Neil Fran­cis

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - NEIL FRAN­CIS

No­body has trou­bled the Ki­wis at scrum time. They have done dam­age to South Africa, Aus­tralia and Ar­gentina. They milled the French dur­ing the sum­mer and they will go af­ter the English.

SOME­THING won­der­ful hap­pened at the Euro­pean Ath­let­ics Cham­pi­onships in Ber­lin dur­ing the sum­mer. I know some of you have given up on track and field ath­let­ics and the rest of you couldn’t be ar­sed, but give me a minute or so to per­suade you.

Armand Du­plan­tis, who was born in Amer­ica to Swedish par­ents, came home to Swe­den and rep­re­sented that coun­try in the pole vault in Ber­lin. The kid sailed over the bar at 6.05 me­tres to win gold.

The great Sergey Bubka held the in­door pole vault record for al­most 21 years at 6.14m, which was at the height of his con­sid­er­able pow­ers. The dif­fer­ence be­tween the two heights is no more than the size of your fist. Du­plan­tis seemed to have 20 cen­time­tres to spare, which would beat Re­naud Lav­il­le­nie’s world best mark of 6.16m.

Du­plan­tis had only just turned 18; it was a sen­sa­tional per­for­mance given the de­gree of dif­fi­culty and tech­ni­cal com­plex­ity of the event. Yours truly did 2.9m with a spe­cially reinforced pole many moons ago.

The point I’m try­ing to make can be il­lus­trated bet­ter in who came fur­ther down the list. Two Pol­ish ath­letes came fourth and fifth on the day — Piotr Lisek at 6’ 4” and 16-and-a-half stone and world cham­pion Pawel Wo­j­ciechowski at 6’ 3” and 15-and-ahalf stone fin­ished out­side the medals — both men were pow­er­house ath­letes ca­pa­ble of play­ing blind­side at in­ter­na­tional level. The gold medal win­ner weighed in at 10 stone 10 pounds and stands 5’ 11” . . . I don’t think I need say any more.

The All Blacks trav­elled to these is­lands last Thurs­day. They did so, as they al­ways do, with a sure-footed sense of su­pe­ri­or­ity. They may have wob­bled a bit dur­ing the Rugby Cham­pi­onship but they still won it by a clear 10 points. They in­tend to beat Eng­land and us and, un­for­tu­nately, I think they will ac­com­plish both. Eng­land are tee­ter­ing on the brink and may not be able to pull out a per­for­mance. Ire­land can raise their game to the re­quired level but it might not be enough.

The All Blacks’ team pretty much picks it­self from 1 to 8, given one or two in­juries. The halves are cast in stone, and even the mid­field is tak­ing shape. Just a lit­tle bit of tweak­ing at the back and New Zealand will have a team that will win a third straight World Cup in Ja­pan.

Damian McKenzie is be­ing given the chance to nail down the full­back berth. The risk/re­ward is just too much for Steve Hansen. McKenzie is tiny, he is 5’ 9” and weighs un­der 13 stone. You just can’t pick a fella that small to play full­back at Test level — or can you?

New Zealand have been se­lect­ing him reg­u­larly but not with ab­so­lute cer­tainty. He starred in the se­ries de­mo­li­tion of France dur­ing the sum­mer but only came off the bench in the Rugby Cham­pi­onship, with Hansen pre­fer­ring to look at Ben Smith and Jordie Bar­rett, Beau­den Bar­rett’s younger brother, who at 6’ 5” and 16-and-a-half stone is a solid player but doesn’t have the zing of his play­mak­ing brother at pivot and his goal-kick­ing is not that much bet­ter to guar­an­tee him a shot at full­back. You have to jus­tify your se­lec­tion.

McKenzie is a goal-kick­ing back­stop in case Beau­den Bar­rett has an­other kick­ing melt­down, which amaz­ingly is still prob­a­ble at any mo­ment. McKenzie’s goal-kick­ing is unique in world rugby in that he smiles broadly, and al­most laughs in the lead-up to his kicks. Grumpy could take a leaf out of his book!

In our own quirky Ir­ish con­ven­tional logic we would al­ways pre­dict dire con­se­quences for any team that brought a 5’ 9” full­back to, say, Thomond Park for a big game. Horses for cour­ses, the prophets would say. I love that term. You bring a lit­tle guy like that to Thomond and they would pep­per him. You would want to make sure you bring you’re ‘A’ game if you are kick­ing to him.

McKenzie, just like our friend Du­plan­tis, seems to sail high into the air. When he is in the air you can’t touch him. He seems to stay in a state of sus­pen­sion for a long time. McKenzie is the best catcher of the ball in New Zealand and is one of the surest tack­lers. I am sure he will play at the back for the Eng­land and Ire­land games. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see how Ed­die and Joe try and make some profit out of him, dis­cour­age him a bit.

