Subscriber OnlyRugby World CupThe View From New Zealand

View from New Zealand: If the All Blacks win the Rugby World Cup, Ireland can claim a piece of it

It turns out Ian Foster is far more astute than his critics thought but - scant consolation alert - he and his coaches were driven to improve by Ireland

Goodness knows the last thing Ireland want right now is the condescending platitudes about how they helped to bring the best out of the All Blacks in their stunning Rugby World Cup quarter-final clash.

And it would be a yet braver person still to tell a nation to take pride in the fact that the All Blacks wouldn’t have delivered the performance they did in Paris had it not been for the tenacity and brilliance of Ireland on the night, and more so yet because of the sobering lesson Ireland handed them in July last year when they won a historic series in New Zealand.

But while it is the last thing anyone in Ireland wants to hear as they try to comprehend how it is that once again they have failed to make the last four of a World Cup, it is a story that is going to be told nevertheless as it forms the central narrative of an All Blacks campaign that now has significantly better odds of ending in a coveted fourth title.

Ireland, whether they like it or not, have played such an integral role in helping the All Blacks become the team they now are that they should consider, however galling and unappealing it may seem, living the rest of this World Cup vicariously through New Zealand.


If the All Blacks go on to win this World Cup, Ireland can claim a little bit of it.

Before the quarter-final, All Blacks coach Ian Foster had said that the series loss to Ireland had proven to be the most formative three weeks of what had been a tumultuous four-year World Cup cycle.

Ireland had exposed frailties in the All Blacks scrum, breakdown work and driving maul defence, he said.

What he didn’t say, however, was just how deeply that series loss had impacted the team and how, once Ireland had flown home to continue their celebrations, every waking thought the All Blacks had was geared towards rebuilding themselves for a likely quarter-final rematch 15 months later.

All Blacks outhalf Richie Mo’unga revealed after the 28-24 victory that almost every leaders’ meeting and training camp in the last year had some kind of focus on a likely quarter-final with Ireland.

And yet more specifically, inside centre Jordie Barrett said that the biggest lesson the All Blacks took from the series defeat was that their defence lacked cohesion, structure and intensity and was operating within an outdated system.

“Ireland taught us a lesson at home, and we had some shoddy defence when we were defending their outstanding attacking system,” Barret said.

“We had wide spaces and they picked us off with their short passing game.

“We have now got a defence system that Scott McLeod [defence coach] has built basically for Ireland and our system worked.”

It was a staggering admission that the All Blacks had been so profoundly damaged and shocked by what Ireland exposed last year that they went about rebuilding a fundamental part of their game with the express mission of exacting a cruel and cold revenge in France.

They wouldn’t say their rebuilt defensive system was perfect on the night, but it was good enough.

Certainly, by the second half they had started to pick the cues as to when Ireland were going to play the ball out the back door to one of their outside backs or Johnny Sexton on his favoured arcing run, and the green jerseys kept finding people in black jerseys blocking their path.

At no stage was that more apparent than in those memorably brilliant closing four minutes when Ireland produced 37 phases of rugby and the All Blacks managed to repel them and not concede a penalty in the process.

It was a passage of play that Ireland’s players and coaching staff may mentally replay for the weeks and months to come, wondering if they could have tried something different or whether they failed to see a gap they could have exploited, but the answer will always be no.

What they encountered was one of the best passages of defensive rugby the All Blacks have ever produced, in much the same way that in Dublin 2013, Ireland encountered the best passage of attacking rugby the All Blacks have ever produced when they kept the ball alive through 13 phases to score at the death.

What was remarkable in Paris was the calm that the All Blacks exuded as they kept rebuilding their black wall and the near certainty they seemed to possess about where Ireland were going to hit them.

“After the series at home last year which really hurt, we had to look at the fundamentals of the defensive game within the All Blacks,” said McLeod the day after.

“A big part of that was that in Super Rugby in New Zealand, they tend to defend the man. They line up on a man and they defend the man, whereas that doesn’t work against teams like Ireland.

“We had to develop our ability to defend the ball so wherever the ball is we have to put people in front of it and what we have learned is that Ireland make you do that over and over again.

“They force you to make a decision about the ball and that was the most pleasing aspect [of the quarter-final victory], we have built the players’ skill sets from last year and we have learned some really hard lessons and then, against Ireland, for the majority of the time we got that right.”

Beating Ireland hasn’t just given New Zealand a great opportunity to make the final, it has entirely changed the perception of the team and, in particular, the standing of their coaching group.

For most of his time in charge, Foster has been under pressure from the media and fan base, who have questioned his selections, game plans and ability to build a team that can uphold and add to the legacy of the All Blacks.

It’s slowly dawning on people that Foster may be much more astute and gifted than anyone realised, and that he may have brilliantly brought the All Blacks to the boil at precisely the right time.

The anger that brewed in the wake of the series loss to Ireland last year has subsided, as probably most New Zealanders would agree that while they didn’t love losing, they would rather it was then and not at the World Cup.

When it mattered, Foster got the result his team needed and given that the All Blacks had a long history between 1987 and 2011 of dominating the global game only to blow up at the World Cup, New Zealanders can sympathise with the pain Ireland will now be feeling.

The difference maybe is that the All Blacks became their own worst enemy at World Cups during that period.

No one likes the term chokers, but it’s what they were as they tumbled out of tournaments because they couldn’t play anywhere near their potential when the pressure really came on.

Ireland at least have the consolation of knowing that they didn’t choke – not emphatically or collectively.

They just failed to win those little moments – Sexton’s missed penalty, Calean Doris’s dropped ball from a clearance kick – and that was enough to enable the All Blacks, on the night they produced their best performance in four years, to cling on for victory.