Is Irish Euro dominance pointing to historic All Blacks scalp?
James Mortimer 22 Jan 2012 Getty Images
There is of course the small matter of the knockout stages to be played, but before that the 2012 Six Nations will commence, and while Irish eyes may be smiling at their European conquests, the upcoming premier Northern Hemisphere international tournament is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in years.
Ireland, after wrapping up test and domestic duties at home and in Europe, will then head to New Zealand for a historic three-test series against the World Champion All Blacks.
For the Irish, they will hope another addition to the books will be added by rugby historians, hoping to improve on their best ever result against New Zealand – a 10-10 draw in Dublin way back in 1973.
In 24 test matches stretching back to 1905, the All Blacks have never lost to Ireland.
However the form of their Heineken Cup sides will be a huge positive, even if there are mixed blessings in terms of which players are eligible to wear the green, as the Irish Rugby Football Union’s (IRFU) policy of restricting foreign imports is still to come into place.
Ulster, the 1998/1999 Heineken Cup champions, have impressed this season as they have emerged from Leinster and Munster’s shadows, with their 41-7 demolition of English giants Leicester a warning shot they will be able to compete for the title.
But a healthy number of former Springboks – Stefan Terblanche, Ruan Pienaar, Pedrie Wannenburg and Johann Muller – are in the team, with the latter captaining the side while Pienaar has been one of the form scrumhalves in Europe.
Add to this a certain World Cup winning tighthead prop named John Afoa, and it is no surprise that the IRFU tinkered with their province’s eligibility laws to allow home grown players to get precious first class game time.
Ulster are not merely relying on their SANZAR connection, but while the likes of Paddy Wallace, Rory Best and Stephen Ferris have performed, take out the third of their team that is not eligible for Ireland and one muses whether the Belfast operation would have pushed through to the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.
Leinster and Munster are different beasts.
Of course there are one of two Southern Hemisphere imports in the respective two-time champions squad, but across the park there are a powerful number of Irish internationals, all of whom are in the sort of form that must make Irish coach Declan Kidney wish he could board for New Zealand immediately.
Munster has impressed, but all evidence points to Leinster now being the standard bearers.
The infamous Red Army however has hardly been a failure this season, striding imperiously through Europe to make up for their surprising failure to make the final eight last year (for the first time in over a decade), and their most recent 51-36 win over last season’s beaten finalists Northampton were old school Irish fighting words for their neighbours to the north-east.
Their scrum was bullied by the Saints, but this won’t concern national selectors too much for now as BJ Botha and Wian du Preez aren’t Irishman, but the way Munster overcame this to come through pool play unbeaten for the first time in 17 years was ominous.
As Leinster repelled Montpellier’s challenge, an Irish commentator dryly suggested that the only way Munster would overtake them as the top seeded quarter-finalists was if they scored “a half century or more of points” against the Saints, and the two-time champions took the advice to heart.
However the reigning Heineken Cup title holders made Montpellier – last season’s Top 14 runners up and on a five-from-six recent match run – look inadequate as Leinster both flexed their muscles while at times playing well within themselves.
To think that Irish first five-eighth Jonathan Sexton was withdrawn before the match only heightens the expectation on Ireland’s future, as their production line is becoming to hum again.
The only potential negative is that Leinster, Munster and Ulster have been bold with their selections, with Heineken Cup winning coach Joe Schmidt rotating even established internationals to establish fierce competition within the ranks.
While Irish coach Declan Kidney, regarding by some as ‘Steady Deccie’, named a 24-man senior squad composed solely of World Cup players, and some feel that Ireland’s best way forward may be that invigoration of youth.
The key battlegrounds – All Blacks v Ireland
One would be tempted to lift en mass the Leinster back row, which caused immense chaos against Montpellier and Glasgow, into the Irish side, although the performance of the Munster loose forward division was a sight to behold despite their pack backpedalling at scrum time.
Not only are the classical tenets of power and speed of arrival on display, but the technical proficiency and street-smarts are evident. Often players are seen cutting down tacklers by their ankles to allow scavengers to work their dark magic, while the body position of players clearing out has been first class.
However there is a canny wickedness evident as well, watching the bodies slowly move away, a liberal interpretation of the instructions “behind the hind foot” and a delight and proficiency in slowing the opposition ball down.
The All Blacks have long been the masters of this area, and will expect a tough examination here.
Witness a David Pocock-less Wallabies getting bullied by Irish tacklers every time they got the ball during the World Cup, with a heady blend of gang tackling and impressive upper body strength evident.
If they weren’t driving players back – as Leinster and Munster have become experts – during the tackle, then they were holding up the ball carrier to earn possession.
One would believe that no All Blacks team could be intimidated in this area, but the Irish have certainly toughened their approach in contact.
Watching the Irish provinces stretch their legs this season has been nothing short of beauty, with masses of decoy runners and eager hands looking for off-loads, while the ability to adapt between tight running via their lurking forwards or wide arcs via some classy distribution has been a feature all season.
The enthusiasm of the Irish backs is something that will be needed in New Zealand later this year, for often it has been the difference in quality between the outside men that has proven the difference.
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