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NO NEED TO PANIC!

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NO NEED TO PANIC!

NO NEED TO PANIC!

IRLvNZ_Nov2018_primary

FIRSTLY, well behaved everyone.

I was a digital guest on an Irish website show and they sounded almost disappointed New Zealand hadn’t gone into some sort of apocalyptic rage after losing the test in Dublin.

I suggested, with a laugh, that we reserved such outrage for early World Cup departures or farcical endings to Lions series, but there’s a feeling in Ireland that Kiwis have taken this one pretty well and given full credit. 

That’s good.

There’s also a feeling doing the rounds here in NZ, that there’s no cause for panic, that this isn’t the beginning of the end, that it was a timely boot up the backside, that things will be dealt with, it was the end of a long hard season and some of the players were running on fumes etc, etc.

All of the above might be true, but really, can this result be so easily dismissed?

The manner in which the All Blacks were out-thought and outplayed has left the staff with a growing things-to-do list, and New Zealand’s stranglehold on the World No.1 ranking under serious threat for the first time since 2009.

Not that the rankings really matter- it’s results that count, but another great run in the Six Nations will see Ireland shrink the gap at the top of the charts to a mere fraction, possibly even nudge them into first, and the connotations of the All Blacks not being top of the class are something New Zealand Rugby could do without.

But again, credit it where it’s due. Ireland thoroughly deserved the win.

They have also added to a few question marks hanging over the All Blacks.

One, suddenly and surprisingly, is over a traditional area of strength for New Zealand teams, the loose forwards.

It’s to be hoped that Kieran Read’s well below par game was due to the heavy knock he took early on, and that he can bounce back injury free and back to something like his best for next season. If not there is a bit of a void behind him, with Luke Whitelock capable but not as imposing, and Akira Ioane not developing his game as they had hoped by now, which could have been sensational.

Liam Squire is a powerful force, but the full blooded manner in which he plays the game means a low injury threshold, and the alternatives at blindside are all work in progress.  Scott Barrett is looking more and more the best option. 

Meanwhile the debate about what best to do at 10, 15, 22 is not going to go away, and there was enough in this game to fuel the argument that the All Blacks might be better served with Richie Mo’unga at 10 and Beauden Barrett at 15, not so much because Mo’unga was able to change the game this time, but because Barrett looked so much more of a threat operating out of the backfield.

The All Black selectors have been committed to Barrett starting at 10 with either McKenzie or Ben Smith at 15, but while it’s fine to have the courage of their convictions, this is the time to keep an open mind.

There is a growing sense that efforts the All Blacks have made to counter the suffocating rush defenses of Andy Farrell are not winning the battle, and that it might be time for a rejigging of resources.

There’s even talk of Ma’a Nonu coming back in at the age of 36 to give them some thrust, and who knows he might be able to force the issue with some strong performances for the Blues next year, but with Sonny Bill Williams no longer playing to his outer limits and Ryan Crotty contained by the Irish midfield, a big projectile like Nonu or Ngani Laumape might be an option.

The All Blacks did create enough chances to win the test, but for once their storied ability to turn the mere whiff of a chance into a try deserted them, with a succession of lapses in accuracy.

If the attack was a bit blunt then it is not unreasonable to blame some of it on end of year fatigue, but the lions share must again go with Ireland for their outstanding defensive setup and execution, as well as their heroic scrambling D.

The other big issue to be decided is Steve Hansen’s plan post RWC 2019.

If he wants to carry on, then it is hard to imagine NZR saying “thanks, but no thanks”.

For starters his record has been incredible, both in terms of results and future proofing, but consider also that while Hansen may officially be an employee, in all reality he is part of the axis that controls New Zealand Rugby.

If he does decides to go, then Joe Schmidt will immediately become the popular choice to succeed him.

It’s hard to see how NZR can justify any process that does not involve the strongest consideration of Schmidt, so why is there a sneaking suspicion it’s not going to happen?

We presume Schmidt wants the job, that he’s going to just up and drop everything he’s got in Ireland to come home for the All Black job. But he may not want it, and Ireland are unlikely to let him go without a big money fight. 

And of course New Zealand has its own pathway plotted out, and inconceivable as it may seem, they may already have other preferred options if and when Hansen goes.

It wasn’t just the Ireland team that emerged top of the tree after Sunday’s test. For the second time in three years, Joe Schmidt, with a strong hand by Farrell, came out on top of the coaching battle as well.

So the Ireland result has given New Zealand’s decision makers plenty of food for thought, and they are going to have to chew it carefully over the coming weeks.