By No Means Luck of the Irish in Chicago!

February 28, 2017

The backdrop was something out of a movie script; Chicago was in a jubilant mood and here were the Irish, ready to take on the world champions, with their only recorded win against the All Blacks being in 1978 by the club team Munster. 

It was, as the pioneering sponsors who put the unusual match on the calendar so eagerly wished, everything a rugby enthusiast could dream of.

The beginning of the game was not indifferent to previous matches played by the All Blacks throughout the year where they would start slow and eventually work their way into the game. The opening exchanges were fierce and competitive, and the Irish gained the advantage by playing with an enterprising style not familiar to those who had typecast the Irish as having a bruising and physical pack with a few quick backs and a solid kicker.

As the points began to mount against the All Blacks and the Irish continued to play with unprecedented attacking intent, it almost felt like it was a waiting game until the 60-minute mark was reached. Then the All Blacks would accelerate into their dominant form and take the match, and offer yet another patronising ‘better luck next time’ pat on the back to Ireland.

However, the game changing moment happened sooner than the anticipated 60 minutes.

At the 47-minute mark, Ireland were given a kickable penalty at halfway, and with a 25-8 advantage, boldly decided to kick for touch against the world’s number one team.

This attacking decision showed a huge mental shift from the typical approach used by almost every team playing the All Blacks, which dictates that if the points are on offer, they are taken. But this Irish team, who for so many years previous had relied on the boot of Ronan O’Gara to secure marginal victories, were intent on scoring at least another five points.

The decision to back their line out and attacking set piece illustrated not just how much they wanted the victory, but also how they had learned how to beat the All Blacks. Playing the world’s best, the Irish didn’t simply protect a lead and try not to lose; they kept playing rugby and from that lineout scored a well worked try! By doing so, they showed the world that they deserved every ounce of the glory that 111 years owed them.

The world watched for the All Blacks reaction to the Irish charge as the 60 minute mark passed but what followed was a number of uncharacteristic errors and an inability to apply pressure to convert into points.

Make no mistake, the All Blacks did not play badly in the last 20 minutes.

It was the Irish who refused to relent, and continued to take risks to try and secure more points. This resulted in the All Blacks having to defend wave after wave of attack, something that was new to them in the final quarter of any match they had played in well over a year.

Inevitably, the comeback came and the final minutes were destined to be ingrained into the memory of all those watching, and when Henshaw scored close to the end, it was the fitting end to another sporting curse.

It was clear after the match that Joe Schmidt, the Irish Coach, had been planning this match for a very long time. It was no coincidence that Jamie Heaslip had learned to offload at the end of a bustling run, and Simon Zebo chased everything that went in the air. 

The Irish had learned that the All Blacks don’t play a possession dominated game, but are more inclined to risk the ball if there is a sniff of an attacking opportunity through the likes of throwing the wide cut out pass, or putting the ball to boot for a running winger. And when a team does that, the only way to negate it is if your defence can regather from their risking of the ball, then take the advantage of having that possession gifted to you.

And that is what the Irish did - they stopped the All Blacks attack and held onto the ball for long phases, wore down their defence, and found holes around the fringes of the ruck, and created overlaps. 

This ambitious game plan formed by Schmidt cannot simply be put down to the physical conditioning of his players, but instead tracks further into how he imprinted into his players an attacking psyche.

It is clear to see that every team is producing athletes at a fitness level not seen the year previous. Players and entire teams are sacrificing their after-match-beer rituals in favour of getting in ice chambers to prepare for the next high altitude training camp beginning the following week.

What was previously an advantage to New Zealand as having extremely fit athletes has now become a level playing field. Which means the points of differentiation between teams is increasingly becoming about skill set and strategy.

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