CHICAGO, IL – Yes, Ireland did follow the Cubs into sports history.
Chicago, the Windy City, played host to not one, but two of the greatest moments in sports history last week: the Cubs breaking the 108-year Curse of the Billy Goat and, more importantly, Ireland finally vanquishing the All Blacks after 111 years of hurt.
The distinctive emotions displayed on the faces of the green-clad Irish fans and all-black-covered New Zealand supporters were direct markers of the performances on display at Soldier Field, surprised elation for Ireland and shocking disbelief for New Zealand. The Irish came out strong from the first whistle, surprisingly so for a side that had only been together for a little more than a week in the run-up to The Rugby Weekend. New Zealand, on the other hand, started the match much slower than they would’ve expected and wanted, allowing the Irish to gain early possession and territory within the Kiwi’s half.
A second-half slump from the Irish saw the world champion All Blacks make a characteristic resurgence to close the margin to all of four points with less than seven minutes remaining, putting every Irish fan watching around the world on edge flashing back to memories of New Zealand’s 2013 comeback in Dublin. Despite their massive effort to close the gap, Ireland’s blistering start to the match gave the men in green just enough breathing room to squeak through 80 minutes of some of the fastest-paced rugby seen on the global stage this year.
Although Ireland’s win can be attributed to a all-encompassing team performance, the outcome of the match was decided in three key arenas, paving the way for Ireland’s first ever victory over New Zealand.
THE KICKING GAME
Ireland, when playing well in Joe Schmidt’s system, has thrived from the kick-and-chase game in order to gain possession and territory, putting stress on the opposition’s defense. In the past, Sexton’s precision kicking and a beneficial kick chase from the likes of Kearney, Zebo, Fitzgerald, Earls, and Trimble has served well in putting stress on the opposition’s back three and giving the Irish a chance at regaining possession either by fielding the highball or by challenging the breakdown immediately after the opposition fields the ball.
Schmidt’s kicking-attack game plan could not have gone much better against New Zealand on Saturday. Sexton, and Carbery later in the second half, were able to put great hang time on their up-and-unders to allow for sufficient kick chase from Kearney, Zebo, and Trimble, all of whom fielded 50-50 balls in New Zealand’s half to give Ireland important possession and front-foot ball. Sexton and Carbery both kicked to touch exceptionally in both halves, although not as frequently as their use of the highball.
The All Blacks, on the other hand, had a mediocre performance in the kicking game. Barrett seemed tentative to put boot to ball and at times ended up putting unnecessary stress on New Zealand’s attack within their own critical areas. Barrett, however, was not the one that put the Kiwis kicking game in question. Aaron Smith was shaky at best throughout Saturday’s match, and his attempts at kicking for positive possession and territory put the ball back in Irish hands when New Zealand couldn’t afford any more Irish possession time. His box kicks were placed into areas near awaiting Irish receivers without challenge and twice ended up going directly into touch, turning the ball over. At times, Smith looked rushed at the breakdown, pushing him into making poor decisions and force the ball down field without sufficient numbers for a kick chase that could put the Irish under pressure. Advantage Ireland.
THE WIDE CHANNELS
New Zealand’s wide play is some of the most devastating rugby attack play in the entire world. When executed properly, the All Blacks often look like they are slicing butter with a hot knife, carving up the opposition defense with skilled interplay between the outside-centre, wingers, and fullback.
The Kiwi’s combination of Smith, Naholo, Moala, and Savea came out very strong in the opening six minutes, putting New Zealand ahead 5-3 after Smith’s brilliant take of a Conor Murray up-and-under allowed Naholo to slice and dice the Irish fringe defense for a try.
But, as the game progressed, the Kiwi wingers began to fade in performance as the Irish combination of Henshaw, Kearney, Zebo, and Trimble progressively took control of the wider channels, putting a stop to several potentially devastating New Zealand attacks. Zebo worked the touchline very well, attacking the gaps in the New Zealand defense when he could and keenly avoiding getting tackled into touch on several occasions to retain Irish possession. Kearney had a field day under the highball and also gained several meters through line breaks that he made past the All Black defensive back line. Most importantly, Henshaw and Trimble made crucial tackles over and over again that put a stop to what could’ve been easy New Zealand tries. Throughout the first half and the latter stages of the second half, Henshaw was all over the pitch making tackles, and in the crucial stages of New Zealand’s hard-charging comeback Trimble was able to make three tackles that resulted in a turnover of possession.
As the match progressed, New Zealand’s Savea looked like he began to crumble under the pressure of an increasingly possible Irish victory and ended up making his side’s ultimately fatal mistake when he opted away from kicking the ball to touch and was tackled in his own try-zone. By operating well in the wide channels, Ireland put a stop to New Zealand’s main attacking threat, securing a famous victory.
THE LINE-OUT & SCRUM
New Zealand absolutely stampeded through this year’s Rugby Championship in part to dominant displays at the set piece and a plethora of talented subs. Joe Moody, Dane Coles, and Owen Franks played a monumental role in providing scrum dominance against strong southern hemisphere opposition, bullying their opponents to provide easy ball delivery to the back line. Although slightly weaker than their scrum, Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino commanded the Kiwi line-out to positive affect as well.
On Saturday, however, the result was much different for New Zealand’s front eight. At the scrum, many expected Joe Moody and Owen Franks to put in a dominant performance over Jack McGrath (later Sean Cronin) and Tadgh Furlong (later Cian Healy), but the Irish props managed to control the scrummaging tactics of the Kiwis exceptionally well. Specifically, Moody, and later his replacement Tu’ungafasi, expected to enjoy a lot of success with angled drives towards the middle of the scrum, driving away from the opposition loosehead towards the opposition’s hooker. However, a combination of Rory Best’s, and later Finlay Bealham’s, efforts to keep the scrum straight coupled with Furlong’s (later Healy’s) well-placed binds actually nullified Moody’s and Tu’ungafasi’s efforts to crumple the Irish front three, resulting in a straight-driven, sturdy scrum that favoured the Irish. Ireland’s 76th minute scrum five meters from the New Zealand tryline was a perfect example of the nullification of New Zealand’s scrummaging prowess, Healy keeping Tu’ungafasi from driving at an angle straight at the scrum allowing Heaslip easy ball to set up Henshaw for the game-winning try.
At the line-out the Irish had a field day against the Kieran Read-led opposition. Although New Zealand did steal one Irish line out, Rory Best was easily able to pick out his jumper (most of the time Devin Toner) for most of the match and secure Irish possession in scoring areas of the pitch. Two of Ireland’s five tries were set up by strong showings at the line-out where the Irish punished New Zealand through devastating driving mauls. On the first line-out try Moody was in the sin-bin, giving Ireland a try via man-advantage. The second line-out try (just after half time) saw Kaino out of position with several All Blacks found completely out of place as Ireland rolled the maul towards the try line. No matter what way you look at it, Ireland’s dominance at the set piece helped swing the tide of the game in their favor.
Overall, Saturday was a truly momentous day for Irish Rugby and World Rugby alike. The Irish finally broke history while also sending a message to the world that New Zealand is actually fallible. Who knows what the return fixture in Dublin in three weeks will look like, but for now Ireland can celebrate in the light of their first victory over New Zealand, ever.
Oh, and watch this:
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