Tuesday 6 December 2016

Tony Ward explains just how Ireland can create another piece of history against the All Blacks

Pressure is on for Ireland to validate what was witnessed at Soldier Field

Published 19/11/2016 | 02:30

Ireland players, from left, Devin Toner, Robbie Henshaw and Donnacha Ryan celebrate victory after the International rugby match between Ireland and New Zealand at Soldier Field in Chicago, USA. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ireland players, from left, Devin Toner, Robbie Henshaw and Donnacha Ryan celebrate victory after the International rugby match between Ireland and New Zealand at Soldier Field in Chicago, USA. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Johnny Sexton will have to deliver another top-class performance today if Ireland are to make it back-to-back wins against the All Blacks Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Let me clear up a couple of myths. No matter what the outcome this evening what transpired at the Soldier Field in Chicago a fortnight ago can never be erased. The result, the score but more than anything the manner of the victory is indelibly etched in Irish sporting folklore.

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If you are of an age to remember, where were you when Ronnie Delany crossed the line in Melbourne in 1956 or when Ray Houghton hit the back of the English net in Stuttgart in 1988 or now most relevantly for rugby when Robbie Henshaw planted the ball for that match sealing, history creating try in Chicago in 2016.

The memory I will cherish most from my presence in the magnificently appointed Chicago Bears' ground was in the immediate aftermath and specifically the humility, the dignity the magnanimity of the All Black supporters (of which there were many), of the Kiwi players and management and of the New Zealand media in general.

Of course their take could have been condescending and patronising in the extreme. It was after all a mere 'friendly' when put in the context of a World Cup.

But for any one remotely associated with the game at the highest level, and for those of us so fortunate to have played at that level, Union doesn't do 'friendly' rugby.

Every game you play at test level is your proverbial world cup eliminator.

So while the New Zealand replacements and fringe players were doing the mandatory post-match work out, Ireland at the same time were on a lap of gratitude, as distinct from honour for this long over due success it was suggested to me in the moment the motivation for revenge being right before our eyes. Us gloating in 'friendly' victory them licking their wounds with minds already transfixed on Rome and Dublin.

Let me clear that one up rapidly. The Irish response by way of rounding the pitch was a clear and unambiguous statement as to how people in this country, those present on the day in the ground and our diaspora from just about everywhere feel about the greatest rugby nation on this planet bar none.

Secondly and perhaps even more relevant is the myth being pedalled in some quarters that somehow the heat is now off the team in green, that Godzilla has been shaken off our back and that we take the field in Dublin today pressure free.

Get a grip. There is every bit as much pressure on Ireland to validate what was witnessed in Chicago as there is on the back-to-back world champions making good that loss.

When a New Zealand camp lets loose the words ''nervous edge to training'' you know what's coming in terms of performance. And invariably when an All Black team performs to its expected level it wins. Therein lies the biggest challenge of all in a few hours time.

For whatever reason - the absence of three first choice locks, Chicago comforts in the build up, the baggage of history on a team uncharacteristically lacking clear and obvious leaders outside of Kieran Read on the day - they were out of sorts and we by way of a near perfect tactical performance capitalised to the full.

To a man we worked our socks off, manufactured our luck and most significantly of all came back into the fight when it seemed (Ryan Crotty like) to be drifting away.

If ever there was a call to arms in the final phase it relates to Crotty's try at the death in 2013. That for Joe Schmidt was the biggest plus of all in everything that was achieved in Chicago.

The challenge now is in repeating that level of performance on our own patch before our own committed faithful. Was the Soldier Field a one off or are we now ready to challenge the very best wherever whenever? No more than any one out there do I have the definitive answer but today's rematch given the unique context will provide a very real marker either way going forward.

Back in the day the second row was known as the engine room. At the Soldier Field the All Blacks lined out minus that engine room plus its main replacement part in Luke Romano. And while the Jerome Kaino experiment backfired the biggest and perhaps only positive from Chicago emerged in the guise of try scoring debutant Scott Barrett. Barrett the younger will fill that replacement lock role again today.

Mention too of Barrett the elder and as a big fan of World Rugby's most deserving Player of the Year I was very disappointed with the Bucaneers mini academy graduate a fortnight ago. Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton lorded it over Beauden and Aaron Smith albeit on the back of bountiful possession out of touch.

You reap what you sow and in blasting the touch line to excess we did.

Expect a much more varied tactical approach today with the New Zealand set piece, scrum and more particularly line out, in a different place entirely. I would imagine a greater emphasis on the scrum if a little less on the line-out although with 6'11'' Devin Toner to sling in the air, Rory Best will be anything but idle. That said Dane Coles owes Steve Hansen a big one. Like Beauden Barrett (inset)( the supercharged Coles was 'as láthair' in Chicago.

As ever it's all about the mix and Ireland 2016 is in a very different attacking state to Ireland 2015 and the England World Cup.

I expect there to be an element of box kicking and while I get that it is essential there be no return to the caveman tactics from not all that long ago.

We are much better than that and a slavish return to Murray box kicking with Andrew Trimble and Simon Zebo chasing amounts to a white flag of sorts.

Rob Kearney is the key piece to the kick and chase jigsaw. In Chicago his re-gathering of ball to which he had no right bordered on heroic.

I expect to see Sexton pull out many different clubs today and therein lies the key. He was the master craftsman and string puller supreme at the Soldier Field, it will require more of the same today and we haven't even mentioned the breakdown.

The Sean O'Brien role needs little elaboration. It's a tough call Josh van der Flier but even our more fluid breakaway gets the Chicago link with Jordi Murphy. With respect to another awesome New Zealand backrow embracing Liam Squire and Sam Cane either side of Kieran Read the Irish unit makes for a combination potentially every bit as good and given the tight five platform even better again.

O'Brien, CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip will give as good as they get this evening take that as read.

It has all the makings of another corker but on the basis that the best team in the world is back close to full strength, particularly in the boiler house, I'm taking Ireland to bring it down to the wire but the All Blacks to make good the loss from two weeks ago. New Zealand by 10.

Irish Independent

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