One of the rea­sons Hansen wants to in­cor­po­rate him into his back line is sim­ple. McKenzie is re­plete as a foot­baller, but the at­trac­tion is his bro­ken-field run­ning. He is ab­so­lutely elec­tric. His link play and his lines are phe­nom­e­nal. He is not a step­per but rather ghosts through traf­fic. Hansen, it seems, has gone for this rather than say the brutish power of Fi­jian Waisake Na­holo.

It could change dur­ing the tour or next sea­son, but New Zealand’s back three of Ben Smith, McKenzie and Rieko Ioane are in­di­vid­u­ally and as a three­some the most dan­ger­ous in the world. I would be up­set if in my post-match anal­y­sis of Ire­land ver­sus New Zealand I had to make men­tion of Ire­land fall­ing off tack­les on any of these three.

Ioane in par­tic­u­lar seems to score most of his tries with no one even close to him. The term may not ap­pear in the Ox­ford Con­cise Dic­tio­nary but I think it is im­por­tant that Ioane is ‘snot­ted’ early in the game. Not Sam Cane ‘snot­ted’ but le­gal ‘snot­ted’.

New Zealand have so many pow­er­ful of­fen­sive weapons be­hind it usu­ally takes a lit­tle bit of gam­bling, a lit­tle bit of best es­ti­mate to stop them. Op­po­nents have fig­ured out that you have to pres­sure Beau­den Bar­rett but his mere pres­ence holds the de­fen­sive line and if you have some­one as quick as McKenzie com­ing fast out­side the out­side cen­tre, some­times the col­lie can’t mar­shal all of the sheep.

The small fella is go­ing to cause trou­ble.

The big fel­las, well that is an­other prob­lem. Mas­tery of the fun­da­men­tals is the rea­son the Ki­wis are so good, even the bor­ing ones.

The All Blacks’ scrum su­pe­ri­or­ity really only sank in when, in the fifth round of matches in the Rugby Cham­pi­onship in Buenos Aires, the Ki­wis con­sis­tently made shite of a pow­er­ful Ar­gentina scrum. This was a scrum coached by Mario Ledesma and cap­tained by pow­er­house scrum­mager Agustin Creevy. No­body does that to Ar­gentina in Buenos Aires.

Ire­land will find out next Satur­day that the Ar­gen­tines are never pushovers in this area. The All Blacks pul­verised the Pu­mas at will and by the time the match was fin­ish­ing they were do­ing it for fun.

Nearly half of New Zealand’s 33 tries in the Rugby Cham­pi­onship were off scrum ball, and rock-solid scrum ball. The Ki­wis are not proud ei­ther and quite a num­ber of times they used their scrum to man­u­fac­ture scrum penal­ties to build leads in matches.

Kieran Read is a mas­ter at the base and scored a sucker-punch try against Aus­tralia in Ja­pan from a rock-solid five-me­tre scrum. A mea­sured feed by TJ Per­e­nara, a chipped strike by Codie Tay­lor into Read’s hands and an im­me­di­ate break against the put-in side and he went over.

No­body has trou­bled the Ki­wis at scrum time. They have done dam­age to South Africa, Aus­tralia and Ar­gentina in the Rugby Cham­pi­onship. They milled the French dur­ing the sum­mer and they will go af­ter the English scrum.

If Ire­land are se­ri­ous about beat­ing them, Greg Feek will have to pull the scrum per­for­mance of the cen­tury out of the hat. Mike Cron, the New Zealand scrum coach, is an in­no­va­tor and his ideas and in­spi­ra­tions in this vi­tal area con­stantly evolve. His bench front-row seem to be bet­ter scrum­magers than his starters but the All Blacks have a bedrock, an area of cer­tainty that they know they can at­tack from.

Even if there are only 16 scrums in the game, it is im­por­tant that New Zealand don’t get clean ball from any of them. New Zealand scored a trick play off scrum ball against South Africa, re­vers­ing the di­rec­tion and get­ting Ioane over in the cor­ner. It worked be­cause of a solid steel foun­da­tion of a scrum in mid­field. The Spring­boks did not dare break early be­cause they had al­ready been caught twice in the game get­ting their back-row away: the ball was held at the back and the Ki­wis took them for a walk and a penalty. Funny too, the Spring­bok pack is much big­ger and heav­ier than the All Blacks one.

Ire­land will re­mem­ber that Beau­den Bar­rett scored a try in the 2016 game in the Aviva. A rock-solid scrum and a straight line and pure gas did the rest. Give them un­trou­bled ball in this area and the game is over.

If Ire­land are se­ri­ous then that is the first point of at­tack; if they don’t go af­ter them here, the lit­tle fel­las will be run­ning riot.

He smiles and al­most laughs in the lead up to his kicks

Damian McKenzie of the All Blacks: ‘You just can’t pick a fella that small to play full­back at Test level — or can you?’

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