Luke Fitzgerald Exclusive: Ireland never looked they could beat New Zealand, Joe Schmidt delivered a ‘gut-punch’ and masterminded Ireland’s downfall, South Africa will bludgeon England into submission

October 17, 2023
10 Minute Read

Speaking with Lucky Block Sports Book Luke Fitzgerald explains why Irelands defeat will not scar Irish rugby.

How did Ireland manage to lose that game against New Zealand?

LF: “It’s so disappointing for the guys, there was no lack of effort, but there were a few obvious errors. I think the line-out was an issue at times on Saturday night and the scrum as well.

“I don’t think it was as strong as it has been recently and I really enjoyed Alex Corbisiero’s breakdown of it all on Twitter, where they re-applied pressure to the Irish front row after the initial squeeze.

“It looked like Ireland had them rattled at times, but when you break it down and you examine Andrew Porter’s elbow position and all of that stuff. I mean, we are picking at the weeds here and getting a bit pedantic, but it is the fine margins that matter against the All Blacks.

“The referee saw that New Zealand had an advantage there, but I think the key area there was the ruck. I just don’t remember a game, even against a brilliant team like South Africa, where Ireland had so few defensive turnovers in a game. Ireland have always seemed to have brilliant guys on the ground and the ability to turn over the ball when their backs are against the wall.

“There were two or three times in the game, at maximum, where Ireland got a turnover to relieve any sort of pressure. It is usually a real strength for them, but New Zealand’s attacking rucking was brilliant and it gave them such a platform to attack Ireland. They gave Ireland so few opportunities, really aggressive in their play as well. That was where the game was won and lost for me, the set-pieces and the aerial game from New Zealand was some of the best I have seen them play for a long time as well.

“Normally, Ireland dominate that area as well, so they were all key moments in the game. Ireland still probably should have won the game. I don’t know how they missed that opportunity at the end and then being held up at the line in such a good position. It was a heroic performance from Ireland and I think everyone at home will be so proud of the performance, but I still feel as though they should have won it.”

How will Johnny Sexton be feeling after the game?

LF: “There will certainly be a changing of the guard. Johnny can be proud of a brilliant career, it was a privilege to play alongside him as well. He was a brilliant guy off the pitch as well; very humble and a brilliant player as well, his decision-making is probably what kept him ahead of everyone else in the game.

“He is so good in that area and to have played 80 minutes of that game on Saturday was just incredible, he is a real warrior and testament to him for being able to do that and we are really proud of him. He can now go onto the next part of his career, wherever that may be and he can hold his head up high.

“It’s a sad way to go out, but when he looks back on his body of work and reflects on everything that he achieved in his career, I think he can look back on a lot of pride.”

Will this leave a scar on Irish rugby given how heavily they were backed to win?

LF: “I don’t think it will leave too much of a scar for Irish rugby, these were always going to be tough games for them and their route to the final was littered with world class teams.

“Not to cop out or anything like that, even pre-tournament we said that as long as they put out a performance which suggests they reach their potential, the effort expended is something they can be proud of.

“I still don’t think they reached their fullest potential in this tournament, but essentially their tournament came down to one moment where they got held up over the line.

“They came up against a New Zealand team who, although I think they are ultimately better than, they just performed brilliantly on the night and to the maximum of their capabilities. I don’t think there will be scars and the group will be able to move on.

“They have some excellent young players coming through and I really like the look of Crowley and Byrne as well as deputies for that No.10 shirt, there is a lot of quality in the set-up.

“To my mind, they have taken away key learnings that they can impart onto the next generation of young, key guys who can drive this team forward. Someone has to step into Sexton’s shoes, but they have the youngsters who can come through and develop with enough game time.

“I’m excited for the future and hopeful that Andy Farrell stays on for another cycle and can develop this team into something special for Australia in 2027.”

Have Leinster’s struggles impacted on the Irish team?

LF: “Where we have seen Leinster come unstuck recently in European competitions as well is when they face up against a big pack and I think they lost their head a bit against La Rochelle.

“Interestingly enough, James Ryan was the key guy for me – when he went off in the final against La Rochelle in the final, the game completely flipped on its head. I thought Leinster might have expended too much energy in that game, but not having him on the wing again for Ireland in this game against New Zealand I actually think was key.

“The work rate he gets through, his tackling and his underrated rucking is just so key for Ireland and he was a big loss for Ireland. I think some of the set-piece work was weak and haunted Leinster, and I felt as though it haunted Ireland as well in France.

“In key games, that has to be rock solid and I think if you look at Leinster, they came a bit unstuck La Rochelle and Saracens. There is certainly a development in the game plan when you look at how good Ireland and Leinster in set plays. But they are bloody difficult to contain and to hang onto the ball in those key moments.

“Both teams are incredibly fit and pass the ball really well, which New Zealand found really difficult to contain, but maybe it is just the finer margins they need to tighten up on and focus on the basic elements as well.”

