Gregor Paul in Lyon
The label on the All Blacks’ quarter-final opponents says Ireland, but it would be more accurate – particularly under European Union rules that can be pernickety about the provenance of consumer goods – if it said “assembled and finished in Ireland”.
A decent chunk of Ireland’s preferred starting team for the looming quarter-final were developed in the Southern Hemisphere; three of them – Bundee Aki, James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park – in New Zealand, and Mack Hansen in Australia.
Without the influence of these players, Ireland probably wouldn’t be sitting on a 17-match unbeaten run and flying high as the number one team in the world.
Aki, who grew up in South Auckland and who won Super Rugby in 2013 with the Chiefs, is on track to be World Player of the Year.
He’s been sensational in France, bringing raw power on both sides of the ball, astute decision-making and neat handling.
How much more dangerous Ireland have become as an attacking team coincided with their decision to start tests with Gibson-Park ahead of the more box-kick driven and muscular Conor Murray.
Gibson-Park has upped the tempo at which Ireland can play and the presence of Lowe on the left wing has given them a sharp finisher, a booming left boot and a surprisingly good breakdown exponent.
Inevitably, given the presence in the Irish backline of three men who came through the New Zealand development system and played Super Rugby before shifting to Ireland, questions have to be asked about whether the former failed to see what was sitting under their noses or whether the latter is supremely good at digging out coal and polishing it into diamonds.
And maybe not surprisingly, there has been a bit of both at play. Aki had just turned 24 and was midway through his second season with the Chiefs when he signed for Irish province Connacht.
The deal didn’t have a catch as such, but it was made clear to him by the Irish Rugby Union that at the end of his three-year contract, he’d be eligible for the national side and of interest.
It was a smart bit of talent identification and long-term planning by the Irish as they knew that the long-serving Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy were on the cusp of retirement and that they needed to develop a broader pool of physically-robust, international-quality midfielders.
New Zealand’s position wasn’t dissimilar in that their long-serving midfielders, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, were going to finish up in 2015, but at the time Aki signed with Connacht, the national focus was on developing Sonny Bill Williams (who was going to return from the NRL later that year), Malakai Fekitoa and Ryan Crotty as their likely replacements.
Given how brilliantly Aki is playing, for New Zealand not to have had him on the national radar in 2014 seems like a mistake, but there are two mitigating circumstances to consider: he wasn’t then the player he is now, and Connacht offered him the sort of money New Zealand Rugby (NZR) couldn’t get anywhere near matching.
If his presence in the Irish midfield on Sunday as one of the best players in the world has anything to teach New Zealand, it is that their contracting model, which weights the most money towards the most senior players, needs to be reconfigured to some degree so there is the ability to occasionally throw additional money at a promising youngster such as Aki to see if that will keep them out of the clutches of a foreign predator.
Perhaps if he had been offered another $100,000 on his contract in 2014, he would have stayed, and that investment would seem like the bargain of the century if it had led to Aki and Jordie Barrett being in the All Blacks midfield this weekend, rather than the two opposing each other.
And this highlights another issue, which is that New Zealand needs its high-performance unit to have greater autonomy from the All Blacks, as the current system gives all the power around contracting to the incumbent national coaching team.
It’s not that the All Blacks regime of 2014 made a mistake, but all coaching groups have preferences built around the specific needs of their team at that time.
Someone needs to be empowered to take the longer-term view and back a young player like Aki with additional cash and sell them a vision in the way the Irish did.
But so too does it have to be acknowledged that the presence of Aki, Lowe and Gibson-Park as key pillars in such a strong team is testament to Ireland’s ability to turn good players into great players.
Lowe didn’t defend with the accuracy and aggression he does now. He didn’t win turnovers with such regularity either, and where New Zealand saw weaknesses in his game and passed on him, Ireland saw potential and worked with him.
Ireland’s ability to turn Gibson-Park into a world-class halfback is yet more impressive, as he was a player who didn’t make much impression in New Zealand after a few seasons with the Blues and one with the Hurricanes.
Few would disagree that the Irish have worked some magic with Gibson-Park and that while their development approach of picking up players from around the world may be predatory, it is also hugely effective.
All Blacks v Ireland
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Gregor Paul is one of New Zealand’s most respected rugby writers and columnists. He has won multiple awards for journalism and has written several books about sport.