Expert Witness: Geordan Murphy on November Tests

Date published: November 9 2016

With the first round of the November Tests complete, Geordan Murphy joins us to examine an historic day for his native Ireland, and to look ahead at the challenges of the coming weekend.

Making History

The statistics from the Ireland win over New Zealand make some reading. Ireland’s first win ever versus the All Blacks after 28 attempts, New Zealand’s first loss in 18 matches as world champions, the first Test between the nations in the USA and so on.

A delighted Murphy believes that the win was well deserved and built upon the foundation of Ireland’s narrow loss in 2013.

“There’s some wins you can look back on and say you were lucky; there’s others you can examine and realise you were absolutely the better side on the day and remarkably, that’s what Ireland were,” stated Murphy.

“Shane Byrne highlighted two things in this column last week; the lessons learned from the heartbreak of 2013 and, specifically, the need to play past the 80 minute mark. Ireland played right down to that final moment and not once did they let their foot of the gas.

 “This was a win built upon quiet composure, huge physicality, fantastic commitment, but above all, astute tactics from the coach, Joe Schmidt.

“He discussed in the lead up that he believed the All Blacks were the complete side, but if there was a glimpse of a weakness, their mauling power and upper body strength might be the area to exploit.

“Ireland took that on board and executed some really telling power mauls, with the sublime Conor Murray able to switch the attack and move the point of contact almost at will. The space created by the driving maul allowed the likes of Robbie Henshaw and company a little more room in midfield, and crucially also allowed both flankers to use to short side to devastating effect.

“Couple that with the pinpoint aerial bombardment from Johnny Sexton (and Rob Kearney and Simon Zebo’s kick chases) and those were the areas that Ireland really leveraged to their benefit.

“When you unpack the game, I have to agree that losing Joe Moody was a blow for the All Blacks, but sides expect to have 14 men for periods in Tests and they train for it.

"New Zealand won’t blame that but they’ll be more worried about how their back five in the scrum performed, how Ireland’s blitz defence agitated their handling and how Conor Murray opened up the narrow side time and time again.

What of Conor Murray? Before this game many believed he was behind Aaron Smith and an in-form TJ Perenara in the world pecking order but his Man of the Match display was surely compelling?

“Absolutely, it was a hell of a statement!” admired Murphy.

“It was, in context, one of the greatest individual Test match displays of recent times. It was the complete performance; everything he touched turned to gold, from clearance kicks to dummies to snipes down the narrow side.

“I’m a huge fan of both TJ and Aaron. Both have incredible passes, Smith’s is lightning and anything Perenara lacks in comparative passing speed is offset by his breaks and his pace. But Conor owned both of them. It was truly a most remarkable display from the Munster scrum half and one I know he suitably dedicated to his mentor, coach and friend, the late Anthony Foley.

“It was a seminal individual and team performance and I am as proud as punch of the guys right now and I know that if he was looking down, ‘Axel’ would be beaming from ear to ear,” smiled Murphy.

Welsh Leaks

In Cardiff, a lacklustre Wales, shorn of a number of key individuals, capitulated to an impressive Australia, lead by an in-form Bernard Foley, taking the Wallaby winning streak against the Principality to eight straight victories.

What was more worrying for Wales is their leaky defence, something that’s plagued them in recent times.

“I think in the last six Tests, Wales have conceded 24 tries which is close on obscene!”

“You won’t win many test with stats like that and if you then couple that with a real lack of carrying and penetration in the back row and midfield, you’ll see Wales only have real two issues; attack and defence!” quipped Murphy.

“What really struck me is how narrow Wales are getting in defence. They’re using their power men to make the initial hit and contact, often Jamie Roberts blitzing out and maybe double teaming in the tackle, but as they compete, they’re not recycling themselves over to the wide channel, something that is essential in a push defence, and the push from Dan Biggar and Roberts is creating a big hole behind them.

“There appears to be miscommunication in their defensive patterns, especially in that inside channel and I believe that personnel changes, both onfield and offfield, means they’ve a very mixed message on their roles in defence.