James Ryan

How do Ireland recover from this defeat, what are the next steps?

LF: “Once you have an issue, and Ireland had a few of those in the warm-up games, it kind of highlights the issues to other teams – especially when you are Number One in the world and people are trying to work out different ways to stop and contain you.

“If you give those teams a slight in, they are going to completely focus on that one area to just try and get a foothold in the game. Other teams may have worked out that Ireland’s lineout was so good, so they focused on the ruck. If you have a rough start, everyone is watching and highlighting your weaknesses.

“Even Scotland and South Africa were able to contain Ireland in those areas, Ireland had to go very safe against Scotland in the lineout so it is something to think about, a key learning to take away from the World Cup.

“This team has a lot of brainpower, they are very clever in working out how to take teams apart tactically and they are very good at managing the referee. They can keep cool heads when they get under pressure, take those final stages against New Zealand when they kept the ball so well.

“But is there a need to go back to basics to focus on areas they previously thought were strong points? I’m very interested to see the feedback from the Union when they do their review process and see what comes out of it. It would be really useful to get someone like Johnny Sexton to do a real deep dive into what he thinks went wrong as he is moving onto something new, we think.

“He would have very valuable insights into what went wrong, but even as captain he would give an unvarnished look as he knows he is moving on and away from rugby.”

Did you ever feel like Ireland would come back and win the game with all those phases?

LF: “I felt it was unlikely Ireland would win that game; I had that feeling of dread, I felt it was quite simple for New Zealand to defend against what we were doing. Ireland needed a try, that was a big problem. Ian Foster looked fairly animated in his box, but he seemed relatively calm and I think he knew they would come through the 30-plus phases.

“They defended well, they had great experience and physicality coming off the bench as well which really made a difference too. The closer they got to the line, New Zealand knew they had to carry through them and couldn’t kick or try something different even.

“They picked and chose which rucks to attack, they kept 15 men on the line and I thought they did it brilliantly. I thought they did it brilliantly all game as well, Ireland perhaps over-committed to certain phases as well.”

How significant was Joe Schmidt in plotting Ireland’s downfall?

LF: “Joe Schmidt definitely played a part, the lineout try being a key factor in that. It was awful defending by Ireland, but Schmidt always spoke about ‘attacking the seams’. What he means by that is where gaps appear between forwards and backs, there is a decision to be made there and getting the timing wrong creates indecision and teams can come through.

“I was amazed that wasn’t a real key part of Ireland’s preparation for the week in training where they just focused on deception. I was so surprised to see Ireland not prepare to face that from a Joe Schmidt team, who try and go through that area because he always looks to try and expose those weaknesses.

“Around the ruck and around set-plays, never let a Joe Schmidt team go inside you there. They are always going to try and find gainlines and extra metres there as well. That was a gut-wrencher and a gut punch and I think Joe Schmidt always focuses on the ruck – he used to call it the heartbeat of the game.

“Their attacking ruck to me was outstanding, they didn’t give Ireland a sniff and most teams cannot keep Ireland away from there. The loose forwards always get loose balls, their such pests around the breakdown, but New Zealand never let them slow the ball down – they were so accurate.

“It looked to me like they tried to target Ireland aerially as well, which is a good thing to do because attacking a strength can be disheartening for a tea, The ruck, the set-plays around the seam and the high balls proved to be the downfall of Ireland – the hallmarks of a Schmidt team.”

How will the other semi-finalists – England and South Africa – fare on Saturday night?

LF: “I think there was a real disparity in quality between the quarter-final teams. Fiji vs England and Wales vs Argentina really highlighted the differences between the rest of the world.

“You can only play what is in front of you, I think England are by no means a vintage English team, but they have done some things really well. There was some evidence of better attacking rugby, Farrell showed good leadership and decision-making. But when they play South Africa, I just feel as though they will get blown away. The English pack won’t be able to contain them, particularly what comes off the bench.

“I’m not sure if Rassie Erasmus is as smart as everyone says he is. There is some fairly erratic decision-making, but he is operating with the best resources. It is just very hard to contain South Africa; Cheslin Kolbe looks like he is back playing to his best, if they can keep eight forwards on the pitch for the game, they are a nightmare to play against.

“France were the only team who had the power to compete with them physically and I thought they actually struggled. They looked like they missed some key players, Dupont was brilliant but didn’t look like himself either. He was still minding his face and not diving around as perhaps as he usually does.

“It probably wasn’t as accurate as we normally expect, but the power difference was monumental and so difficult to contain when going forward. I can’t see England living with the pace out wide or the power of the pack over 80 minutes. They will bludgeon them into submission.”

Tom Middleton

Tom is a crypto gambling expert with more than a decade of experience in the industry and Master’s Degree in Journalism. He has written thoroughly researched guides and reviews for several major publications.

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