It was the game the rugby world wanted, and needed. It was played out to a kind of highly-creative stalemate, but on a truly Homeric scale. The Irish could not storm the citadel, and the All Blacks could not force them away from the city gates.
The stats tell the tale. Ireland enjoyed 53 more ball-carries, gained 166 extra metres with ball in hand, built 37 more rucks and created 20 per cent more lightning-quick ball (sub three-second ball) than their opponents. They engineered 10 more line-breaks or tackle busts in the process, but still it was not enough.
If there was a Trojan Horse at play, it was the secret unveiling of the New Zealand scramble defence, complete with torches and whispers, and fully weaponised at the midnight of an epic quarter-final, As New Zealand head coach Ian Foster commented at the post-match presser:
“The world has been talking about these two quarter-finals for 12 months, even longer. Our one [versus Ireland], and the one tomorrow night between France and South Africa is likely to be the same. They are massive games.
“Two very proud teams, you saw them – desperate to want it. And sometimes the sweetest victories are when your opponent plays really, really well and tests you to the limit.”
There was a curious symmetry to the pattern of events, played out on a map that can only be described as Olympian. New Zealand set out their stall with a monstrous 30-phase attacking sequence near the Irish 22, lasting three and a half minutes, in only the third minute of the game. They came away with three points after failing to breach the green ramparts.
Ireland matched them at the very end, with a 37-phase sequence lasting five and a half minutes, and taking play all the way from their own 30-metre mark to within eight metres of the Kiwi goal-line before Sam Whitelock, winning his 151st cap for the All Blacks, popped up with the game-deciding pilfer at the final ruck of the game. The margins truly were that tight.
New Zealand won by the skin of its teeth, or perhaps more accurately by the thickness of Jordie Barrett’s forearm, when the second five-eighth held up Ireland hooker Ronan Kelleher over the goal-line after another momentous lineout drive in the 72nd minute.
Six inches makes all the difference between winning and losing, between living on in the tournament, or dying at the quarter-final stage. Maybe Al Pacino was right after all in the Gridiron movie Any Given Sunday. When matches are this close, ‘the six inches in front of your face’ make all the difference in the real rugby world, just as they do in American football fiction.
That is our benchmark going forward.
All Blacks’ skipper, the indefatigable Sam Cane, paid tribute to what he had just experienced after the game:
“What an incredible finish to a Test match. 37 phases. It’s as long [a sequence to defend] as I’ve heard of, or witnessed…
It is pretty clear that defence won us the Test match tonight, and history shows that teams which win World Cups are very good defensively.
“I feel like that kind of performance has been building for a wee while, and that is our benchmark going forward.”
From the relative comfort of the coach’s armchair, Foster added: “We have been building our system [just] for today, about how we wanted to defend. We are making some strides in that space.”
20 years ago, when rugby analysis was still in its infancy, counting the number of breaks was one popular, and simple shortcut to weigh the success of your attacking game. More line breaks lead straightforwardly to more tries, right? That might have been true in the first decade of the professional game, but with the improvements in strength and conditioning it is no longer a reliable guide. The conversion rate of breaks to tries is far more important, and it is the situation created after the break has been made that is of principal interest to coaches.
Scramble defence is one the biggest areas of growth or transformation. For example, it is what enables the Springboks to rush off the line with kamikaze intent, play-in, play-out. They know there will always be cover behind them. It was those unsung heroes in black, scrambling back to mop up the mess and pick up the pieces, who became true heroes in the course of a match where Ireland had more ball and created more chances.
Nobody performed better in this respect than the two New Zealand halves, Aaron Smith and Richie Mo’unga. There were any number of scenarios after a breach had been made, or where one threatened to be created, in which their interventions were understated but decisive.
Take a look at how the New Zealand defence hauled this situation back under control after an early Irish line-break in the 15th minute:
Mack Hansen, Jamison Gibson-Park and Garry Ringrose make inroads down the right before Ringrose is stopped in his tracks by Mo’unga, and the quality of his tackle allows the Kiwi defence to cut off the easy overlap available on the next play:
The All Blacks have just enough time to force Johnny Sexton to make the in-pass rather than take advantage of the big numbers to his left, and the old firm of Smith and Mo’unga have already recycled themselves in the cover defence. That enabled the New Zealand defence to get back in shape, and big Brodie Retallick won a crucial turnover on the floor in the shadow of the Kiwi posts a few phases later.
This time it is Smith scampering back to make the cover tackle after another big Irish break down the left. Within a few more phases, the play was back in structure and Sam Cane and Ardie Savea were able to overwhelm an isolated Ireland ball-carrier deep in the 22, with you-know-who still doing overtime in the backfield behind them:
One more example:
Mo’unga makes another conclusive tackle after a break by replacement wing Jimmy O’Brien, and his mate is there to patrol the back of the ruck just after the stop has been made. The pair were just as critical to Kiwi survival at the incident which drew New Zealand’s first yellow card of the game late on in the first period:
The conversation between the referee and TMO in review of the event made it quite evident that if Richie Mo’unga was not acting as emergency fullback when Smith knocks the ball down, there would be an obvious path to the line for Gibson-Park to score. That would mean a penalty try and a yellow card on the Kiwi halfback, so 10 minutes in the sin-bin was an acceptable outcome for the men in black.
The prodigious amount of defensive activity by the No 9 and No 10 did not end there. Both filled in expertly in positions where Ireland were actively targeting their vulnerability:
With Smith still off the field on yellow, Gibson-Park knows he will find Mo’unga supplying the halfback’s role on the end of the short-side defence, retiring down the tram-lines at a lineout. But even though it is 6’3” of Peter O’Mahony versus 5’10” of Crusaders’ pivot, Mo’unga does enough to prevent the big Munsterman claiming the ball cleanly in the air and falling over the goal-line to score.
When Smith returned from the pine, he was just as decisive in his actions in an unfamiliar role:
It is second phase from lineout again, and if Smith misses with the flying intercept, O’Mahony has a canter to the line which might only be interrupted by – you guessed it – Richie Mo’unga in scramble mode. But the diminutive scrumhalf gets to the ball at full stretch and for once, the last-ditch efforts of his partner-in-cover are not required. On the day, those ‘six inches in front of your face’ belonged to New Zealand.
When they eventually bring themselves to review the game, the Ireland coaches will be kicking themselves, because they got most of the pictures they expected and wanted. High ball-in-play time at almost 42 minutes, with Ireland owning 23 minutes to New Zealand’s 19; more territory and possession (55 per cent of the first and 60 per cent of the second); more quick ball, more carries and more breaks.
With the score at 24-25 and a second Kiwi player in the bin in the 64th minute, Irelands had their foot on the throat and were primed to make the kill, but they ultimately lost the crucial battle for inches – and with it the game and their hopes of reversing the tide of World Cup history.
If the game was played out again next weekend – as it probably deserves – who can say what the outcome would be? The desperation from both sides would still be present, and nobody would be complaining about having to experience the highs of elation (for New Zealand) or the lows of heartache (for Ireland) all over again. It was that good.