BNZ – the Standard Bearers

And so came to an end the greatest tournament the game has ever witnessed.  New Zealand won, comprehensively, devastatingly and deservedly, and in doing so served up the prototype for what great, thrilling and effective modern rugby involves.  In 2011 they were crowned champions, but they barely stumbled over the line and were blessed by the manner in which the final was refereed.  This time, liberated from the chokers tag, they not only won, but served to demonstrate that they are the best team in the world by a distance, and the greatest of the professional era.

They are fitting champions of a superb tournament.  Indeed, we can only profess ourselves to be surprised by the sheer brilliance of the rugby that was produced.  It was only six months ago that we were despairing of a modern game built on brawn, robotic systems and lacking in skill.  The last two world cups were pretty mediocre in terms of the rugby produced.  We foresaw more of the same here, a sort of turbo-charged Six Nations, but this proved way wide of the mark.  In fact, it was not just the Championship sides that performed such attractive rugby, but many of the Tier Two nations also, not least Canada, Fiji and of course, Japan – who would have made the knockouts but for some generous refereeing in Scotland-Samoa and, of course, scheduling.

One argument that can now be canned is that winning tournaments requires something certain commentators refer to as ‘cup rugby’.  For ‘cup rugby’, see a dull, monotonous game plan involving aerial kicking and one-out runners.  Long a bugbear of ours, it has never made sense that the sort of rugby required to beat an opponent in one form of competition would be different to that of another.  And yet the myth persists that a conservative gameplan is in fact necessary to go deep into knockout rugby competitions.  Hugo MacNeill, who spent the tournament ramming his feet down his throat on TV3, noted that in World Cups you need a Ronan O’Gara-style fly-half, while a Felipe Contepomi type was too outrageous for this rarefied atmosphere.  The august critic had obviously failed to notice that Contepomi holds a bronze medal for his part in Argentina’s 2007 showing while Ronan O’Gara had never made it beyond the quarter finals.

New Zealand remained true to their principles to the end, committed to offloading in the tackle and, especially, passing flat along the gainline.  They may have tightened up in the rain against South Africa, but they were still the more expansive of the two teams and won the try-count by two to nothing.  Ultimately they won the tournament because of their superior skill levels and supreme rugby intelligence.  They have no problem stacking their forwards in wide channels, and when the ball gets there they have the skill to execute.  This gives their strike runners the freedom to roam the pitch and punch holes wherever they may choose.  It’s the exact strategy Rob Penney looked to bring to Munster, but he was laughed out of town for it.  Apparently it wasn’t cup-winning rugby.

The finale of the tournament has a habit of making the group stages look like mere preliminaries, and so it is here.  The past is a foreign country and all that.  And how ridiculous some of it looks from this vantage point!  What, for example, were England thinking?  Watching New Zealand’s all-court game makes it all the more unthinkable that they left Henry Slade in the stands and Ford on the bench, while Sam Burgess and Owen Farrell trundled about witlessly.  Did they think they could win a World Cup against New Zealand with such a ponderous game-plan?  And were we perhaps kidding ourselves a little bit that Ireland could live with this glorious company with such a mechanical, predictable approach reliant on kick-chase and mauling?  Had we better luck with injuries, could we have beaten Argentina and put it up to Australia?  It seems a lot to ask, a high level to compete against.

One other important factor is injuries.  New Zealand, by and large, stayed fit and healthy for the tournament.  Australia also, though they struggled when they lost Pocock for the Scotland game; indeed, they were almost unrecognisable.  They also struggled in Giteau’s absence when he was hauled from the pitch early in the final.  Like it or not, injuries play a huge part in a team’s fate.  Wales’ tournament was undone by injuries, and Ireland’s too.  It’s well and good putting up a no-excuses culture, but if you were asked three weeks before the tournament if Ireland could win a quarter-final without Sexton, O’Connell, O’Brien et al, you’d have objectively said ‘no chance’.  The closing out against France gave us a reason to believe we might not be so badly affected, but it soon became apparent just how terrible that French side was.

