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

Having lost to the Maori All Blacks in midweek, Ireland’s next stop on their tour of New Zealand was a trip to Eden Park for the first of 3 Tests against the All Blacks. Ireland had never beat the All Blacks in New Zealand, but got the first chance with some sustained pressure in the 22 that eventually saw Keith Earls go over for the opening try after 6 minutes. The All Blacks had seen their preparations interrupted by COVID cases and were looking very ordinary against a strong Irish defence, but finally managed to work some space for debutant Leicester Fainga’anuku on 20 minutes, and when the Crusaders wing was stopped just short of the try line, Jordie Barrett came onto the ball from the ruck at pace to crash over, before kicking the conversion to put them ahead. The Irish continued to look the more dangerous side, but when James Lowe slipped as Garry Ringrose tried to offload the ball to him, Sevu Reece was first to the loose ball and outpaced everyone in the race from his 22 to the Irish try line, while things got even worse for the Irish as the same phase of play saw them lose Johnny Sexton to a failed HIA. The momentum shifted with that and the All Blacks were suddenly looking the more dangerous, and they had their third try with 5 minutes left in the half as Beauden Barrett’s grubber into the Irish 22 was collected by Quinn Tupaea. And it was soon 4 as Aaron Smith sniped through the middle of a ruck and chipped Hugo Keenan, and though he failed to regather under pressure, Ardie Savea was following up to dive on the loose ball over the line, with Jordie Barrett kicking all the conversions for a 28-5 lead at the break.

The Irish got the start they needed in the second half though, as a series of phases just short of the New Zealand line eventually saw Garry Ringrose go over in the corner. However the All Blacks soon had the pressure back on the Irish, and when Ardie Savea got on the outside of Ringrose, who slipped off the tackle, he had the pace to make it over for his second try of the night. Ireland continued to fight though and again managed to spend some time in the New Zealand 22, which eventually resulted in Josh van der Flier crashing over from short range, only for replays to show that the ball had been dislodged as he went over by Rieko Ioane, just moments after he had also denied Joey Carbery with what appeared to be a high tackle. and the Irish were made to pay with just 10 minutes left as Pita Gus Sowakula went over off a 5m scrum to score on his debut. The Irish looked to end on a high, and after Andrew Porter was held up, replacement centre Bundee Aki managed to crash over from close range on the next attack to score. Karl Tu’inukuafe was sin binned late on for not rolling,but the All Blacks defence held out and Jack Conan and Josh van der Flier were both held up over the line and one final driving maul halted to secure a 42-19 victory for the hosts.

Extra ordinary

Obviously having COVID cases affecting the build-up (and a separate illness for Richie Mo’unga) is not going to help the All Black be at their best, but boy did they look ordinary. In defence, they were struggling to deal with all the pressure coming from the Irish, with minimal impact at the breakdown (unless you count the penalties they conceded), while in attack there was very little being created.

While some great work was done to release Fainga’anuku down the wing after 20 minutes, Tupaea’s try was a result of poor Irish covering behind the defensive line, and the other 2 in the half were purely opportunistic. Despite being 28-5 up, the All Blacks were arguably second best for most of the half and large portions of the second.

For so long, the All Blacks had such an air of invincibility that the game was almost won before it even kicked off. These days however, despite still having some absolute superstars in their ranks, the All Blacks are just another team—and that makes them beatable!

22 and a half men

I’ve quite frequently been of the opinion of late that continually playing Johnny Sexton is going to be the downfall of the Irish. And here we’re seeing it again. While he is a great player and leader for the Irish, he has played so many minutes that nobody else is getting even close to enough minutes of Test rugby to be able to slot in when Sexton is not available. The game completely turned when he went off in this game a heads dropped and such a large source of leadership and organisation.

As Ronan O’Gara stated before the match, Test rugby is about the 23 men. Sexton’s body rarely lets him play the full 80 minutes consistently at this level. They need a second fly half who—even if they are not at the same level as Sexton—can come in and still run this team to a high level. However with Sexton taking almost all the minutes when he is available, nobody has been able to get a real shot at the 10 shirt behind him, which means whoever is picked as Sexton’s understudy goes in underprepared.

Granted when you’re touring New Zealand you want to try and prove a point, but Andy Farrell and the coaches need to prepare for the eventuality that Sexton is not available at a key point in the World Cup and the best way to do that is to keep Sexton out for a run of games and focus on the players behind him. I would argue that the Autumn Tests should be about finding the next 2 fly halves on the depth chart and then using the 2023 Six Nations to give them as much Test experience as possible, while Sexton’s body gets a much-deserved rest to help him through to the end of the World Cup. Heck, with Sexton now being stood down for 12 days as part of the new concussion protocols, they may as well start the Autumn process now.

World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year 2018: The Shortlist

World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year 2018: The Shortlist

Last week, World Rugby announced their 5-man shortlist for the World Rugby Men’s 15s Player of the Year 2018. This year’s list surprisingly omits Tadhg Furlong (a prop has still never been nominated) and David Pocock despite impressive seasons, leaving Malcolm Marx as the only forward on the list, while Ireland’s Johnny Sexton is the only representative from the Northern Hemisphere.

So who deserves the award this year? I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the 5 nominees and see who I feel should be named Player of the Year.

Beauden Barrett

The New Zealand fly half has been the winner the last 2 years and has the opportunity to match Dan Carter and Richie McCaw as the only players to win the award 3 times, but honestly I think he has made the list this year on the strength of his previous seasons and his role as the All Blacks’ starting 10 rather than on the strength of his performances.

While he is still an above average fly half, I think that this season he has benefited from the quality of his supporting cast and I think that his goal kicking has been too unreliable. I may be in the minority here, but I would love to see Richie Mo’unga to be given the starting 10 role for a while to create a fight for the coveted position.

Barrett is undeniably a talent, but I think both David Pocock and Tadhg Furlong have done more this year to justify a spot on the list.

Faf de Klerk

The Springboks turnaround under Rassie Erasmus has been phenomenal and a big part of that has been the play of de Klerk. The Sale scrum half is probably the form 9 in World Rugby at the moment and does a wonderful job of hassling the opposition (just ask Aaron Smith during the Rugby Championship and Nathan Hughes in the June Tests). Not only that but in attack he has done a good job of keeping the ball coming to the backs quickly and has also given an extra dimension to South Africa’s play with his tactical kicking.

Though I may be an England fan, I really wish the weekend’s Test match against South Africa had been inside World Rugby’s Test window so that he and Willie le Roux could play, even though that would have likely given them the victory.

Rieko Ioane

Ioane has played in 8 matches for the All Blacks this year and amassed 11 tries, 2 assists, and 771 metres off 35 carries with 36 defenders beaten and 26 clean breaks.

Like Barrett, while he obviously benefits from being in a fantastic team, Ioane is a real talent with incredible space and footwork but is also deceptively strong in contact. This year has been no fluke as he has 22 tries from 21 Tests for New Zealand in his career and I will not be surprised to see him pushing for the record of most tries in a World Cup, currently held by Brian Habana, Jonah Lomu and Julian Savea.

Malcolm Marx

The second South African on this list, I am a big fan of Marx and recently picked him in my World XV Challenge. He is a powerful ball carrier and in defence it is like having an extra flanker on the pitch. When South Africa have a lineout within 10 metres of the opponent’s line, I have just got to the point now that I expect to see Marx at the back of a driving maul going over for a try.

Unfortunately for Marx, he does have a weakness at the moment – his unreliable lineout throwing – which proved costly against England at the weekend and will probably stop him from winning this year’s award.

Johnny Sexton

What a year Ieland have had! A 6 Nations Grand Slam and a series victory against Australia in the June Tests represents on of their best ever years, and Sexton has been at the heart of this.

He may not be the most reliable kicker off the tee, but his command of his back line is incredible and even though everyone knows his classic wraparound move is coming, they still seem incapable of stopping it. Add in his willingness to play a high bomb into the opposition 22 and his supremely accurate kicking out of hand and he is arguably one of – if not the best – 10s in the world right now, especially when he can stay in one piece as he has done more so this year.

If he can earn Irleand the victory over New Zealand later this month, then he is surely a shoe-in for the award!

 

So who gets the vote? I decided to ask a couple of friends for their opinions having looked at the shortlist. Phil is a colleague from work and an England fan, while Tino is an old uni friend and former Pistol Shrimps teammate who supports England and Italy.

Phil’s vote: Faf de Klerk

Tino’s vote: Johnny Sexton

As for me? While I want to give the award to Ioane for such a prolific season, I think the run of 6 consecutive awards for Kiwis is coming to an end. De Klerk very nearly got my vote and could still get it if he can help lead South Africa to victories over France, Scotland and Wales. But for me, this year’s winner has to be Johnny Sexton, irrespective of the result against the All Blacks.

Who gets your vote?