Wednesday 7 December 2016

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Once more into the Black as Ireland look to back up history

Published 19/11/2016 | 02:30

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

We will find out where Ireland truly stand today. The bookies reckon their win over New Zealand in Chicago was a one-off, but if they are to be taken seriously as a world force then they will at least need a performance that asks serious questions of the world champions.

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The players involved in the 40-29 victory at Soldier Field can dine out on their achievement forever, but they have the potential to accomplish even more and challenge for the ultimate prize in 2019 if they can find a way of reaching those levels of performance consistently.

A run of six games against the southern hemisphere giants in seven outings always looked like a daunting task. Ireland are currently two from four and feel they should have taken more from the three-Test tour of South Africa.

They made history in adversity in the first Test against the Springboks at Newlands, but over the second and third Tests they couldn't win the series. They know they should have.

History has proved that this is not a vintage South Africa team, but a large part of the All Blacks' fearsome reputation has come from beating their southern hemisphere rivals who all have their struggles this year.

Perhaps that lulled Steve Hansen's men into a false sense of security before Chicago when Ireland ran in as many tries as they had conceded in the entire Rugby Championship.

Rory Best spoke frequently about consistency at his Captain's Run press conference yesterday, conceding that a failure to back up the fine performance at Soldier Field would undermine the progress the team is making.

Undermine

"It would undermine that direction we are going," he said.

"Even in South Africa, we felt we didn't play that well in the second and third Tests having dug really deep to win the first one but there were aspects of it we were reasonably happy with.

"When we look back on those Tests, we know they got away on us. We weren't as consistent as we'd like to be.

"We're a team that have a level and we do not expect to drop beneath that.

"Two weeks ago, as far as we're concerned, is done and when we retire will look back on that as a fond memory and a massive feather in the cap. But right now, what happened two weeks ago can only probably adversely effect the way we prepare because we can take our eye off the ball.

"We've got to be putting the pressure on. The top teams do it, you've seen New Zealand with (winning) 18 in a row. They put the pressure on themselves and on each other to perform like that in these short windows they get.

"We have to do that and we have to say that that performance in Chicago was up there with one of the best we've produced, but the only thing to stop us doing that every time we pull on a green jersey is obviously ourselves and our preparation plus a bit of the opposition and whatever they do to stop us doing that.

"But we have to make sure that everything within our control is as good as it can be."

It would be no surprise to see Schmidt pivot tactically in order to find a new advantage over the world champions.

Certainly, New Zealand's set-piece will improve with Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock back in the engine room, while their discipline is unlikely to be as bad as it was two weeks ago when they conceded three times the number of penalties Ireland did.

So, Ireland must find a new way to beat the All Blacks and that process began when Schmidt drilled 14 of his starters last Friday as the rest of the squad prepared for the clash with Canada.

Seán O'Brien is the one player who started in that win and his inclusion is a signpost that the hosts may adopt a more direct approach.

With New Zealand expecting Ireland to kick last time, Johnny Sexton moved the ball wide where the wide-men made big gains. The presence of the Tullow man alongside CJ Stander affords Conor Murray more options from the ruck and enhances the carrying game.

Denying the All Blacks possession will be a key facet of the game-plan, while staying on the right side of referee Jaco Peyper will also be critical.

Can Ireland strike such attacking gold without the same lineout pressure? If not, they'll need to be better defensively.

New Zealand were irresistible at times during the second half last time out, but their tries came from relatively fixable errors. They will ask more questions this time and will truly test Andy Farrell's rearguard.

Whether or not they were dismissive of Ireland two weeks ago, their full attention has been captured this time around.

"Joe has got them playing smarter rugby," Hansen said. "Ireland have always been a very passionate nation, on and off the park. They are always good at getting behind a cause.

"They are good people. I have got a lot of time for them. I enjoy their company and as rugby players they have improved their fitness and their understanding of how they want to play and why we should do things.

"Joe has been a big part of that. Their whole coaching staff are challenging them to understand why, how and when, which are not big words but are pretty important when it comes to playing footy to making good decisions.

"I am sure he will have a trick or two up his sleeve. He enjoys coming up with those. That has always been his coaching style. He likes to analyse the opposition and find the ways to try to open you up and he's pretty good at it. We have to go out and do our jobs well right across the park.

"It starts at the set-piece both on our ball and their ball and try to take away their time so they don't have as much as they had in Chicago to make the right decisions."

Hansen believes you get your options off the opposition and the experienced Kiwi coach will have picked apart Ireland's performance in detail.

There's a black storm coming, but Ireland believe they are in a position to weather it.

Possibilities

If they can, it opens up an exciting world of possibilities in terms of the Six Nations and beyond for Schmidt and his squad.

They've done what no Irish team has done before them, so now there is a template. The fear-factor has been diminished and the bear they poked can hardly seem as fearsome.

Read More: Once bitten, the wounded All Blacks won't be shy to restore world order

If they can deal with the initial fury and get the crowd involved, they know what is possible. They lived it only two weeks ago.

Whatever happens, the history of Soldier Field is written and will remain among Ireland's great days.

Victory today would ensure there are more to come.

Irish Independent

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