The question for now is: will Ireland be able to learn the lessons from this World Cup?  We’ve already posted that we’re unlikely to overhaul our gameplan overnight based on one loss to Argentina, and nor should we.  Ireland are Six Nations champions and will be competitive in that competition again this year.  But we note with interest Gordon D’arcy’s observations that the problem is rooted not in the national team coaching or current crop of players but in the fundamental skills learned in players’ formative years.  A sea-change in mentality will have to occur at every level.  Fail to adapt now and we may forever be playing catch-up.

If the revolution is to come several years down the line, the immediate evolution of the national team should continue apace.  It should not be forgotten that it is the provinces which feed most directly into the national team, and where the players’ day-to-day habits are formed.  Last year was an abysmal one for Irish provincial rugby, and the only way is up.  Leinster were an eyesore, Munster were dreadful, Ulster choked yet again when it mattered and Connacht were a bright spot, but ran out of steam.  We are far removed from Matty Williams’ ideal of a four-pronged provincial base all playing in some sort of ‘Irish way’, that inherently prepares the players for test rugby.  In all likelihood we will never attain such a thing.

However, it is encouraging that Leinster managed 14 offloads in their win over Treviso at the weekend, but tougher tests await, and we will watch with interest as the season develops.  There are a slew of promising players currently performing well in the provincial sides; Stuart McCloskey, Garry Ringrose and Noel Reid among them.  Will they be ready for international rugby come the Six Nations?  Maybe, maybe not; McCloskey looks the closest to stepping up a level.  Nonetheless, it is vital that Ireland show some signs of heeding the lessons that this magnificent tournament has provided.

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23 Comments

  1. Vedrafjord

     /  November 4, 2015

    On an unrelated note I think it’s hillarious that there are some November internationals this year but they look more plausible as games of football than rugby. Basque Country vs Argentina! Spain vs Chile! Brazil vs Germany, twice!

  2. osheaf01

     /  November 4, 2015

    “Had we better luck with injuries, could we have beaten Argentina and put it up to Australia? It seems a lot to ask, a high level to compete against.”

    We would probably have beaten Argentina with a full complement and picking the right side – no Average Dave, no Earls out of position in the centre.
    I don’t think we could have beaten Australia – their backrow is simply too good.

    • D6W

       /  November 4, 2015

      We did not lose because of personnel. We lost because our defensive system, operated by a tired and battered team, could not cope with a high-tempo wide attacking game played by a relatively fresh team.

      • Amiga500

         /  November 4, 2015

        With Payne at 13, Argentina **might** have found it more difficult to work onto the outside…

        But bottom line is – we were well short of the best teams and shouldn’t kid ourselves otherwise.

  3. ruckinhell

     /  November 4, 2015

    I was one of those who felt that the final stages would revert back to tighter “Cup rugby” style games. I was very pleased that they didn’t and they made for fantastic spectacles but Ireland are well behind the curve set by NZ, Oz et al.

    In relation to players to watch, reckon CJ Stander will be an interesting option for the 6 Nations given the lack of genuine linebreakers in the Irish squad. He’s upped his work rate and has kept his try scoring prowess- 21 tries in 63 games is a scoring rate that most Irish wingers would be very proud of. I don’t buy the accusations of flat track bully but I do wonder if he has the nous for Test rugby. Himself and McCloskey would add serious heft to our ball carrying options.

    • Yossarian

       /  November 4, 2015

      Is this not the root of our problem though? We still obsess about “ball carriers” instead of “ball players” NZ pack was full of lads who were comfortable catching and passing. yes they could carry but bar Kaino that probably isn’t the primary thing we think of when we describe their playing style.
      An irish pack of Healy, Henderson, Healy and Heaslip has enough carriers in it. We probably need someone who can distribute a bit more. Obviously not the primary duty of a forward but i think it is a skill we need to look at including. POM was developing nicely as a wide distributor and Best looks capable of same.

