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What Ireland will we see against the All Blacks this weekend?

What Ireland will we see against the All Blacks this weekend?

Bundee Aki scores a try

If there was one big takeaway from the weekend’s action it was the new attacking approach from Ireland as they put Japan to the sword in Dublin.

Just a fortnight after the Brave Blossoms had gone down narrowly to in-form Australia, the assumption was that the clash with Ireland would be a close affair – two years on from Japan’s shock pool victory at the 2019 World Cup.

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It was nothing of the sort as Ireland ran in nine tries and racked up 60 points in a thrilling display.

What was most noticeable was Ireland’s clear intent to pass out of contact, with 17 offloads in all, easily the most in the two years that Andy Farrell has been in charge of the side.

Prior to the clash at the Aviva Stadium, Ireland had averaged five offloads a game under Farrell, with three in their last game with a full squad to pick from, the win over England to close out the Guinness Six Nations.

That was probably the best all-round performance of the Farrell era so far, but the win over Japan hinted at a change of mindset. Is this the vision that Mike Catt, who joined the set-up in 2020, has for Ireland’s attack?

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Johnny Sexton celebrates after scoring a try on his 100th cap for Ireland with Andrew Conway

Skipper Johnny Sexton, who made his 100th appearance for his country in the 60-5 success, insists the game did not signal a change but was instead a function of the way Japan lined up in defence.

“We’ve always had license to do that, but if teams show a different picture you can’t do it all the time,” he said.

“That’s just the way the game unfolded on Saturday. We’d love to do it all the time and we just got presented the pictures and we read them quite well and executed off the back of it.”

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Still, Andrew Conway’s first try showed just how comfortable Ireland’s forwards can be taking the ball in space and looking for support after contact.

It brought a new dimension to the Irish attack and with the next match against a New Zealand team who have just broken the record for most tries and most points in a calendar year, it is clear that defence alone will not be enough to win.

So the question is, what will we see from Ireland against the All Blacks this weekend?

Revert back to the low-risk strategy of the Guinness Six Nations

No team tried fewer offloads in the Guinness Six Nations than Ireland who averaged just 3.6 per game, while they kicked more than any side in the competition.

From an attacking perspective, only Italy scored fewer tries, but the ten tries Ireland conceded were the fewest of any team – level with France and Scotland.

That is the trade-off that Ireland appeared to make. They turned the ball over more than any side but were relatively conservative when they had it and overall it was relatively successful.

Even with Peter O’Mahony’s early sending off against Wales, they led until just before the hour in that match, while their only other defeat was by two points to France.

Bundee Aki celebrates after scoring a try

The fact that they finished with three successive victories gave the sense that the team had got some momentum, and the big win over Japan has only added to that feeling.

It has clearly been picked up in New Zealand, where journalists have started talking up the threat posed by Ireland this weekend, three years after the first home win over the All Blacks, and five after that first success of any kind in Chicago.

New Zealand’s only defeat this year came against a South Africa side who made just five offloads, although that was a more expansive approach than a week earlier when the All Blacks came out on top. Likewise, the Springboks dropped from 38 kicks in defeat to 27 in victory.

With that in mind, a slightly more expansive mindset has proven effective…

Keep going with the offloading approach

If an expansive South Africa, by their standards, got the better of New Zealand, does that mean everyone should follow suit?

Well, Australia serve as a counterpoint. The Wallabies are the only team this year who have offloaded more than New Zealand in matches involving the All Blacks.

Across the three Bledisloe Cup matches, Australia made a total of 35 offloads to just 23 for New Zealand but came out on the losing side on each occasion.

New Zealand's Haka

The biggest disparity came at Eden Park where Australia tried 17 offloads to just ten for the Kiwis, but that was also the most one-sided result, New Zealand running out 57-22 winners.

The way Sexton spoke of thinking on your feet and taking what the defence gives you is perhaps an indication that we will not see 17 offloads from Ireland again this weekend.

And if the Wallabies’ results are anything to go by, that is perhaps not the worst idea.

A combination of the two

Realistically, Ireland will not be offloading anywhere as much as they did against Japan, but we should still see an uptick from what happened in the Six Nations.

The number of offloads in itself does not tell the whole story. Against Japan, particularly for the first Conway score, the passes out of the tackle were relatively high percentage plays because the support was in place and they came on carries where the player had got over the gain line.

It is reasonable to expect that Ireland will not win the battle for the gain line quite so comprehensively against the aggressive All Black defence.

Andrew Conway scores a try

In that situation, much as Sexton hinted at, Ireland will likely not look to pass out of contact so regularly.

But the possibility that they could do so in itself is a weapon. Against a team who do not even look to offload, a defence can take a different approach knowing that when a forward trucks the ball up, they will almost always go through the phases afterwards.

With Ireland’s offloading game in their armoury, the defence has to account for the possibility of the little pop passes and adjust accordingly.

The extra fraction of a second that might be offered to Sexton gives Ireland and Catt other options in terms of how to break down the Kiwi defence.

What those will be, we should find out on Saturday, but the game of cat and mouse when Ireland have possession will be fascinating to watch.

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