Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Danger lurks for All Blacks in north

Ryan Crotty snatched a last-gasp try for the All Blacks to break Irish hearts at Lansdowne Road in 2013. Picture / Getty Images
Ryan Crotty snatched a last-gasp try for the All Blacks to break Irish hearts at Lansdowne Road in 2013. Picture / Getty Images

It's only natural to look at what rugby lies ahead for the All Blacks and conclude there isn't too much to fear.

The hard, or harder part of the season is behind them surely? Nothing could be tougher than the Rugby Championship where they play six tests in eight weeks against sides ranked three, four and nine and have to travel half-way around the world in the process.

If anyone was going to knock them over this year it would have been Australia or South Africa. So with those two safely negotiated, the All Blacks can feel a sense of relief?

Hardly. Not even close. The rugby that lies ahead will be tough - way tougher than it's ever given credit for and the All Blacks, despite appearances, are vulnerable.

Those who doubt that need only recall the last time the All Blacks played Ireland. It was the final game of 2013 - a year in which the All Blacks had been equally impressive, winning 10 in succession before heading to Japan, where they won easily and then posted two more victories against France and England.

They had the chance in Dublin to record the first perfect season of the professional age against an Irish side that was injury-ravaged and well beaten the week before by Australia.

Everything pointed to a comfortable New Zealand victory and yet they were 19-0 down after 20 minutes. The try that Ryan Crotty scored long after the final whistle to salvage the win will probably remain the greatest pressure score in the history of rugby.

But the bit to focus on ahead of two coming tests against Ireland is that the All Blacks had to pull off a miracle to win the last time they met. Ireland outplayed them for 74 minutes.

Where they really dominated was at the contact points. Ireland were brilliant at keeping the All Blacks' ball carriers off the ground.

What impressed was that the All Blacks knew exactly what was coming in that regard but couldn't stop it. Nor could they cope with the pace and energy of Ireland's attack and if Johnny Sexton had held his nerve to land an easy penalty with six minutes remaining, there would have been no escape for the All Blacks.

Three years have elapsed but Ireland are just as capable of causing all the same problems.

France, and to a lesser extent, Italy will do the same and it is this which makes the trip north so challenging.

All three opponents can scrum well, with different body positions, techniques and mind-sets.

At the tackled ball area, the All Blacks will have to adapt to different methods and no doubt, too, different interpretations from referees.

All of this means the All Blacks will inevitably battle to play the game at the tempo they want. They will have to find solutions to problems as they arise and all the time they will be facing a physical onslaught that will be more severe than any they have faced so far.

Whatever form and history says, the All Blacks will face a real and sustained threat over the next four weeks.

- NZ Herald

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Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer. He has written several books on rugby including the Reign of King Henry, Black Obsession and For the Love of the Game.

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