed on teaching the Irish a lesson for their cheekiness in actually beating the mighty All Blacks.

It got inside the heads of those All Blacks just a bit too much, and their response  was brutal. They took on Ireland with massive physical intent, looking to force the win rather than playing the open brand of running rugby for which they are famous.

The All Blacks won 21 – 9, but it was brutally aggressive rugby, rather than exciting and entertaining. The day after the Test, the Irish team manager Mick Kearney suggested 12 incidents had been put in front of the citing commissioner for his review, 11 of those incidents featuring potential fouls by the All Blacks.

The Irish were angry about a number of incidents, with two that stood out. The first was early in the game when Sam Cane’s shoulder collected Robbie Henshaw’s head in a clash that the officials somehow saw as accidental. (It does look deliberate when you look at it on the replay, again and again!)

And the second was the high tackle by Malakai Fekitoa on Simon Zebo in the 60thminute. Fekitoa was yellow carded, but the judicial review after the citing official’s report ruled it should have been red.

What really angers the Irish is the fact that it was Fekitoa, back on the field after his 10-minutes in the naughty chair, that scored the All Blacks decisive third try to take the game away from Ireland. If he had seen the red card that he deserved, the result could have been very different.

The old adage of “what happens on the field, stays on the field” is not holding true this time around. On Monday , Johnny Sexton said about that game: “It was physical. I think that game probably went over the edge.

“But I think it did change a lot going forward. It was a massive game where high tackles were assessed in terms of what was acceptable and what was not. After that, I feel things changed.”

Clearly, if Sexton was motivated to comment about the game in the run-up to this week’s test, the Irish have not put the previous game to rest yet! This time it is inside their heads! Of course, Sexton himself was very lucky to avoid being yellow carded and even a possible red card for his attempted tackle on Beauden Barrett in the first half of the same game.

There is just a faint whiff of cordite clinging to this Test!

Selection News:

Ireland:

Joe Schmidt has named Rob Kearney in Ireland’s starting XV to face New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.

Kearney plays for the first time in this November series and joins Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale in the back three.

Garry Ringrose renews his partnership with Bundee Aki from the game against Italy in Chicago. Jonathan Sexton is partnered by Kieran Marmion.

Up front, captain Rory Best packs down with Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong. Devin Toner starts in the second row with James Ryan.

Dan Leavy is named at openside with Peter O’Mahony on the opposite flank and CJ Stander at number eight.

The replacement forwards are Sean Cronin, Jack McGrath, Andrew Porter, Ian Henderson and Josh van der Flier. The replacement backs are Luke McGrath, Joey Carbery and Jordan Larmour.

New Zealand:

Steve Hansen has made just one change to his starting line-up for their Test with Ireland in Dublin on Saturday.

As expected, Ryan Crotty comes in for the injured Sonny Bill Williams at inside centre, with Anton Lienert-Brown coming onto the bench in the number 23 jersey.

This will be a significant match for three All Blacks.

Aaron Smith will play his 82nd Test match and become the most capped All Blacks scrum-half in history, overtaking Justin Marshall, while Brodie Retallick and Samuel Whitelock will set a new record for an All Blacks starting lock partnership, starting in their 50th Test together.

Thoughts:

This is not an easy Test to assess and predict.

Neither team looked impressive last weekend, the All Blacks managing to claw back a 15-point deficit and beat England by just one point in a wet arm-wrestle of a Test at Twickenham, while the Irish looked seriously rusty as they beat a feisty Argentina 28 – 17.

The Irish never looked as if they were going to be beaten by the Pumas, as they put some serious pressure on the Argentineans in the scrums and lineouts. Despite dominating the set-pieces, though, Ireland struggled with continuity in wet, greasy conditions and made far too many handing errors and plenty of tactical mistakes throughout the game.

The All Blacks needed the fire and fury of Brodie Retallick to dismantle the England lineout and fire up his compatriots in the tight-loose to get them over the line in a Test marred by yet another refereeing controversy.

What will this week deliver?

The All Blacks will know that to win against Ireland again they will need to find the right mix of physicality and creativity. That mix of ingredients that has been their trademark during the last couple of decades. They have to focus on their offloading game, their quick slip passes to shift the point of contact, and their creativity to put their big runners into space.

The All Blacks will need to focus on their ability to transition from defence into attack in the blink of an eye, perhaps the most impressive strength of their entire game.

With no rain forecast for Dublin in the next three days, the Aviva pitch is likely to be a bit drier and firmer underfoot, which will suit the All Black game plan and style. They will, undoubtedly, continue with their 2-4-2 midfield game, focussing on sucking the Irish defenders into midfield collisions before switching play into the wider channels. They will look to play off Ryan Crotty in the set-pieces, allowing Beauden Barrett the freedom to loop around and link outside either Crotty or Goodhue to create the extra man out wide.

And then there is the McKenzie-factor. As an alternate first receiver and a marauding roamer who can join the line anywhere, any time, he adds an attacking dimension that will test the Irish defence to the extreme.

Ireland are known for a very well organised, more conservative style of play, relying on the educated boots of both Connor Murray and Jonathan Sexton to keep them playing in their opponent’s half of the field. With the ball in hand, they look to go through plenty of phases, keeping the ball tight and recycling as they work their way into scoring positions on the field.

A particular strength or the Irish team is the amount of focus they put on minimising errors and mistakes. Against an All Black outfit that simply loves to attack off opposition errors and mistakes, this could be a crucial strength.

Of particular interest in this Test will be the confrontation between Jonny Sexton and Beauden Barrett. Sexton is the lynchpin around which the entire Irish game plan revolves. He makes most of the decisions, calls the plays, and manages the defence. Barrett is equally adept at managing a game, but the All Black game plan often allows for his inside centre to make the decisions and call the plays, which frees Barrett to make and take opportunities as they present themselves.

Sexton has a far better tactical boot than Barrett, but Barrett is supported by the most dangerous counter-attacking back three in the business, which might draw some of the sting from Sexton’s tactical kicks.

In contrast to the All Blacks’ preferred 2-4-2 formation in midfield play, Ireland prefer a three-man midfield pod, a 2-3-2-1 formation, allowing an extra man to roam either left or right of the contact point. The Irish system relies on a single carry and recycle by their three-man pod, before playing set moves on either the open or blind side, relying on a 3-forward support unit out wide.

Saturday will tell us which of these two game-plans works best….

At halfback, the two teams have two of the best scrumhalves in the world too! Aaron Smith, in his 82ndTest, has long been considered the best halfback in world rugby, but has seemed just a tad off his game in recent weeks. (Fatigue perhaps?) Smith is key to the All Black tactic of transitioning from defence to attack in the blink of an eye, often being first to the ball and playing on instantaneously. He is an all-field attacker, with a remarkable ability to see and take advantage of opportunity.

Connor Murray is slightly different, as he tends to play the quick-link role in most areas of the field, ensuring that Sexton gets quick, crisp ball and the time and space to make decisions. He has an educated boot that can take kicking pressure off Sexton and other kickers, especially when clearing the line in the 22m area.

Where he is different to Smith is the variation that he brings when Ireland get into an opponent’s 22m area. Instead of being simply a linking player, he becomes the playmaker in this part of the field, often catching opponents off-guard as they initially expect him to pass the ball rather than retaining and carrying the ball himself, and playing the ball to flat runners in close. He is very good as a link with his loose-forwards running onto the ball.

In the midfield, the two teams face off with very different combinations. The All Blacks have the guile and playmaking skills of Ryan Crotty alongside the carrying power of Jack Goodhue, while the Irish have the steadiness of Garry Ringrose, and the step-and-go of Bundee Aki. Aki is a clever attacking unit, and Ringrose is steady, and a good defensive wall. Not that the Irish are all defence, when the opportunity presents, they have the skill and ability to finish opportunities with aplomb. Aki might have some nerves about facing the country of his birth as there has been some needle in the press about his decision to become an Irishman..