      • Well said

      • ruckinhell

         /  November 4, 2015

        I take your point in general but let’s not forget that NZ are also packed with plenty of guys who can get over the gainline before making those great offloads and no look pops, whether through power carrying or nifty footwork. There’s a danger here that we decide to throw the baby out with the bathwater (Channelling my inner Eddie O’Sullivan here). There was F-all “ball playing” from either side in the NZ-SA game which was driven by conditions to being a slugfest which NZ were more than capable of trading blows.

        “An irish pack of Healy, Henderson, Healy and Heaslip has enough carriers in it.” Is that so??? I guess I was the only one to think that a big part of the reason that we lost to Argentina was that they physically beasted us in the contact zone before they began to throw those great skip passes and engineered mismatches out wide. How often did those lads named above get us over the gainline and stop the Argies from doing likewise?

        I’m all for expanding the ambition and skillset of all of our players to try to match the SH sides but let’s not take that to mean that we want tight 5 forwards who can throw a skip pass but who can’t smash through a ruck or take 3 men down with them ball in hand. Or two non-physical centres who can distribute but who can’t get us over the gainline on a consistent basis. Because I don’t see NZ picking a midfield of Carter-Beaden Barrett and Conrad Smith, they always have a Nonu or SB Williams in the middle. The all ball players team was tried before by NZ in 2003 and they came unstuck when the going got tough. NZ can now play a ball in hand game or a physical bosh game when needed. We can do the second but not the first, I don’t see a period where we can neither as a step forward.

  4. D6W

     /  November 4, 2015

    “We are far removed from Matty Williams’ ideal of a four-pronged provincial base all playing in some sort of ‘Irish way’, that inherently prepares the players for test rugby. In all likelihood we will never attain such a thing.”

    We have to try. Otherwise, with such a small pool of professional players, if they are pulling in 4 different directions, so to speak, we are doomed to failure on the highest stage. And surely that is why we have a performance director, to try.

  5. BFBB

     /  November 4, 2015

    Has this tournament really been the highlight of attacking rugby that everyone seems to be going on about? It was definitely enjoyable to watch but NZ aside I really don’t think I witnessed a huge amount of genius attacking play. Certainly a few teams threw a few offloads but is that really something to get that excited about? True it is rarer up here that down south but it is not a difficult skill to develop (its actually pretty basic) and definitely not beyond any 16-34 YO training pretty much every day in a pro/semi-pro environment – it is the anticipation and support play which we struggle in the NH (again this is pure basics). Aside from Mike Ross and POC there are none of our starting pack (and most of our bench) that do not possess the required skills. (I love Paulie but his hands are shocking).
    SA were pretty poor throughout bar a decent display against NZ but again they werent exactly flinging it about. The most impressive thing about Aus was their backrow work in the breakdown and outside backs finishing off tries through the hands…which is the exact pattern every team aims for. The excitement over Argentina has been blown way out of proportion-they were impressive against us (Ireland) but in all honesty this performance was really more down to schoolboy error strewn rugby by an Irish side when even at 20-0 down should have come back to win that game (and I still think that even missing the 5-6 starters we threw that game away).
    While Scotland (6Ns bottom feeders) and Wales (injury riddled) were pretty poor in both games the difference between them and a semi was a last minute penalty and Cuthbert’s shocking defense (granted that was a brilliant example of attacking play from Vermuelan in the mould of the above).
    NZ were NZ and they were great throughout – but they as always played to their strengths (15 players with the basic skill requirements and few particular athletes)…it is nothing complex and nothing we didn’t know for the past 10 years.
    The answer for Ireland IMO is not to try and emulate NZ as for all eternity we will fail. It is not and never will be out first sport (nor do I want it to be) and we do not produce men with their physicality on a regular basis (a few aside).
    I am not professing to have an answer to what the Irish style of play should be but I would wager it needs to be build between 6-12 as that is where we are naturally strongest and seem to produce the players (perhaps as a result of any decent young pads being shoe-horned into 7 and 10 when they show any promise in other areas). We are a nation of approx 6 foot averagely paced gents and maybe we need to enforce that somehow.
    Bit of stream of conscious ranting above but that’s where my head is at with it all!

