Tuesday 19 September 2017

Alan Quinlan: A day will come when Ireland will beat the All-Blacks - but it won't be today

Beauden Barrett had the unenviable task of stepping into Dan Carter’s shoes but has proven himself a wonderful footballer. Photo: Getty
Beauden Barrett had the unenviable task of stepping into Dan Carter’s shoes but has proven himself a wonderful footballer. Photo: Getty

Alan Quinlan

It seems fitting that in a week when one team has ended a century-old curse, another should arrive in their city, hoping to do the same thing.

While it's unlikely that many of this Ireland squad will have become baseball aficionados over the course of a week in Chicago, they'll be aware of what has been happening on their doorstep.

The Cubs, without a World Series win in 108 years, were paraded through Chicago's streets yesterday, the kind of homecoming every sportsman dreams of, but few get the chance to experience.

And watching all this, from their multi-storey hotel in the city centre, was another group of players, albeit those from a different sport.

"There are similarities between 1908 and 1905 (when Ireland played the All Blacks for the first time)," Joe Schmidt said on Thursday. "But I'm not a superstitious person. I don't believe in omens."

He believes in this group of players, though, enough to have been able to resist the clamour for Ultan Dillane and Garry Ringrose's promotion, and to trust once again in the experience and hard-nosed presence of Donnacha Ryan in the second-row and Rob Kearney at full-back.

And I can understand where he is coming from with his team selection. The facts are that a significant minority of this squad didn't play in South Africa during the summer - Kearney being one of them, Simon Zebo and Johnny Sexton being two others.

So in addition to the shortened lead-in time to today's game, whereby Schmidt has had two mini-camps and a few training sessions to prepare his side, it's perfectly reasonable for him to show signs of caution by not starting Ringrose or moving Jared Payne to full-back.

Risky

Part of me, though, would love him to simply go for it, and see what can be learned from such a risky strategy. Schmidt knows that doing so could be costly, because if there is one team in the world capable of finding a weakness in their opponents, it is New Zealand.

This year they have been extraordinary, scoring 60 tries in 10 Tests, setting standards that will be remembered for years to come.

So using Payne and Robbie Henshaw in midfield - a tried and trusted partnership at this level - is a persuasive argument to make, as they are both physical guys who won't be daunted by the task, and will know you have to front up to the All Blacks.

In this respect, the size of Ireland's backline - Kearney, Zebo, Andrew Trimble, Payne, Henshaw, Sexton and Conor Murray - is telling.

Schmidt will have seen other teams freeze against the All Blacks, lose matches before a ball has been even kicked. With that backline, he knows he has men who'll scrap. And against New Zealand, that's something you always have to do.

*****

It is 2008 now. Croke Park. My last cap as an Ireland player. I'm standing in line, linking arms with my team-mates, staring across at this group of men, decked out in black, getting into position, ready to perform the Haka. All week, I was unbelievably nervous.

I thought about history, thought about what it would be like to be on the first Irish international team to beat the All Blacks. We had a good team - O'Gara, O'Driscoll, O'Connell - and we had run them close that year down in New Zealand, just as we had put it up to them in 2006 and '02. So the fact that this time we had them on home soil built our sense of anticipation.

Still, when it is New Zealand, there is always the fear they'll put a cricket score up against you. Hence my nerves, which disappeared strangely, when the Haka began.

Being out on field, linking arms with my team mates, was a great thing. An unbelievable experience. I had faced the Haka twice before but this time was different - because the longer it went on, the more fired up I became.

Inside, I was saying to myself - 'this is great, bring it on'. I stared at the facial expressions of the New Zealanders and the more pumped up they got, the angrier I became.

So while there is a debate to say the Haka gives New Zealand teams an unfair advantage, in that they have this chance to not only respect their culture but to also fire themselves up so close to kick off, it didn't intimidate me in the slightest, back in 2008.

And still we lost, which is why my advice to today's group of Irish players is not to worry about the Haka, but the quality of player New Zealand have.

Once these guys get into a rhythm, they tear teams apart. To stop New Zealand, you need to take the game to them, because on the rare occasions they lose, the opposing team has to bring a different level of performance to the party.

Over the course of the last 18 games, no-one has done that, even though there was an expectation that their standards would slip when they lost so many iconic figures in the aftermath of their World Cup triumph last year.

Instead they have handled the transition unbelievably well, particularly Beauden Barrett, who had the unenviable task of having to step into Dan Carter's shoes, but who has proven himself to be an absolutely wonderful footballer who runs like a centre, breaks the gainline, possesses a brilliant offloading game, and who has scored seven international tries this year alone, the same number Julian Savea and Ben Smith have scored, one less than Israel Dagg.

Those credentials are impressive, as are the fact they secured bonus-point wins in each of their six games in this year's Rugby Championship.

Everything - from their tactics to their mentality - impresses but the thing I admire most is that inherent ability to be in the right place at the right time.

They intuitively know how to keep the ball alive, how to find space, how to make really smart decisions. What's more, the best players in the world are sprinkled across their team. Dane Coles, by a country mile, is the game's outstanding hooker.

Aaron Smith, their scrum-half, may not be the biggest in stature yet he compensates for that by mastering the fundamentals of a No 9 to brilliant effect.

And here is the thing: all their forwards can pass like scrum-halves. The rare occasion when they don't have Smith, or whoever is wearing nine, at the base of a ruck, a second-row, even a prop, can deliver speedy ball away, ensuring the intensity of their performance never dips.

As a team the sharpness of their reaction to opportunities is incredible. Roughly one third of their 60 tries this year have come from turnover ball and when they make that adjustment into attack, it's clear they have routinely practised how to exploit those openings.

Can they be stopped? The answer is yes and it lies in the videotape of Ireland's performance against them at the Aviva in 2013, when Schmidt's side held onto the ball unbelievably well, played with simplicity but with a belief in the game-plan.

New Zealand, unusually for them, lost out at the breakdown.

That's the way Ireland have to play again today, but bringing that relentlessness when you haven't been playing games together will be hard. Too hard.

A day will come when Ireland will beat the All-Blacks. But it won't be today.

Irish Independent

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