5 million people showed up in Chicago to celebrate the Cubs ending a 108-year drought in baseball’s World Series on Friday 4th November 2016.
The next day the Irish rugby team ended a similar length drought against the All Blacks, in the same city. Ireland completed a classic weekend of underdog triumph. With many in the crowd “tagging one on” from the night before, the cry from the fans assembled at Soldier Field was “Nobody beats Ireland 29 times in a row!”.
The facts of Ireland’s victory are incidental. It was a great game. It was a great occasion. And no doubt the crowd of 800,000 (the same size crowd as witnessed Munster beat the All Blacks in 1978) will all remember it fondly. For All Black Assistant Coach Ian Foster it represented a challenge to turn the result around in quick time. With intercontinental travel and limited training available, his ability to analyse the result was key.
Primarily the Irish win was constructed by scoring tries, and by having a revenge mentality for the narrow loss at home to the All Blacks in the previous outing. There was a certain historical inevitability about it too. Eventually, Ireland’s time had to come and, and no better time than on neutral soil amid the emotional backdrop of the Chicago Cubs’ epic underdog story.
Ireland’s tries were scored from close range, from driving mauls, from pick and goes, from a simple switch close to a scrum, from a dummy close to the line, and from a short pass on the narrow blind side. They all had one thing in common, field position. Ireland was in the 22 with the ball in hand. To counterattack, New Zealand would have to go the length, and Ireland backed their scramble defence to survive that threat. They gambled well, and they won. The difficulty, of course, is to repeat that gamble. Like a Stag Do in Las Vegas, the “House” was on to them, and they weren’t going to win twice.
Deconstructing a Loss
The 1014 has this week set it’s readers a challenge. How can you defend Beauden Barrett from the set piece? In the clips provided it’s hard to work out if the attack is brilliant or the defence is terrible. It’s a combination of both of course, but more importantly, it shows how Barrett and the All Blacks adapted and learned from defeat in the previous outing.
The eagle eye of Ian Foster spotted a weakness in Ireland’s outside defence. Exploiting it required nothing more than to be brave and to play flatter. Attack with more conviction. It’s as obvious as it is simple. This type of thinking has characterised Foster’s approach to advancing back play within the All Black set-up. No need to reinvent the wheel, just do the basics quicker, flatter and better. Foster believes in simplicity. Of course, he does, he has the best backs in the world to work with. They are all better players than he ever was so why complicate it. No matter what the Lions throw at the All Blacks in the first test, they’ll require a different playbook the following week.
The Borthwick Factor
Something that the All Blacks can’t counteract so well is where they are on the pitch. This is where Steve Borthwick’s lack of imagination comes in. Borthwick is a rugby badger; he’ll know the territorial stats from each of the warm up games, he’ll know the destination percentages of all the lineouts so far on tour. He’ll know how long the All Blacks have spent in their own 22 for the last 30 games. He’ll know it because that’s his job and he loves it.
Borthwick isn’t a model of adaptability as a coach, and no one is asking him to be. He’s the best at what he does, and his value is in the detail that the rest of his coaching group might miss. Alongside Graham Rowntree, he’ll be working on ways to keep the All Blacks in their own 22 using scrums and lineouts. If Borthwick and Rowntree can get the Lions into the 22, then Rob Howley should have enough possession to work with in attack.
The attack is where the Lions fans’ doubt begins to creep in. Rob Howley hasn’t got a brilliant record as a coach of the Wales team when Gatland isn’t around. But clearly, he has his implicit trust. The Lions have scored five tries in four games so far. Ireland had to score five tries to be the last team to beat New Zealand, and the All Blacks in reply scored four and were still very much in the game until the 74th minute.
In the next outing between the two sides, New Zealand won, and won comfortably. The coaching pressure in this series is focused therefore on Howley. It is his ability to communicate to the players how to get through the All Blacks’ defence from close range that is important. Expect George North off the blind side wing in midfield and cross-field kicks from Farrell. Above all expect Borthwick and Rowntree to boss the coaching box and keep the ball in amongst the fatties.
If the Lions win the first test no one will ever remember the details, just the occasion. Repeating the trick in the second test, against the “House” represents an infinitely greater coaching challenge. A challenge that Ian Foster and Co. have risen to before.
Author: Paul Dunne
Paul is originally from Dublin but has been coaching rugby in the UK for 11 years. He is currently Director of Rugby at Bryanston School in Dorset, and has coached senior and age grade rugby. He started his coaching career at London Irish, and gained an MSc in Sport Psychology in 2010. Paul also teaches History and Politics at Bryanston.