Ireland in New Zealand: Team of the Tour

Ireland in New Zealand: Team of the Tour

We are one week on from that historic day that saw Ireland ear their first series victory over the Kiwis in New Zealand. A fantastic 3-Test series saw the Irish recover from a disappointing defeat to make history 2 weeks running to win the series 2-1, while the wider squad also got plenty of rugby during the tour with a 2-match series against the Maori All Blacks, which ended 1-1.

And so, as we spend this period after the Summer Tours patiently waiting for the beginning of the Rugby Championship,it’s time to look back over the tour to create my combined XV. Now this one will be a little different, as I have made the executive decision to base this on all 5 matches rather than just the Test series.

Who do you think should have made the XV? Let me know in the comments below.



My combined XV from Ireland’s 5-match tour of New Zealand is:

1) Andrew Porter: Oh how the All Blacks miss Joe Moody. In his absence, George Bower got the start in all 3 Tests… and if you’ve watched Squidge Rugby’s video on the 2ⁿᵈ and 3ʳᵈ Tests, you’ll know how poor his performances were! In contrast, Porter continues to play at a high level after moving over from the tighthead side. He may still have room for improvement at the scrum and should arguably have received a red card for his high tackle on Brodie Retallick, but in the loose he remains an important player in both directions, and carried well for an important early try in the 2ⁿᵈ Test.

2) Dan Sheehan: It was a quiet series for Codie Taylor as New Zealand struggled to create anything in attack. Sheehan meanwhile completely outplayed his more experienced opponents, being solid at the set piece and being an ever-willing carrier in the loose, with some clever footwork helping to beat the defenders. With Rónan Kelleher currently out injured, this Test series may have just given Sheehan the advantage in the race for the #2 jersey.

3) Tadhg Furlong: Maybe not the most notable performances from the Leinster tighthead, but he was solid and reliable all around the park, which is more than can be said for the All Blacks’ options.

4 & 5) Tadhg Beirne & Kieran Treadwell: Regular readers will know that I’ve been championing Beirne since his Scarlets days, but now his quality is becoming impossible to ignore even in the biggest Test matches. Solid and reliable all around the park, he put in some great carries to help get the Irish on the front foot, but really stood out in defence. If he wasn’t stopping the All Blacks with a tackle before the gain line, he was getting in with the jackal to win a crucial turnover or penalty. Became a one-man defensive behemoth late in the 3ʳᵈ Test, with a interception and a series of successful jackals stopping consecutive attacks. As for his partner, Kieran Treadwell gets the nod here after some solid performances against the Maori All Blacks, while he immediately acclimatized to the game when coming on late in the defensive efforts to finish off the crucial 3ʳᵈ Test.

6) Peter O’Mahony: A few times I have wondered if O’Mahony was past it and taking up a spot in the 23 that would be better suited to a young player who could benefit from gaining more experience. But these last few weeks saw him play arguably some of the best rugby of his career. Gains bonus points if his supposed dig at Sam Cane is true.

7) Josh van der Flier: Is he one of the most underrated players in world rugby? Ultra-reliable and constantly in the right place to make a tackle, he also appears to have added a bit more of a carrying game, just adding another bow to his quiver.

8) Ardie Savea: Probably one of the hardest spots to pick, and Caelan Doris is very unlucky to miss out, but Savea was one of the few positives for the All Blacks during this series. Has pace, power, good handling and a good rugby IQ. One of only a few players who frequently looked dangerous or caused Ireland issues, New Zealand were certainly hit hard by losing him in the 2ⁿᵈ Test.

9) Jamison Gibson-Park: If we were basing on just 1 match, Aaron Smith’s 1ˢᵗ Test was the most impressive performance, but he struggled to make an impact in the other 2. Gibson-Park may not have had such a stand-out performance but consistently kept the ball moving quickly form the base of the ruck to keep the All Blacks on the back foot.

10) Johnny Sexton: Like O’Mahony it recently looked like Sexton may be past his best but he was vital on this tour. Led the attack as he usually does, while his leadership was spot on. You just have to look at the way Ireland fell apart after his injury in the 1ˢᵗ Test to see how important he is to this team.

11) James Lowe: A quick shout-out to Connor Garden-Bachop, who looked dangerous going forward in both matches for the Maori All Blacks. Instead it was the former Maori All Black who gets the nod here. Like some other players on this list, he may have put in more spectacular performances in the past, but he was reliable both on offence and defence, and took his moments well to assist the Irish when going forward.

12) Bundee Aki: Came off the bench and impressed in the first 2 Tests after a solid first match against the Maori All Blacks, and took advantage of Garry Ringrose’s head injury to get a deserved start in the deciding 3ʳᵈ Test. Carried hard and with great lines to put the All Blacks on the back foot.

13) Robbie Henshaw: Split his time between 12 and 13 depending as to if he was partnering Bundee Aki or Garry Ringrose, but the quality of his performances never faltered. Did what was required in attack while helping to marshall the Irish defence..

14) Will Jordan: One of only 2 All Blacks to make the list, what makes it even more impressive is that Jordan does so from 1 start and one appearance off the bench. Jordan knows how to make finding and exploiting a gap look easy and was one of the few players to have any success against the Irish defence.

15) Hugo Keenan: What impresses me so much about Keenan is just how well he does the basics. He so rarely makes mistakes and then builds off that to produce an accomplished performance with regularity. Completely outplayed Jordie Barrett, despite the latter also being the All Blacks’ goal kicker.

New Zealand v Ireland

New Zealand v Ireland

Ireland’s summer tour to New Zealand reached its mid-point with the second Test against the All Blacks. The tourists had the stronger start last week and it was more of the same in Dunedin this week, with an early break from Tadhg Beirne bringing them into the New Zealand 22, and after a minute of concerted pressure Andrew Porter managed to bash his way over for the opening try within 3 minutes. Johnny Sexton kicked the conversion and a penalty ten minutes later, and the All Blacks soon found themselves put in more of a hole when Leicester Fainga’anuku was sent to the bin for a late hit on Mack Hansen, though the 14 men successfully dealt with the resulting driving maul after Ireland kicked to the corner. Things were about to get even worse for the home side though, as a hurried kick from Beauden Barrett was countered by Sexton and as he was brought down, his support man Garry Ringrose was tackled early by Ofa Tu’ungafasi, who joined Fainga’anuku in the bin—though how a penalty try wasn’t given is beyond me as referee Jaco Peyper and TMO Tom Foley were clearly seeing a covering defender that didn’t exist. Ireland’s attack however suddenly lost all cohesion an accuracy, which allowed the All Blacks to hold out and clear their lines before welcoming back Fainga’anuku, but they found themselves almost immediately back down to 13 as Angus Ta’avao (on to cover Tu’ungafasi’s absence at the scrums) went high on Garry Ringrose, resulting in a head-on-head collision. With a penalty in the All Blacks 22, Ireland chose to go for the scrum to force the All Blacks into pulling 2 backs into the pack (due to the scrums going uncontested until Tu’ungafasi’s return, both teams must field a full 8-man scrum) but once again the Irish attack lacked accuracy and a knock-on from James Lowe allowed the defenders to once again clear their lines and get back to 14 men, though some confusion as to who could come back on as player had to be sacrificed for replacement props had led to Ardie Savea being unintentionally replaced for the rest of the game. However after weathering a storm, the All Blacks found themselves finishing the half in the Irish 22, and after James Ryan was sent to the bin for failing to retreat at a penalty, Beauden Barrett (perhaps inadvertently) kicked the ball as it squirted out of a ruck before darting through the defence to drop on the loose ball over the line for the most fortuitous of tries, with brother Jordie kicking a simple conversion to cut the Irish lead to 7-10 at the break.

It was the Irish on the attack again in the early stages of the second half, and when another strong carry from Beirne got them up to the All Blacks’ try line, it was Andrew Porter again who dotted down for his 2ⁿᵈ try of the night and 4ᵗʰ Test try. As a close half continued, Sexton kicked 2 penalties to put Ireland 16 points ahead with 13 minutes remaining. With 6 minutes remaining, the All Blacks found themselves at the Irish try line but were held up 3 times in quick succession. They kept fighting and Will Jordan was sent over out wide for the try, but with Jordie Barrett missing the touchline conversion, scoring 11 more points in 2 minutes proved an impossible task and the Irish hung on for an historic 12-23 victory, their first ever win over the All Blacks in New Zealand.

Releasing the pressure

While Ireland can arguably feel aggrieved that Leicester Fainga’anuku only received a yellow for his hit on Mack Hansen and that no penalty try was given for Ofa Tu’ungafasi’s early tackle on Garry Ringrose, they only had themselves to blame for not being further ahead at halftime.

