Thursday 27 July 2017

Alan Quinlan: A victory today and Ireland will send a message to rest of world

Ireland players, including captain Rory Best, centre, face the New Zealand 'Haka' ahead of the international rugby match between Ireland and New Zealand at Soldier Field in Chicago
Ireland players, including captain Rory Best, centre, face the New Zealand 'Haka' ahead of the international rugby match between Ireland and New Zealand at Soldier Field in Chicago
The return of Brodie Retallick will be a major boost to New Zealand from the team which lost to Ireland in Chicago Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Alan Quinlan

Remember how it used to be? Or have you blocked it out of your minds? That from January 1990 until August 1999, Ireland played 73 international Tests and won just 21 of them? That in eight out of nine seasons, our win/loss ratio was negative?

That we played the French ten times. And lost ten times?

That was the decade when we recorded nine defeats and a draw from ten meetings with the Scots and, predictably, when we posted 13 straight defeats from 13 meetings with the Tri-Nation heavyweights, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

And it took men like Keith Wood, Brian O'Driscoll, Ronan O'Gara and Paul O'Connell to change that, O'Driscoll leading the charge with a hat-trick in Paris, the first time we had won there since 1972.

A year later Woody scored a try to help us beat England for the first time in six years. O'Gara was the main man when we defeated the Aussies for the first time in 23 years on a rain-sodden day in 2002. And again, when we got the better of South Africa in 2004, the same year we won our first Triple Crown in 19 years.

A gap to 1948 was bridged when we won the Grand Slam in 2009. And along the way we came so close to taking the All Blacks' scalp. A game in Dunedin slipped away from us in 2002. Four years later we had them on the rack in both Hamilton and Auckland.

It just never happened - just as it didn't in Christchurch in 2012 or the Aviva in 2013. So even though there is no doubt in my mind that the seeds of the Chicago victory were sown in those far-away places, there was a certain sadness that great players from our past - Wood, O'Driscoll et al - never got the chance to beat the All Blacks.

Yet the first thing they would say now to this generation of Irish players is this: you did it once, now go and do it again.

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New Zealand’s set-piece will improve with Sam Whitelock, pictured, back in the engine room (Photo by Steve Haag/Getty Images)

Can they? There is no doubt in my mind that it will be tougher today than it was in Chicago, mainly because of the returning second-row pairing of Sam Whitelock (pictured above) and Brodie Retallick, two supremely talented players who will disallow Ireland from enjoying the lineout dominance they experienced in Solider Field.

Bear in mind that Whitelock is only 28 but has already clocked up 82 caps for his country, while Retallick, a 25-year-old, has won 58 caps and was World Player of the Year in 2014. The point is this: it is not just quality but also experience returning in All Black shirts to test Ireland's resolve later this evening.

The reality is that Whitelock and Retallick will do what they can to disrupt the maul which functioned so effectively for us in Chicago. At lineout time, Rory Best's throws will be intensely contested. Be certain too that the New Zealanders will secure a lot more ball today than they did two weeks ago. More ball means more possession for them. More possession means more pressure on the Irish defence.

So Andy Farrell has a big day ahead of him at the Aviva. Since Chicago, he's had to look at the fact that Ireland conceded four tries - and has to figure out a plan to counteract the cutting edge that New Zealand have in attack.

Yet you sense that Farrell can handle the pressure. The question is can New Zealand? All year they have been tearing teams apart and it was only in Chicago, when the pressure came on, that people started referencing the fact that they were missing all those leaders who retired in the aftermath of last year's World Cup win: Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith and the rest.

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Kieran Read hopes New Zealand can put the the loss to Ireland in Chicago behind them

The Chicago Test was the first time in 2016 when the absence of Carter at the controls was noticeable. So too was the absence of composure that McCaw used to bring. People in New Zealand questioned Kieran Read's (pictured above) captaincy, queried the role of the coaching staff, the make-up of the team - all because they lost one game.

So the hope for Ireland is that if they can build a lead again today - then the pressure will be magnified and that there will be doubt in New Zealand minds. Can this game be won in the head as well as on the pitch?

The answer lies in those stats from the 1990s. Ireland had a number of really good players in that era - and had a number of close calls too. They should have beaten France a few times. They had Australia on the run in 1991 and nearly beat New Zealand a year later.

Yet in a number of close calls, they came out the wrong side.

Was there mental baggage to some of those defeats? We can't say for certain - yet there is no doubt in my mind that success breeds success, that when O'Driscoll scored a hat-trick against France in 2000, that winning against France in 2001 and 2003 became psychologically easier. So fast forward to today.

For the first time ever there will be no mention of us having never beaten New Zealand before. Key to the success in Chicago was the fact the players believed they could do it. Maybe they didn't have that self-assurance in 2013. Maybe they were in a little bit of shock when they were in the lead and staring at history. Maybe they are mentally stronger now than they were then.

These players didn't buy into the idea that a moral victory was enough in Soldier Field. They don't want those kind of victories to exist in Irish rugby anymore. They want to win. But there is every chance they won't.

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Billy Holland celebrates alongside the Ireland squad after last week’s victory over New Zealand. Photo: Sportsfile

The fact remains that New Zealand are an extraordinarily gifted team. A year ago they won the World Cup, a month ago they set a world record for successive Test-match victories. Throw in the fact that their performance will be fuelled by the emotion of this fixture arriving so close to the anniversary of Jonah Lomu's untimely death, and that they are seeking revenge, and you can imagine how difficult it will be for Ireland.

And yet amid the difficulty lies an opportunity. This Ireland team wants to get a result again that will send a message to world, telling them that Chicago was not a once-off, that the history-makers can achieve something even greater - because make no mistake, another victory today would outdo what was achieved a fortnight ago.

For it to happen, it is vital that they bring the same accuracy and intensity to the party that they showed in Chicago. They need to back that performance up by re-applying the pressure that they administered then.

Big players need to produce big moments. On Dane Coles' first throw, Devin Toner has to leap into the air and sow a seed of doubt. Robbie Henshaw has to produce a big hit. He and Jared Payne need to test the inexperienced All Black midfield.

Seán O'Brien and CJ Stander - two wrecking balls - need to get over the gainline and make the hard yards, set the tone, ignite the crowd, make people excited.

This isn't a game where Ireland can afford to sit back, even if they will probably have to defend more than they did in Chicago. Yet if they are alert and accurate at the breakdown, and execute as impressively as they did two weeks ago, then who knows where it can take them?

The bottom line is they need the courage to go for it again.

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