    • 2011 :- 10 tries in Q/Fs, 3 in S/Fs; 2 in final.
      2015 :- 26 tries in Q/Fa, 6 in S/Fs; 5 in final.

      The facts are the facts; there was indeed a feast of attacking rugby; it is not my fault if reality has a liberal bias.

      • BFBB

         /  November 4, 2015

        I just don’t subscribe to the idea that more tries equals better attacking rugby. A rake of tries were scored on the last day of the 6Ns by apparently poor attacking teams who have been left in the dark ages.

  6. “Strike runners the freedom to roam the pitch and punch holes wherever they may choose” The BNZ injury profile does not reflect this. If anything it appeared that they were moving the ball around to find one on ones, mismatches or defensive lapses. It appeared that they were communicating where they could see or find space and moving the ball towards that space. When the off loads came it was in the areas of the defensive line where they could make more gain line impact.
    “Wales’ tournament was undone by injuries, and Ireland’s too.” Is there something in the power or cup game that is inherently more injury risk taking? Bearing in mind the contrast of the injury profile of the RWC finalists compared to Wales and Ireland? If BNZ are moving the ball around to find space in the defensive line is it inherently less injury prone with less tacklers in and around the ruck?
    “Fail to adapt now and we may forever be playing catch-up.” Brent Pope once said that when BNZ were knocked out of the 2007 RWC the NZ union did some research and the results bore fruit in 2011 and to date. The IRFU have been playing catch-up since rugby became professional. However given how much of the game is made up of people with a Higher Education background and it never ceases to amaze what little research is published by the IRFU.

  7. SportingBench

     /  November 4, 2015

    Bit sick of the current fashion for demanding the offload as the golden totem. Everything in moderation and passing before the tackle to runners with good lines is pretty important too. The final and Argentina against Ireland demonstrated how good, basic passing and running lines cut teams apart. These are skills Irish internationals should already have. If they don’t we need better internationals rather than better coaching/game plans.

  8. RockyWho

     /  November 4, 2015

    I am intended to agree with the thoughts in the article but on reflection I am inclined to think that winner’s greatest and most admirable achievement has been in only losing three games since they last won the world cup. (I wouldn’t have thought this was the case, but it was often referred to over the weekend so must be true!).
    Whereas they certainly were impressive, the residual taste is that they were never really tested, while I say that though, I am mindful that they were the first team in world cup history to beat all three other teams in the semi-finals. How can this be the case and they still not be truly tested? This has to reflect badly on all the other teams.
    The Wallabies are a team who have made an incredible turn around over the last 12 months but they are nowhere near the vintage of previous Aussie World Cup teams which would have tested BNZ dominance.
    Sth Africa’s limited but effective power game has been very poor all year and their team, who are talented and loaded with potential in certain sections of the team, are by no means the world beaters of yore.
    The final team, Argentina did incredibly well for their stage of development. Their style, approach and results have shown up the rest of the apparent tier 1 nations. Despite their successes though, they were not the contenders for the throne that the competition needed.
    Previous World Cups have relied on France to halt BNZ’s march, but as well documented on every piece of digital and print media, they were a shambles, followed close behind by England.

    My point after this ramble is, there has not been another team in the competition to challenge BNZ for the trophy, and what may have been the greatest rugby team of the professional (perhaps any) era coincided with a slump in the quality of the other sides in the competition, sadly denying us, a match up for the ages.