“The other concern must be the lack of ball carrying. I don’t think Wales made 300 metres between them in the match and that’s simply not good enough. Elite coaches work on 600 to win a test and Wales are well below par.

“It’s almost inexplicable, but my only assumption is the number of changes that have taken place, both on pitch and off pitch, has caused a breakdown in the systems they employ,” concluded the former Ireland full-back.

Fabulous Foley

“Of course, it’s all very well roasting Wales for their mistakes but the opposition still need to exploit those errors and you have to admire the precision with which Bernard Foley orchestrated his team. He was superb and showed every variety you’d expect from a world-class outside half.

“He used the short side to great effect and also the power of Tevita Kuridrani and the pace of Israel Folau time and time again to blast holes and commit defenders.

“Wales lost virtually every battle on the field; the back row, the lineout and scrum were woeful and frankly, they were absolutely out-thought in every aspect. Australia were streetwise and showed a massive work-rate,” said Murphy.

“A year ago, you’d say it’s unusual for Wales to perform like this but it’s now becoming endemic. They need to batten down the hatches otherwise the match against Argentina could see further embarrassment in the forthcoming Tests.”

The Week Ahead

With Argentina overcoming an always competitive Japan, the Test fixtures this weekend see the South Americans in Cardiff, the South Africans in Twickenham, the All Blacks looking to right their ship against Conor O’Shea’s Italy, Australia travelling to Murrayfield and Ireland hosting Canada.

Murphy believes it will go pretty much to script but is relishing Ireland’s homecoming:

“Yes, the lads will get a hero’s welcome at the Aviva where I expect Joe Schmidt to give some new faces a chance. I’m particularly keen to see how Garry Ringrose will go as I still see him as the creative heir to Brian O’Driscoll’s outside centre role,” he noted.

“England are on a roll and despite their long injury list I still expect them to take South Africa.

“A lot has been made of the dearth of English opensides available for this match, together with losing some key contributors like George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson.

“This is concerning and to maintain experience levels, I believe it’s Eddie Jones’ intention to recall Tom Wood at seven.

“I can see this working as a short-term measure against South Africa, who have a world class lineout and undoubted physicality, both hallmarks of Wood’s game. But looking forward the answers may be elsewhere and I also am relishing Nathan Hughes and Billy Vunipola’s carrying in the same side, whatever shirt numbers they wear.

“As noted before, I really fear for Wales against a rejuvenated and talented Argentina. It’s a great match-up.

Los Pumas are playing with incredible tempo and creativity in the last two seasons. They scored tries versus the All Blacks and if Wales’ defensive issues continue, the Argentinian power is ideal to exploit the issues we highlighted previously.

“This is a tough one to call, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion Wales are not mentally right at the moment and the Pumas are very much up for this Test and will sneak it,” predicted Murphy.

“New Zealand will overcome Italy, but they need to put a marker down and also sort out the selection of the back five in the pack. By saying that, Conor O’Shea, my old friend, is a keen rugby intellect and the one thing Italy are not short of is close quarter power.

“I suspect this will a question of Italy staying in touch for 30 minutes and then that may create confidence. O’Shea will expect something special from his charges in his first test in charge and I can see this perhaps being a little closer than some may think.

“Lastly, Scotland versus Australia; well we won’t forget the RWC quarter final for a long time, but the Wallabies come into this with a compelling victory versus Wales and Scotland’s pack are shorn of the cornerstone that is WP Nel. I can’t see the Scots repeating their performance of 2015 but it’ll be an open, entertaining game by two sides that love running the ball,” explained Murphy.

“I’ll take Australia by ten in a free-flowing match.”

That’s it for another installment of Expert Witness. We thank Geordan once again for his time and we will return next week with another former star of the game to examine a packed weekend of Test Rugby.

Geordan Murphy played 74 times for Ireland and twice for the British and Irish Lions. He is now Backs and Skills Coach at Leicester Tigers, a club he represented with distinction for 10 years.

Geordan was speaking to James While