Saturday 10 December 2016

A glorious chance to take next step and really earn All Blacks' respect

Ireland must reject notion that Chicago victory was a one-off, and truly believe they can repeat the dose

Published 13/11/2016 | 02:30

New Zealand’s Aaron Cruden in action against Italy’s Andrea Lovotti yesterday Picture: Reuters
New Zealand’s Aaron Cruden in action against Italy’s Andrea Lovotti yesterday Picture: Reuters

Nothing better illustrated the perception of Ireland's win in Chicago last weekend than the modest shift in position by the bookies. More a case of lifting one cheek off the seat rather than actually moving to another spot, the odds have come in from 10/1 pre-Soldier Field to 7/1 for Saturday in the Aviva. "Tells us much," as a former colleague was fond of saying, with great gravity.

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Those kind of odds on a two-horse race suggest there will be daylight saving between them as they come over the finish line. The reasons for pitching it like this are straightforward: it's unthinkable that New Zealand, the brand leaders in world rugby, can lose two in a row to opponents who previously hadn't beaten them in well over a century of trying.

Fair enough, it's unlikely. Factor in that New Zealand's second-row pairing is likely to feature at least one of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. And that if they can combine a better return from the referee - they lost the penalty count 12-4, as well as conceding a yellow card - with a better return out of touch, then those two elements alone would iron out the wrinkle we got last weekend.

History of course is on their side as well. On previous occasions when Ireland got close enough to the All Blacks to make them uncomfortable, the reaction would be swift and brutal. In 2002 in Carisbrook, Ireland lost 15-6 in a Test they would have won if Ronan O'Gara hadn't had such a horrible night with the woeful creation that was the yellow Adidas ball. O'Gara's career would last a lot longer than the ball's.

We still remember waiting in the corridor for post-match quotes as Keith Wood was in the changing room telling his team-mates, in fairly colourful language, that the only way to earn the respect of their opponents was to beat them. Starting the next week in Auckland.

Keith Gleeson had been a feature in giving O'Gara the opportunities in the first place that night. The Leinster flanker had been outstanding at the breakdown, slowing or stealing ball. A week later in Eden Park he was rag-dolled. If we remembered Wood's speech then equally we recalled the state of Gleeson, dragging himself off the field, battered. The home team won 40-8.

Four years later in Hamilton, Ireland again were in touching distance in the first Test before the Eden Park effect in week two saw them going home lamenting chances created and chances missed.

It feels now, however, that the deal has changed since Wood was hollering about winning. And in this case it will require a second dose if Ireland are to register permanently in New Zealand minds.

In achieving this it's worth considering that the expectation in Chicago was that Ireland would have to hunker down and take some pain before standing up straight in Dublin, and giving it loads. Joe Schmidt exuded unease beforehand, fearing that he was short on preparation time with his team. He felt that the extra fortnight would see them further down the road in their systems and teamwork.

And that's as it should be. New Zealand are the touring team in this scenario, almost at the end of their Test season which kicked off in mid-June. Including their date in Rome yesterday that's been 12 Tests. Standard procedure is for the home team, who are starting their season, to get much better as the series goes on. So if that's how Schmidt was thinking before last week's game, then New Zealand's mindset on Saturday should have no bearing on that process.

He knows the Kiwis, though tired, will be wired into winning. The difference, though, is that they will be playing a team who have unloaded the baggage they've been schlepping around for so long.

So what we have here is in fact a glorious opportunity to take another step. By a distance the best feature of the Chicago Test was that Ireland went and won it. They didn't survive by hanging on. With 15 minutes left the lead had been whittled down to four points. Their body language suggested they would like to close the game down, but shutting that door so early is not doable on a variety of fronts.

So they had to keep it open and score themselves. The manner of that achievement is what separates the old Ireland from the new. It couldn't have happened in Keith Wood's time. The only problem is that moving on from that point means never going back. And if the former captain knew that the only was to get respect from the All Blacks was to beat them, then Rory Best must know that in this instance that means beating them twice. And that should be the starting point in Aviva on Saturday.

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