Johne Murphy: Winning the aerial battle will be the key to beating the All Blacks again

Ireland will take on the All Blacks again, looking for another famous win on home soil

BY Johne Murphy 14:30 Friday 18 November 2016, 14:30 18 Nov 2016

Image: Ireland's Rob Kearney with Ben Smith of New Zealand. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

The challenge of beating the All Blacks twice in three weeks is upon this history-making Irish side, but New Zealand will be a different animal this weekend. Every wounded animal is. 

They have their first choice second row pairing back, and have added Israel Dagg to their back three in the hope of controlling every aerial battle on the park.

The lineout was an area where Ireland had dominance in Chicago, and it gave them a huge foot hold in the game. Tomorrow it might be a different story with Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock being arguably the best second row pairing in the game. If Toner can lead the lineout to parity with the All Blacks, that will be sufficient to give Ireland a platform to attack off.

Image: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

Israel Dagg is therefore one of the most interesting selection decision from Steve Hansen. This is clearly an effort to combat the aerial battle that Ireland’s back three and kickers controlled so well in Chicago. Simon Zebo, Rob Kearney and Andrew Trimble succeeded in not giving New Zealand a platform that they have used much like a set piece for such a long time. 

Dagg is the leader of the 'Bomb Squad', and his presence gives the All Blacks someone who can defuse that attacking kicking game Ireland used to such effect in Solider Field.

New Zealand's own kicking game was poor when the two teams last met, but it was also a surprisingly underused tactic on their part. Even in comparison to previous games, they kicked very little against Ireland, but last weekend against Italy they returned to the game plan that has served them well in the past, running in 10 tries for their troubles.

For me, this is a sign that they intend to use this weapon a lot more, meaning simply controlling that area of the game won't suffice for Ireland this time out - they will need to be dominant there.

If New Zealand do opt to kick more often, this will also be an opportunity for Ireland’s back three to attack and set a platform for the whole team. 

As I touched on in a previous piece, kick receipt is one of the main sources of tries in rugby at present. If Ireland do control the aerial battles, it will allow them to gain another foot hold in the game. They will, in essence, be able to turn this into another set piece which they can execute, launching into the multi-phase game that is working so well for them at present.

It's also worth noting that Ireland's defence was huge in Chicago. They trusted their system and put New Zealand under huge pressure, especially in the wider channels. Their line speed was stepped up another level, and continued the whole way out the pitch.

While many said New Zealand were inaccurate in Chicago, a large part of that was because of the pressure Ireland's defence put them under. Andrew Trimble's timing at the end of the line was nothing short of immaculate. He backed the system and trusted that Kearney would have the last man, putting the Kiwi attackers under so much pressure they couldn’t execute the 2 v 1 situations that, in other games, were made to look so easy.

Image: ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

That is not a skill level issue or, as some were saying, a mentality thing, it was just great defence.

Despite all of that praise, Ireland's defense will have to find another level for Saturday's clash. However, that is something that they have managed to do in every game since Andy Farrell has taken over.

Any tiny moments of hesitation will allow the All Blacks to execute those chances in the wider channels, especially off kick receipt, a lesson Joe Schmidt will have highlighted to the team, given that's how Hansen's side scored their first try.

The defence's crucial role is highlighted by the fact that Ireland came in below the average of six tries per game that opponents have conceded to the All Blacks, and this weekend, they will more than likely have to beat their own, lower tally of four.

Saturday is going to be a huge occasion for this New Zealand side; their pride is hurt, and their mentality and attitude has been questioned. It will also be an emotional occasion for the players with the earthquake back home, not to mention the anniversary of the passing of Jonah Lomu, which was spoken about by a number of the team at the press conference this week.

Steve Hansen also stated to the media that it won't be a question of attitude this time, but rather what game plan will win this clash. If it is to be a tactical battle between two of the best coaches in the world in Joe Schmidt and Steve Hansen, then we're in for an extraordinary game.


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