  9. RockyWho

     /  November 4, 2015

    I am inclined to agree with the thoughts in the article but on reflection I am now inclined to think that winner’s greatest and most admirable achievement has been in only losing three games since they last won the world cup. (I wouldn’t have thought this was the case, but it was often referred to over the weekend so must be true!).
    Whereas they certainly were impressive, the residual taste is that they were never really tested, while I say that though, I am mindful that they were the first team in world cup history to beat all three other teams in the semi-finals. How can this be the case and they still not be truly tested? This has to reflect badly on all the other teams.
    The Wallabies are a team who have made an incredible turn around over the last 12 months but they are nowhere near the vintage of previous Aussie World Cup teams which would have tested BNZ dominance.
    Sth Africa’s limited but effective power game has been very poor all year and their team, who are talented and loaded with potential in certain sections of the team, are by no means the world beaters of yore.
    The final team, Argentina did incredibly well for their stage of development. Their style, approach and results have shown up the rest of the apparent tier 1 nations. Despite their successes though, they were not the contenders for the throne that the competition needed.
    Previous World Cups have relied on France to halt BNZ’s march, but as well documented on every piece of digital and print media, they were a shambles, followed close behind by England.

    My point after this ramble is, there has not been another team in the competition to challenge BNZ for the trophy, and what may have been the greatest rugby team of the professional (perhaps any) era coincided with a slump in the quality of the other sides in the competition, sadly denying us, a match up for the ages.

  10. Andrew097

     /  November 4, 2015

    It hates me too say it but we were second best in everything in the 1/4 final. We were even out coached. If you want to play a heads up running type gme you have to practise the skills and decision making you need in order to play it.
    Its a harded game to coach but a better game to play and watch, hopefully The IRFU allow Schmidt some leeway to play it.

  11. Great post and comments. I thought it was a fantastic tournament. As well as a much more exciting than expected group stage, all four quarters, semis and final were gripping and showed the modern game in all its glory — including a tiny bit of rain, some shocking defending and a couple of dodgy calls. But on balance the better teams won, the teams that scored the more tries won, there was very little dirty play — and this was the case from the first match all the way to the end. And full houses every time. Best World Cup ever.

    As a side-note: I don’t in any way condone the treatment of Rob Penney but I do remember that his Munster side posted some insane passing and possession stats, but it mostly involved lads shovelling the ball sideways from one tramline to another, with very little wit or penetration. It’s not going to be an overnight transition.

    And as for Muddy Williams’ desire for an all-Ireland wedding-cake system: like it or not, that’s what we’ve got in only two years with Joe — and with two 6N titles (and no semi) to show for it. It may have coincided with a decline in coaching standards for the provinces, or a slew of retirements of key players, but it’s not inevitably to the detriment of the four green fields to have a clear, Ireland-first policy and there are many benefits to the exposure which will hopefully become apparent in the coming months (Furlong, Henshaw, Jackson, Henderson, Zebo, McGrath). Schmidt has also consistently (apart from a shell-shocked quarter final) rewarded form and improvement and I would expect to see call-ups over the next year for McCloskey, Marmion, Luke McGrath and perhaps Gilroy and Conway, as well as Copeland, Conan and Stander. (And what happened to Dave Foley?)

    Lastly I would have to say that Connacht had an incredible season last year — and you could argue that instead of falling off, only some appalling officiating vs Cardiff cost them a place at the top table.

  12. The stats on the RWC site are big stripey pants.

    Two things occurred to me:

    – in relation to whether the varied but equally percussive styles of Australia, Ireland and Wales correlate with injuries, it would be good to know if the teams that suffered most injuries were the ones with highest number of tackles and/or contested rucks in their games.

    – in relation to whether Ireland’s style is the right one, how many tries were scored off 1st, 2nd, 3rd phase (and so on), for Ireland, the semi finalists and in general for all teams?

    Anyone know where such data could be found?

  13. toro toro

     /  November 6, 2015

    Great post, although:

    “They also struggled in Giteau’s absence when he was hauled from the pitch early in the final.”

    Hmm. In the game I saw, Curly Bill was a serious contender for man-of-the-match after hauling a beaten Aussie team right back into it almost single-handedly.

  14. Iceman

     /  November 6, 2015

    To Ringrose, Reid and McCloskey you should add CJ Stander who, with the loss of felix jones and POC is probably Muster’s best player (with Saili)

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