As accurate as they were around the pitch, when they made it up to the All Blacks 22, things started to fall apart for them. Even before they found themselves with the numerical advantage, a great opportunity came to a disappointing end as Robbie Henshaw failed to collect the ball as he came steaming onto it in an attempt to crash through the defensive line off a scrum. Then twice against 13 men, all cohesion seemed to disappear and the ball was being flung anywhere and everywhere, giving the All Blacks defence a chance to recover an get in on the steal one time, while a second resulted in a Lowe knock-on. Then in the second half, James Lowe ended one chance by sailing a long pass into touch on the edge of the 22 when putting the ball through the hands may have been sufficient.

It’s almost as if the Irish were panicking when they got close to the line, trying to force the try too soon. Porter’s tries showed how patience and concerted pressure in the 22 will break down the All Blacks soon enough, the Irish just need to trust themselves more, take a deep breath and work through the phases to earn the try.

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 2

2021 Autumn Tests: Week 2

Hello and welcome to my look at the second week of the Autumn Tests. Sadly a lack of available broadcasts meant that I couldn’t cover Week 1 at all, but with this week having a limited schedule as it was outside World Rugby’s Test Window, this still gave us a chance to ease into the action.

The action started up in Edinburgh as Scotland took on a Tongan side who had only been together for a handful of days and were still missing a number of their players. While the Tongans certainly tried to make a game of it and caused some issues early on with their strong running, the Scottish players’ familiarity with each other—despite missing their Premiership players and Finn Russell, the chemistry was still there from everyone being based at just Edinburgh and Glasgow—was clear to see and they ran away with a 60-14 victory, with Rufus McLean scoring a brace on debut and fellow wing Kyle Steyn bagging 4 tries.

The action then continued at the Principality Stadium, where Wales were taking on the All Blacks. With New Zealand fielding an almost first choice XV, it was always going to be a tough task for a Welsh team missing its Premiership players and also a number of other regulars through injury, and things got even worse as Beauden Barrett kicked off his 100ᵗʰ Test cap by intercepting Gareth Anscombe and running in for the simplest of tries. Wales kept themselves in the fight for 60 minutes despite losing Alun Wyn Jones (on his record-breaking 148ᵗʰ Wales cap) and Ross Moriarty to injury in the first half, but fell off a cliff after the hour mark and shipped 4 tries without reply for a final score of 16-54, with Jordie Barrett’s missed conversion at the death just denying the All Blacks a record points haul against Wales.


Scotland

With Finn Russell and Adam Hastings both unavailable, Gregor Townsend made a big call for this match by selecting Blair Kinghorn at flyhalf. It’s been a long time since Scotland had such strength in depth at 10, with Russell and Hastings the clear regulars, but Duncan Weir and Jaco van der Walt also in the running and now young Ross Thompson making his debut off the bench, but I think that getting Kinghorn Test experience at fly half is a clever move.

When you go to a World Cup, spaces are limited, and while you could get away with 2 specialist fly halves, a third fly half would seem a waste, unless they could also fill in at other positions. While I’m sure some of them could probably fill in as emergency centres or fullbacks, they are not really multi-positional players, whereas Kinghorn can already cover the entire back 3 and being an option at 10 just adds another string to his bow come selection time as his versatility will make him indispensable, despite the strength in depth available in the Scottish back 3.

Not only that, but by gaining the experience at 10, it also gives the team much more tactical flexibility, as he can move into the first receiver position if the fly half is stuck in the breakdown, down injured or carded. He has the skillset to excel at the position, especially when you consider that if he was to play the position much in a World Cup, it would likely be against the lower-ranked teams. What he needs now is a chance to play there with a bit more regularity, both for Edinburgh and the national team, as he will face much better defences than a Tongan team missing a number of stars, who have only had 4 days training together and then had to reorganise on the fly with 2 injuries in the back line and a 6-2 split (including a scrum half) on the bench.

Tonga

You really have to feel for Tonga. They need to accept every game they can against Tier 1 opposition just to get matches, but so often they end up in situation like this or against New Zealand in the summer: facing off against teams outside World Rugby’s Test Window. What this means is they end up playing teams who are already stronger and better resourced, but then have the added difficulty of playing without many of their top players, who will not be released from the Premiership/Top 14 outside the Test windows. With such inexperienced squads and minimal prep time, it’s hardly even close to a fair contest.

Of course, it can lead to the discovery of some great players, like 32-year-old prop and former professional boxer Loni Uhila, who made his debut at Murrayfield. The “Tongan Bear” plays for in Fédérale 1 (the 3ʳᵈ tier of French rugby, and highest level of amateur rugby) and while he struggled a little at the scrum, he more than held his own in the loose, with some strong carrying and passes that a back would be proud of, all while playing in the most heavy-duty pair of rugby boots that I have ever seen!

Hopefully with the arrival of 2 Pacific Island franchises in Super Rugby Pacific, things will start to get a little easier for the Pacific Island teams, as they can try to bring talent to these franchises. But with just 2 teams for the whole Pacific Islands, there will still be plenty of players in the Premiership and Top 14. World Rugby needs to step in and help to a larger degree, even if it is only to outlaw the Tests outside set windows to ensure that the nations have everyone available for the matches.

Wales

While there was a lot to be disappointed about for Welsh fans, something that can’t be focussed on enough was the performances of the back row. With so many players unavailable through injury or playing in the Premiership, there was a real worry about the back row coming into the game. And yet they more then held their own.

Taine Basham looked like he had been playing Test rugby for years, popping up to steal the ball at breakdowns and making a couple of great breaks, while Aaron Wainwright put in a performance reminiscent of his rise to prominence towards the end of the Warren Gatland era, perhaps even better!

On the strength of those performances, the pair deserve to keep their places for the upcoming matches and have the quality to become regulars in the back row moving forward. Basham will only improve as he plays more at this level, while Wainwright will also benefit from consistently playing at this level. Add in a experienced cleaner like Justin Tipuric or Josh Navidi when they’re fit, and this is an incredibly dangerous unit going forwards toward the World Cup.

New Zealand

How great is Ardie Savea?! The Hurricanes back row has been a part of the squad for years, but has really come in to his own with the retirement of Kieran Read.

This game was another classic example of why he is so good. He has the power to just keep going in the tackle. If you go high on him to get on the ball, he will just carry you along as his leg drive gains him more metres. And yet if you go low and stop him from making more ground, he will simply offload the ball to a man in support. To properly stop him, it’s going to take at least 1 man going low and another going for the ball, which is then just going to create space elsewhere for the All Blacks to exploit with quick ball.

But that’s not it, as he also has solid pace and an impressive acceleration to make him a threat in more open play as well as the tight. You just need to look at Sevu Reece’s try, where he exchanged quick passes with Reece and Rieko Ioane down the left wing, you could easily have mistaken him for his older brother Julian. And to make him even better: he has that versatility, being able to play anywhere in the back row, allowing the coaches to adapt the back row to either the opposition or the way they are looking to play, putting him at 8 if they want to play fetchers like Dalton Papalii or Sam Cane, or on the flank with a quality number 8 like Hoskins Sotutu.

He probably doesn’t always get the recognition he should, as he puts in these performances weekly, but don’t be shocked to see him remain a key cog in the All Blacks XV for the coming years.

2021 Rugby Championship: Team of the Tournament

2021 Rugby Championship: Team of the Tournament

We are now 1 week on from the end of the 2021 Rugby Championship. A tournament that saw World Champions South Africa go on a 3-match losing streak while Australia welcomed back some of their exiles to go on a 4-match wining streak. Meanwhile New Zealand tied up the tournament in 5 weeks and went top of the world rankings, only for a last-gasp loss to South Africa in the tournament finale to give the top spot in the rankings back to the Springboks.

So with all the action out of the way, all that remains is for me to pick my Team of the Tournament. As always, this is just my personal opinion, so let me know if you think I missed someone. So without further ado, my Team of the 2021 Rugby Championship is:

1) Steven Kitshoff: He may be one of the best looseheads in the world, but the Stormers prop found himself largely on the bench in this tournament. However, the Springboks use their bench very differently, and Kitshoff became a key part of the “Bomb Squad” that would come on to help turn matches. An expert scrummager who pulls his weight in open play, Kitshoff was key to helping keep the Boks competitive.

2) Malcolm Marx: Codie Taylor came close to taking this spot but was harmed by the chopping and changing of the squad, while Julián Montoya was solid but unspectacular in a struggling Pumas team. So we look to South Africa, and again it’s the game-changing talent of the “Bomb Squad” that makes the list. Marx play like an extra back row and his work in the loose is crucial when the Boks play a more open game, while he finished the tournament with 3 tries—the most of any forward.

3) Taniela Tupou: If I could create an ultimate team using any player in the world, Tupou would be my pick at 3. The “Tongan Thor” is an absolute unit and tough to contend with at the scrum. But it is in open play where he really comes into his own, with a good turn of pace but an incredible engine that can see him still going late into a Test match, while his handling skills have him at risk of being expelled from the front row union.

4 & 5) Eben Etzebeth & Lood de Jager: Is it any real surprise how many of the South African pack are making the list considering how much reliance the Springboks had on them. Even in the poorer performances the tight five still held their own, while these two behemoths in the second row played a huge role in the defensive effort, creating a physical platform in attack and dominating at both theirs and their opponent’s lineouts.

6) Akira Ioane: Three and a half years ago I picked Ioane in my Uncapped XV. While he then dropped away for a few years, he is now living up to his potential and looks like the best option the All Blacks have had at 6 since Jerome Kaino. A great enforcer in defence, Ioane also has the pace (he spent time on the 7s circuit) and power to be a dangerous carrying threat in wide positions. If he can carry this on for a few more seasons, he could be coming into consideration as one of the best blindsides in the world.

7) Michael Hooper: It’s so hard to leave out Siya Kolisi, but Hooper gets the nod here. While both give 100% in every game and lead their teams with distinction, Hooper has been doing so in a team going through a a rebuild, while he also always appears to be in just the right place to make a crucial impact on the game.

8) Ardie Savea: Rob Valentini certainly grew into the role as the tournament went on and Duane Vermeulen had some great moments coming back from injury, but Ardie Savea was the most consistent. A 7 initially with the physicality and skillset that allows him to play across the entire back row, Savea has the physicality and carrying ability to help put the All Blacks on the front foot in attack and take advantage of any gaps that he is put through, while he also dealt admirably with the etra pressure of being named captain in Sam Cane’s absence.

9) Tate McDermott: He may have lost his starting spot to Nic White as the tournament went on, but McDermott remains one of the brightest lights on the world stage at scrum half. He has the eye for a gap and the pace and footwork to exploit it, keeping defences honest, while he also made a crucial intervention to deny Lukhanyo Am a try. He only turned 23 during this tournament so his best years are still ahead of him, which will only be heightened by the improving performances from his team around him.

10) Quade Cooper: Beauden Barett’s haplessness against the dominance of South Africa harmed his chances, but in truth Cooper would likely have taken this spot anyway. Coming back from such a long international exile, he looked like he hadn’t missed a beat at this level and helped turn the team around by taking control of the team, finishing the tournament with the 3ʳᵈ-highest points tally despite not featuring in the first 2 rounds.

11) Makazole Mapimpi: He made my Team of the Lions Series earlier this summer and keeps his place in this team after another solid tournament. I can’t help feel sorry for Mapimpi, who is one of the best wings in the game currently. A proven try scorer, Mapimpi”s chances are so limited in a South African team that barely spreads the ball, but he willingly goes about his business in defence and the kicking game, while taking his chances when given them.

12) Samu Kerevi: Special mention to David Havili, who has done a great job of transitioning from back 3 to 12 and quickly excelling at international level, but Kerevi was the obvious pick here. Another of Australia’s returning exiles, Kerevi’s impact on the team has been monumental. He’s provided a regular and reliable option to put the Wallabies on the front foot, and this has also allowed the players around him the space to play their very best game. If he can continue in the same vein during the Autumn Tests, he has a great chance to push for World Player of the Year.

13) Lukhanyo Am: A missed try in the first Test against Australia proved costly, but Am had another great tournament. The Springbok remains probably the best defensive 13 in world rugby and continues to thrive in this team especially when they are able to control the speed of the game. Len Ikitau is unfortunate to miss out, but Am’s experience on the big stage shone through when it was needed.

14) Andrew Kellaway: How could Kellaway not make this team after finishing with a whopping 7 tries—4 more than his closest competitor! In his first season of Test rugby, he has shown that he knows how to get to the try line, with a brace in his first match against the All Blacks, but the improvement in the Wallabies performances has just given him even more chances which he has taken with aplomb!

15) Jordie Barrett: The clear choice here at 15, Barrett’s range of skills makes him a brilliant option at 15 (or anywhere in the back line), while his goal kicking has been op notch as he has been allowed to become the number one kicker, allowing him to nail some clutch kicks. As I said a few weeks back, this is the brother that I pick for my team, not Beauden.