Wednesday 28 June 2017

Neil Francis: Committed runners, at least three tries, play hard for 80 minutes... then hope for the best

Pumas set template for causing Kiwis problems but it won't be enough

Aaron Cruden during New Zealand training in Chicago. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Aaron Cruden during New Zealand training in Chicago. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Some of you probably remember the day - clear as crystal. The Oti game in Twickenham. Chris Oti scored a hat-trick against Ireland on one wing and Rory Underpants scored two on the other. Final score was 35-3 - it was a good old-fashioned Twickenham thumping made all the more mystifying by the fact that Ireland were leading 3-0 at half-time but in truth were hanging on like a loose button and England realised this while they were consuming their half-time Bovril.

They had kicked the Irish pack up and down the field and when they finally unleashed the dogs of war Ireland folded like a second-hand tent. It was as triumphal a procession as I had seen in Twickenham and the only thing to do was to drink heavily that night and, as they conveniently say today, "put it behind them." 35-3 is the equivalent of a 70-pointer today. I wasn't playing but I still probably took most of the blame for the defeat.

Misjudging

Jimmy Davidson was in charge that day and, quite possibly misjudging the mood of the dressing room, pronounced to all "just think in a few weeks' time you have the opportunity to go out and beat the hell out of England back in Dublin". There was an additional millennium fixture against England a few weeks later.

Just at that moment revenge wasn't looming large in anyone's psyche except Jimmy's - that was a brutish English pack with Dooley, Richards, Skinner et al and the prospect of taking another hiding against that lot just 10 minutes after walking away from one - well timing is everything.

Even today and the continuous improvements in Ireland's mental and physiological conditioning, some things remain the same and we are still unable to follow up a big performance with another one.

In 2011, the win over Australia saw Ireland implode against Wales in the quarters. In 2015, the big win against France - well you know what happened next. Ireland came close in South Africa which was encouraging. The fact remains that we are not a tournament team nor are we a series team; we are however dangerous one-off specialists and the likelihood is that whatever is achieved in two days' time will not be replicated in a few weeks' time. Joe Schmidt might be able to sense the mood of his players better than Jimmy D, particularly if Ireland are tonked in Soldier Field.

The good news is that I think Ireland will do ok. By ok I mean that they will lose but will show dogged resilience, be unyieldingly competitive and will be tricky opponents who will cause the All Blacks problems. The bad news. Well, Jerome Kaino put his finger on it during the week when he pointed to the fact that Ireland wouldn't be bringing Seán O'Brien. Quite why he left out Peter O'Mahony in his thinking I don't know. The quality of both these guys' performances was astonishing that day in 2013 - they were both preposterously good on the ground and over the ball.

New Zealand couldn't get their hands on the ball in the first half and trailed 22-7 as a result. Take a look at that team - it is quite possibly the best starting XV to represent Ireland ever and that is why they got so close. It is rare in international rugby that you get the chance to select the exact XV you want to get on the field.

All of that team were fit, all of that team were playing well. So a little bit of interplanetary alignment. You get to pick the best team this country puts out ever and you get them to play really well … for 40 minutes! Ireland didn't score for the full 40 minutes in the second half. It is not a new phenomenon with Joe's teams and often he gets away with it but not against the All Blacks. Ireland ran out of luck and another contributory factor was that Drico ended up in the concussion bin in the second half.

For Ireland to win or to get close they have to have all of their best players in the side and all of those players have to be match-fit and playing well. It is true that in 1992 Ireland got to 24-21 in Dunedin with a side that had Neville Furlong on one wing and Ronald Carey on the other. If Carey's fingers had been an inch longer he would have held on to his intercept and scored a late winner.

Vaunted

The problem for Soldier Field is that Ireland will be missing their number 1, 2 and 3 ball-carriers. Seán O'Brien and Peter O'Mahony starred with Jamie Heaslip in our prime back-row combination in 2013. Iain Henderson's quality was showcased in South Africa when he completely outplayed and out-drove his more vaunted and storied Bok opponents.

If you want to beat or compete with the All Blacks you have to pose problems away from the breakdown and you have to have capable and direct runners who won't drop to ground at the first sign of contact. That is what Ireland did in 2013. In this year's Rugby Championship Argentina caused most of the problems for the All Blacks because they ran wide off the breakdown and offloaded brilliantly and they productively kept the ball until they ran out of steam. The All Blacks are the fittest team in the world - you have to beat them with the legs and lungs as well as the top four inches. Argentina will get their first win over New Zealand before we do.

I thought that when Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock were unable to play because of concussion and injury that it would help Ireland considerably. Luke Romano - the obvious replacement - would not in any way have weakened the side but he had to return to New Zealand because of a family bereavement. As a result, New Zealand are down to their fourth- and fifth-choice Test locks - Patrick Tuipulotu has been injured a lot for the last two or three years and has played for the consistently under-performing Auckland Blues, but he is the most powerful open-field runner as a second-row that I have seen from New Zealand. His form dipped this year but a stint as the senior man with the All Blacks might just wake him up.

When I talked last week about Beauden Barrett and his younger brother, the up-and-coming superstar Jordie Barrett, I forgot to mention that they have yet another brother Scott who plays in the second-row and will likely start for the All Blacks. An inexperienced second-row pairing in what will be a physical encounter with Ireland. Will they be overawed and subdued or will they simply run amok as they try and establish themselves?

Ireland will have to score at least three tries to get close. Considering that New Zealand allowed five tries in the Rugby Championship over six matches that will be a huge ask. New Zealand are not good just because they can score tries from anywhere (38 in the six RC games) but because defensively they are so tight. They missed only three tackles in that cataclysmic game in Durban.

Anything can happen on Saturday night but three tries and being competitive for 60 minutes represents a good evening's work. Anything after that is an outstanding performance - and then the tricky motivational task of asking them to do it all again back in Dublin. ps: Soldier Field looked magnificent as the Bears beat the Minnesota Vikings 20-10 last Monday.

2013 Ireland team (v New Zealand) - R Kearney; T Bowe, B O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, D Kearney; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Ross; D Toner, P O'Connell; P O'Mahony, S O'Brien, J Heaslip.

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