The emotional release which followed last Saturday’s historic victory over the All Blacks in Chicago was astounding. The atmosphere of drama, history and meaning began from the moment the Irish responded to the haka with a tribute to the late Anthony Foley – a moment that demonstrated why this still-nascent professional game must allow space for its traditions to be maintained, imbuing the game with colour and establishing a nexus with its amateur past which other sports have long since lost. It was heightened by New Zealand’s stirring fightback to 33-29 with 15 minutes remaining, and encapsulated by Jamie Heaslip sinking to his knees in a moment of introspection after shaking the hands of the opposition, contemplating the enormity of the 80 minutes which had passed.
As New Zealand prepare for a rematch in Dublin next weekend, it is interesting to consider how this result can be interpreted in the context of the current international rugby landscape. Over the past 18 months, broad-brush narratives have become established only for their veracity to be challenged swiftly by on-field results: the most common, that of the overwhelming dominance of the southern hemisphere nations, was rather incongruous with Australia’s capitulation against England in June, South Africa’s struggle to a series victory over Ireland and Argentina’s error-strewn performances which spanned their tests against France and the Rugby Championship. In truth, this interpretation was likely a fairly accurate one in October 2015 but an inappropriate lens through which to consider the international game in 2016 and beyond: Argentina’s inconsistency and high risk approach have been compounded in the short-term by their selection policies, while South Africa and Australia have been hit harder by coaching changes, retirements and defections abroad than was initially predicted. An appraisal of New Zealand’s Rugby Championship campaign must be tempered by acknowledgment of these factors, but it is virtually certain that no other side in the world would have been so emphatically successful with ball in hand against their SANZAAR opponents. Last weekend’s defeat comes with the caveat that four of their most important players were either missing (Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick) or short of game time (Sam Cane and Aaron Smith), but Steve Hansen’s decision to push Jerome Kaino into the second row was telling.
The structure of New Zealand’s domestic system is such that it prioritises the development of a broad base of skills in all players – regardless of position – by allowing them to be tried and tested in a fantastic learning environment. This environment allows the All Blacks to pick the players from the top of their domestic pyramid who are best suited to the physicality and intensity of the test match game, in the knowledge that their skills are good enough to support and improve their uniquely successful brand of rugby. Development pathways in the British Isles by contrast see test match intensity and physicality as the sine qua non, the factor which drives the success of the system. This is best exemplified by comparing New Zealand’s otherworldly backline resources with the glut of second rows the home nations have developed: for Julian Savea, Waisake Naholo, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Damian McKenzie, Ben Smith, Anton Lienert-Brown, George Moala, Beauden Barrett, Rieko Ioane and Jordie Barrett in New Zealand, in the British Isles read Jonny Gray, Richie Gray, Iain Henderson, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Alun Wyn Jones, Luke Charteris, Devin Toner, Ultan Dillane, James Ryan and Nick Isiekwe. Each system excels at producing players in its own image; in Europe the defining features of professional rugby are work-rate, strength, athleticism and accuracy in contact, and it is for this reason that its club rugby is often praised for being a more realistic replication of test match intensity than Super Rugby.
What Hansen’s selection shows is that he is keenly aware of a need for development of depth in this area, and the similar natures of Ireland’s victories over New Zealand opposition at both senior and U20 level in the past 6 months form a striking pattern. The success of their attacking maul in both games – and that of the choke tackle in defence in Chicago – clearly draw on the defining features discussed above, as do the ways in which Ireland’s best players at both levels asserted their dominance over their counterparts: the strength at set piece and in contact of Andrew Porter and James Ryan, the accuracy in the tackle of Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong, the swarming athleticism in defence of Conor Murray, Robbie Henshaw and Andrew Trimble. This is not to belittle the excellent basic skills which Nigel Carolan and Joe Schmidt have drilled into their sides, but in each case New Zealand scored more technically impressive tries and came out on the losing side. If the Lions are to be successful next June (and if Eddie Jones hopes to thwart the All Blacks’ chances of a third consecutive World Cup title in 2019) then this is most likely the model to follow.
Where does this leave Ireland moving towards Japan in three years’ time? Schmidt has constructed a side whose strengths clearly match up well with the All Blacks’ weaknesses, and will be genuinely optimistic about their chances in this coming weekend’s rematch. The integration of Tadhg Furlong, Ultan Dillane and Josh van der Flier into the first-choice 23 was one major positive from a 6 Nations campaign that represented a step back from the successes of 2014 and 2015; however, the key roles played by veterans already on the wrong side of 30 may be a cause for concern. Of the starters in Chicago, Rory Best will be 37 in 2019, Donnacha Ryan and Jamie Heaslip will be 35, Jared Payne, Jonny Sexton and Andrew Trimble 34, and Devin Toner and Rob Kearney 33. Developing experienced depth across their positions (in the manner that Furlong spent 12 months behind Mike Ross before taking over as first-choice tighthead) will be key over the next two seasons – hooker in particular is a large question mark for the future, although James Tracy’s debut against Canada last night was an important first step. In addition, last year’s 6 Nations performance is difficult to ignore given the difficulties in breaking down opposition defences it indicated. Devising an effective game plan to take on the best side in the world will ultimately be immaterial if issues against sides more similar to themselves in style cannot be resolved and young depth in key positions is not prioritised, but the opening weeks of the 2016/17 international season represent decisive movement in a positive direction.