Out wide the All Blacks have one of the deadliest finishers in the game, Reiko Ioane, and one of the finest support players ever in Ben Smith. While Ioane uses his sheer pace to outrun and get away from opponents, Ben Smith has an almost uncanny ability to get through the first line of defence and draw in tacklers before releasing the ball to support runners with space to exploit. And then there is McKenzie. Damian McKenzie is one of the most exciting rugby players to watch in an entire generation. Small, tiny even in modern rugby terms, he will never die wondering. Whatever happens, he will give it a go. Sometimes criticised for being too attack oriented, he is brave in defence and safe under the high ball. Not your traditional fullback, you simply know that he is set on causing havoc with the ball in hand. Ireland have the returning Rob Kearney at fullback with Keith Earls and Jacob Stockdale on the wings. A very good back three.

Up front the game promises to be a tussle.

It is interesting to note that the All Blacks have a perfect scrummaging record since June, with a 100% success rate through the Rugby Championships and into this Silly Season tour. Their scrum focusses on an eight-man effort, both on their own ball and on the opponent’s put-in. They have perfected the cohesion between their tight five, and in the whole 8 as a unit too. Technically they have a very good scrum. Their hit is good, their snap on the put-in is good, their second shove is very good, and their timing on the wheel is exemplary.

Ireland will need to step up their scrummaging if they want to tame the All Blacks in this set-piece.

Looking back to last year’s Lions tour, we know that the Lions’ front row were often at sixes and sevens against the All Blacks. That was the full Lions pack, the best of the home nations in one pack. The Irish scrum is not quite as good as the whole Lions scrum. In New Zealand a year ago Tadhg Furlong started all three tests, but he struggled to hold the All Blacks. Packing down with Rory Best and Cian Healy, the Irish front row has a huge job in their plates.

The lineouts will be interesting. The 6’10” Devin Toner is obviously included as a counter to the lineout skills of Retallick and Whitelock, with the high-jumping Barrett on the bench. The All Back lineout has been the model of efficiency in 2018, using their well drilled variations to confuse opponents and suck pressure away from the jumper. Last week they ripped the England lineout to shreds with their contesting of every lineout.

The Irish lineout is usually a well-functioning element of their game, but they were just a little disjointed and scrappy against Argentina. They will have to be right on their game to contain the All Blacks.

The All Black loose trio is starting to gel, with Ardie Savea replacing Sam Cane whilst the latter is recovering from his neck injury. Savea brings plenty of pace and an enormous leg drive in the tackle which makes him very difficult to bring down. Kieran Read has been playing well since his return to the Crusaders and then the All Blacks, slowly but surely getting back to his very best. Liam Squire is perhaps the one All Black loose-forward who is struggling with his game at the moment. He seemed slow and ineffectual against England a week ago.

The Irish loose trio features CJ Stander at 8, a man once considered a trifle too small back in the country of his birth, South Africa. He has been playing superb rugby of late. He is combining with Dan Leavy and Peter O’Mahony in a combination that promises much.

Prediction:

This is not an easy game to predict.

The Irish are focussed on more than just revenge. They want to prove that they are worthy of a possible World Number One ranking, even if they cannot earn it this week because of the weird ranking points system that World Rugby uses. A win over the All Blacks would, however, make them the unofficial Number One as the year ends.

On the other side you have the All Blacks. They are the World No.1, and they are the reigning World Champions. And they are very proud of that status. They will do whatever they can to retain their lofty position atop the world of rugby.

Whether we will see the gun-smoke and grenades of their last encounter, or whether this game will be more clinical and focussed, with fewer off-the-ball and unacceptable incidents, you can have no doubt that the Irish will have to work extremely hard to down the All Blacks.

And I am not sure that they have the complete game for such a result.

So:

New Zealand, by 6 points.

The Teams:

Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Dan Leavy, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Cian Healy
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Josh van der Flier, 21 Luke McGrath, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Jordan Larmour

New Zealand: 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Sam Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Ofa Tuungafasi, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Matt Todd, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Richie Mo’unga, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown