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.

Maori All Blacks v Ireland

Maori All Blacks v Ireland

With Ireland’s Test series against New Zealand still all to play for following the weekend’s historic win in Dunedin, it was time for the wider squad to get another match with their second game against the Maori All Blacks. With tricky conditions courtesy of heavy rain just before kickoff, the Maori All Blacks forced an Irish error with a clever kickoff along the floor and quickly ut the pressure on the tourists, scoring off the first phase of a lineout as their support looped around to create an overlap and put Shaun Stevenson over in the corner. Perhaps emboldened by their early success, the Maori All Blacks looked willing to play form anywhere but gave away a lineout just outside their 22 when Alex Nankivell’s pass went astray, but captain Keith Earls took a quick throw to Jordan Larmour, whose run from deep saw him scythe through the Maori All Blacks defence before they even realised that the ball was back in play, going under the posts to give Ciarán Frawley a simple conversion. The home side were soon back on the attack though and looked set to score with a huge overlap in the Irish 22, only for Tyrel Lomax to knock on a pass that died on him. The home team were dominating possession but a lack of accuracy was causing them issues, and after Fraley extended Ireland’s lead with a penalty, the next Irish attack saw Gavin Coombes held up on the line, despite the Irish being a man down following a yellow card to Cian Prendergast. However, a penalty gave the Irish another chance and while they were stopped again, it was at the expense of a yellow car for Maori loosehead Ollie Norris for collapsing the maul, and with the game now 14v14, Nick Timoney managed to stretch out and dot the ball down over the line. The Irish were almost immediately under pressure after some great counterrucking saw the ball turned over to Caleb Delany—on early for the injured Reed Prinsep—whose break took him deep into the Irish 22, but Ireland were lucky to get away with a turnover as Maori captain TJ Perenara had his arm pulled away by a man who was part of the ruck, and as the halftime whistle sounded, the Irish went in with a 5-17 lead.

Frawley opened the scoring early in the half with a penalty, but the Maoris were soon back on the attack and when Delany broke down the left wing and played the ball back inside to Connor Garden-Bachop was pulled back by Jordan Larmour before he caught the ball, resulting in a penalty try and a yellow card for the Irish wing. As the match entered the final quarter, Joey Carbery was brought on for Michael Lowry after the fullback was injured in a hard but legal tackle from Stevenson, but the Irish had the momentum as the home team continued to give away a number of penalties, and after a few minutes of concerted pressure, Coombes forced his way over from close range to make the score 12-25 with 12 minutes remaining. The home team refused to give up though and when Ruben Love countered a loose kick and broker away, he fed Cullen Grace out on the win, and the Crusader’s offload back inside went back to Love, who narrowed the gap to 8, Josh Ioane’s conversion attempt looking ugly and going nowhere near the posts. With 8 minutes left, Stevenson took a risk going for a Carbery pass one-handed and failed to gather, and was sent to the bin for the remainder of the game, and the Irish took advantage of the man advantage to seal the game with 3 minutes remaining as a whipped pass from Stuart McCloskey sent Larmour over for his second try of the night. As the hooter sounded, another break from Love sent Brad Weber over for a consolation, and Ioane finally found his kicking boots right in front of the posts for a final score of 24-30.

Overplayed

Did the Maori All Blacks get their tactics wrong today in Wellington? While Ireland tried to play a more territory-focused game and only play rugby in the opposition half, the Maori All Blacks looked determined to play from anywhere on the pitch.

Now the decision was somewhat understandable, as they were frequently carrying over the gain line in midfield—Delany especially standing out with his—and finding the space to exploit to break and put the Irish under pressure. However they were far too inaccurate, with too many balls going to floor at crucial moments, such as the Lomax knock-on in the Irish 22 with numbers outside him, or players getting isolated and turned over in dangerous areas.

Of course, the conditions in the build-up wouldn’t have helped things, with some heavy rainfall right before kickoff. But there is also the matter that this is a team that rarely plays together. Matches are infrequent, usually just a couple a year, and as such the wider squad is usually used, resulting in a team that is currently looking different—and that is before you even account for who is available or not due to All Blacks selection!

While the Maori All Blacks have gone out to give the fans a match to remember and looked to showcase their skills, the lack of pragmatism has likely cost them a potential 2-0 series win here.

Solid success

This was a workmanlike performance from the players on the fringe of the Irish squad. The defence may have been breached on many occasions, but they tightened up in the red zone and crucially kept their discipline (though they certainly got the rub of the green at a couple of crucial breakdowns) and this forced the Maoris to play without the help of a penalty advantage.

Meanwhile with ball in hand, the Irish made sure that they were playing in the right areas of the pitch, which allowed them to focus on using the physicality of McCloskey at 12 and their pack to try to force their way over the line, with the skills of players like Larmour and Lowry then there to take advantage of the gaps this left out wide. But more than this it also allowed the Irish defence to put pressure on the Maoris deep in their own half and force some penalties in the latter stages of the game, while also stopping them get into any rhythm.

Are many of these players ready to go up against a Test team? Well Coombes looks like he should be knocking on the door for a spot on the bench—though the resurgence of Peter O’Mahony may have slowed hs route to the 23—while Craig Casey controlled the game well, Lowry grew into the game after some early fumbles and more experienced Test regulars Niall Scannell and Jordan Larmour put in timely reminders of their capabilities, but it will take more to have regular success in Test rugby.

Maori All Blacks v Ireland

Maori All Blacks v Ireland

Ireland’s Summer Tour to New Zealand got underway on Wednesday morning (Irish time) with their first of 2 matches against the Maori All Blacks. Following a tribute for the late Maori All Blacks wing Sean Wainui and a thrilling haka, it was time for the action to get underway in Hamilton.

The Maori All Blacks are never to be sniffed at, and with this squad including capped All Blacks Brad Weber, Josh Ioane, TJ Perenara, Cullen Grace, Tyrel Lomax and former Wallaby Jermaine Ainsley, the Irish knew they would be in for a real test. But it was the men in green who took an early lead as Cian Healy—on early following a head injury to Jeremy Loughman—won a scrum penalty against Tyrel Lomax, which Ciarán Frawley converted. The Maoris were soon level through the boot of Josh Ioane and looking a threat each time they got ball in hand, and when a monster 50/22 from Zarn Sullivan gave them possession jut 6m out from the Irish try line, they worked the phases for the Blues fullback to go over for the opening try. The Irish almost had an immediate reply as Connor Garden-Bachop was beaten by a bouncing ball in the corner, but the ball bounced just a little too high for Jordan Larmour to gather. However the Irish were soon ahead as Gavin Coombes drew 2 tacklers off a lineout before putting Bundee Aki through with a short pass right before contact, allowing the captain to go under the posts to give Frawley an easy conversion. A Ioane penalty soon put the home team back ahead, before a strong carry from Zarn Sullivan put the Irish defence on the back foot, allowing Ioane to break away and feed Shaun Stevenson for the try in the corner, and with Ioane kicking the touchline conversion, the Irish suddenly found themselves 8 points behind after half an hour. The Irish indiscipline was costing them and after they gave away a free kick just outside their 22 for closing the gap at the lineout, it took just a few phases of hard carrying before Brad Weber sniped through a gap to score the Maori All Blacks’ third. And as the half came to an end, they broke with numbers, for Cullen Grace to score on his Maori All Black debut, Ioane kicking for a 32-10 halftime lead.

The Irish needed a strong start to the half, but after Cian Healy was adjudged to have been held up over the line, they bungled the penalty advantage they had by knocking on the tapped restart, and when Ioane failed to clear the 22 with his clearance kick, the Irish came again but found themselves held up again, this time through debutant Cian Prendergast. The Irish were straight back on the attack after a strong carry off the drop-out from Combes, but as they reached the line, Nick Timoney proved that third time isn’t always lucky as he was also held up over the line. Things soon got even worse for Ireland as promising young centre James Hume was helped off injured and the Maori All Blacks, now being led by debutant TJ Perenara, got their first chance of any possession in the half and quickly set about taking the momentum away from the men in green. With 14 minutes remaining, the Irish made it back down to the other end of the pitch but again found themselves held up (Coombes this time) but they had a penalty advantage and this time didn’t waste it, taking the tap and eventually driving Coombes over for a try that his efforts in the game deserved, Frawley adding the extras. Happiness soon turned to worry though as Cian Healy had to leave the pitch on a buggy after what looked to be an awful knee injury that will likely end his tour, and though both teams looked to finish on a high, the score remained 32-17 to the final whistle.

Heading for trouble

Just over a week ago, World Rugby announced that starting from the beginning of June, return to play protocols following concussion symptoms would be increased from 7 days to 12 days, in an effort to help improve the safety of the game. Unfortunately, any hard work being done to improve safety was undone in one 12-minute span at the start of this game.

With just 1 minute on the clock, Irish loosehead Jeremy Loughman carried low into contact and came out worse for wear. Television footage clearly showed him struggle to get back to his feet, and as he went off for a HIA, he was clearly being steadied by a medic. Now already there we have the first issue, as a player who shows severe concussion symptoms (such as balance issues) should just be off for the remainder of the game, not going off for a HIA. And to make things worse, Loughman somehow supposedly passed his HIA as he was back on the pitch within 12 minutes, with the Kiwi commentators (who frequently show a flagrant disregard for player wellbeing and safety in their commentary) saying how wonderful it was to see him back on the pitch. Well clearly he wasn’t in the best of states, as he was permanently removed at halftime.

This was almost a carbon copy of the Tomas Francis incident that was widely condemned during the Six Nations. The irish medics and any neutral medics who were involved in letting Loughman back on the pitch should be instantly out of a job and hoping that Loughman never has any health issues in the future, or else there may be a hefty lawsuit rightfully coming their way.

Work smarter not harder

The Irish were their own worst enemies in this match, especially the first half, as they just couldn’t stop giving away penalties. The vast majority of these were coming either at the breakdown or for offsides.

Granted the Maori All Blacks were having success when they could spread the ball wide—with Shaun Stevenson especially having the beating of Keith Earls all day—so it made sense for the Irish to want to blitz up and slow down the ball as much as they could at the breakdown, but they were too keen to do this, and this led to them continually being pinged for not releasing or not rolling away, while the defensive line jumped offside far too often.

This lack of discipline just made it too easy for the Maori All Blacks to camp themselves in the Irish territory for much of the first half, and with that consistent possession and territory, they slowly but surely found gaps to exploit in the Irish defence to exploit for tries.

With Ireland likely to use a similar tactic against the All Blacks given the quality they will have to choose from on the wings (Clarke, Jordan, Ioane, Reece and Fainga’anuku), they will need to make sure that hey do so in a much more disciplined manner, or they will be gifting the game to the All Blacks.

Stars of the future

Watching this game, there were 2 players—1 on each side—who really stood out to me. The first half may as well have been called the Zarn Sullivan show, such was the impact that the Blues fullback was having. He dominated the air to deal with any high balls sent his way, helped control the territory and possession game with his monster boot (including a stunning 50/22 that gave the Maori All Blacks a lineout 6m from the Irish try line to set up his own try) and frequently found himself dominating the contact in attack even if he wasn’t breaking the first tackle or 2. At just 21, it looks like he has a bright future ahead of him, and I can’t help feel that him at 15 and Stephen Perofeta at 10 may be a more consistent combination for the Blues than the current ones featuring Beauden Barrett. While the 2023 World Cup will probably be too soon for him, don’t be shocked to see him become a regular in the 23 during the next cycle.

Meanwhile in the Irish team, number 8 Gavin Coombes was a shining star on a disappointing day for them. The 24-year-old Munster back row was one of the most dominant carriers for the Irish, breaking tackles and making the big carries to put the Irish on the front foot. This quality of carrying was also cleverly used for Bundee Aki’s try, as Coombes appeared to be carrying into contact after being fed the ball off a lineout, only to feed Aki with a short pass right before contact after he had drawn in the 2 tacklers and created the gap for Aki to scythe through. While 4 of Ireland’s back row slots for the World Cup seem to be filled with Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Jack Conan and Caelan Doris, Coombes has a chance to push for a World Cup space, where he will likely play against Romania and the Asia/Pacific 1 Qualifier (likely Tonga, but potentially South Korea/Hong Kong), before becoming a key part of the irish back row in the next cycle.

Eyes On: Maori All Blacks v British and Irish Lions

With just a week to go until the first Test match, the Lions took on a strong Maori All Blacks side that contained a number of players capped by New Zealand. After the All Blacks’ 78-0 demolition of Samoa in their warm-up match on Friday, the Lions surely knew that it was important to send a message with a good result of their own.

The opening 40 minutes was a close affair, with 4 penalties from the boot of Leigh Halfpenny cancelling out Liam Messam’s converted try and a penalty from the Chiefs’ Damian McKenzie. As conditions worsened after half time however, the Lions took control of the game through territorial kicking and the strength of their pack, with a penalty try and one from Maro Itoje contributing towards a 10-32 victory.

This will likely be the last game many of these players are involved in before the first Test, especially now that Warren Gatland has called up reinforcements, so with just 1 match left to go before the big games begin, here are my thoughts on the latest game.

 

Falling foul of the law

Sometimes I feel like a broken record, but the Lions’ discipline was shocking yet again, especially in the first half! I don’t expect teams to go the whole game without being penalised, but against the All Blacks they will not be able to give away any cheap penalties if they want to win. Against the Blues, I noted that they kept getting penalised for stupid infringements at the line out and they did this again conceding a free kick 5m from the Maori line. Tadhg Furlong also gave away a penalty at the breakdown despite referee Jaco Peyper giving him a number of warnings and teammate Mako Vunipola also giving him a hefty slap on the bum.

What was also a worry is that a scrum half as experienced as Conor Murray does not appear to have learned the laws of the game that are being played on the tour. Under the new laws – which have been in place in the Southern Hemisphere since the start of their season and will be coming to the Northern Hemisphere once the new season begins – the line out will still be played if a penalty is kicked directly to touch, even if time is up on the clock. The players on this tour should all be fully aware of the changes to the laws, so there is no excuse for a mistake like this. Hopefully we won’t see the Lions fall foul of any law amendments at a crucial point in the Tests.

A strong game plan

Though the weather certainly played into the Lions’ hands, the Lions tactics were perfect for dealing with the Maoris. The pressure from the defence caused McKenzie to stand so deep, it was all but impossible for them to get their dangerous backs and back row into the game. Nehe Milner-Skudder showed a few flashes of the skill that lit up the World Cup, but his grubber kick that led to Messam’s try was speculative at best and should have been dealt with by George North. It’s fair to say that the most exciting moment from the Maoris was their stunning haka, the best I can remember watching!

The tight five looked a weakness for the Maoris and the Lions pack took full advantage of it in the scrums and line outs. Once the weather deteriorated and the ball got slippy, the Lions took full advantage by using the high ball to test the Maoris’ handling under pressure and were often rewarded with scrums that they duly dominated. The penalty try was just reward for their efforts today and I’m sure many of the forwards cemented their Test squad status with that performance. I don’t expect the All Blacks pack to be bullied so easily, but this is definitely an area where the Lions could have an advantage and if conditions are poor – they have been for a lot of the matches so far – the chances of a Lions victory will increase.

Their attacking still needs some work though. There appeared to be more breaks from the tourists, many courtesy of Ben Te’o and Jonathan Davies – surely they must be the centre pairing for the Tests – but too often the support was lacking. There were also a couple of occasions where the Lions were turned over close to the Maori line. At risk of sounding like a broken record, to have a chance of beating the All Blacks the Lions must take any chance they create.

Naming the 23

In my last article I named what I felt would be the 23-man squad for the first Test assuming everyone is fit. As I picked this before the Lions named their squad for this game, I have decided to reassess my selection after each of the remaining games, as players continue to get more game-time. This match has made me change a couple of selections, but it has also solidified a number of picks. As with last time, this is on the assumption that everyone is fully fit (Owen Farrell’s injury means he is currently a doubt for the first Test and I have not heard anything about Courtney Lawes’ head injury) so if there is a player who is currently an injury doubt I will put their replacement next to them in brackets.

  1. Mako Vunipola
  2. Jamie George
  3. Tadhg Furlong
  4. Maro Itoje
  5. George Kruis
  6. Sam Warburton (Peter O’Mahony)
  7. Sean O’Brien
  8. Taulupe Faletau
  9. Conor Murray
  10. Owen Farrell (Johnny Sexton)
  11. Elliot Daly
  12. Ben Te’o
  13. Jonathan Davies
  14. George North
  15. Leigh Halfpenny
  16. Ken Owens
  17. Jack McGrath
  18. Kyle Sinckler
  19. Courtney Lawes (Alun Wyn Jones)
  20. Peter O’Mahony/CJ Stander
  21. Rhys Webb
  22. Johnny Sexton (Dan Biggar)
  23. Anthony Watson

Whilst I have kept the same 6 front rowers, I have switched the starter at hooker as I feel today’s starters were so successful they will be selected as a group. Conor Murray came through the game looking very good and did not appear to be struggling with his shoulder in the same way he did against the Crusaders. With Stuart Hogg out, Leigh Halfpenny was reliable and positioned himself well to field kicks from the Maoris, whilst his metronomic kicking off the tee becomes very important if Farrell is unavailable for the fist Test. The wings have been very difficult to pick as there have been no standout performers. Despite his error for Messam’s try, George North keeps his spot as I can’t imagine Gatland wanting to go up against Julian ‘The Bus’ Savea with the slighter wingers he has to pick from. Anthony Watson was given the full 80 minutes again today which makes me think he will be preferred to Liam Williams, though I have not seen much special in attack, but I do not feel that his defence is good enough to start against the All Blacks. Daly has not started since the Blues game but has come off the bench for the last two games. Due to his versatility, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him and Watson swapped around, however I feel that he is a more reliable defender and his all-round skill set gives the Lions extra options in attack or when looking to clear their Lines. I have picked Courtney Lawes on the bench over Alun Wyn Jones due to his versatility and the way he can put the fear of God into a fly half when they get the ball. Jones was my pick for the Tour captaincy this time last year but has not seemed to be at his best form and has also been rather undisciplined in his Lions outings so far. CJ Stander has been solid if not spectacular so far in the tour, so I feel that today’s impressive performance by the Lion’s pack could have put O’Mahony ahead of him. Further to this, O’Mahony captained the team well today so if Warburton is deemed not ready for the first Test, I could imagine the Irishman coming in to lead the side.

 

What were your thoughts on the game? Do you think I missed anything? What would your squad be for the first Test? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge