Thursday 19 October 2017

Schmidt's troops must take All Blacks to a dark place

The Ireland team pose for a team photograph ahead of their captain’s run at Soldier Field. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
The Ireland team pose for a team photograph ahead of their captain’s run at Soldier Field. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Rory Best lingered for a while after yesterday's Captain's Run press conference on the 17th floor of the Trump Tower in Chicago and watched as the Chicago Cubs cavalcade made its way up Michigan Avenue.

The paths were packed as more than a million people paid tribute to their curse-breaking World Series-winning history boys. This is a week that Chicago will never forget.

'Joey Carbery might not be here if wasn’t for Paddy Jackson’s issues, but the 21-year-old finds himself on the cusp of the most meteoric rise in recent times.' Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
'Joey Carbery might not be here if wasn’t for Paddy Jackson’s issues, but the 21-year-old finds himself on the cusp of the most meteoric rise in recent times.' Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

The Ireland skipper is fully mindful that this afternoon he can lead his team to create their own piece of history by ending a 111-year wait for a win over New Zealand.

He also knows what can happen if things start to go wrong at Soldier Field. There is a novelty to this fixture taking place on neutral ground that offers a point of difference.

There are concerns over Ireland's lack of preparation time and their travel, but the experience of being in this city has also changed things up from the normal routine.

The pitch at the home of the Chicago Bears is a source of concern, both due to its quality and its dimensions, which are tighter than what the players are used to.

The team
The team

Ireland trained there yesterday and Best gave the surface a mixed report.

Patchy

"It is a little bit patchy in places, it is different," he said. "When we come from the Aviva, which is like a carpet - I don't think there is any better surfaces - the problem is if you try to compare like for like.

"It looks to me from the bits and pieces we have done today it will hold up alright, and when you look beyond the pitch at the actual stadium itself it is an unbelievable.

"It looks like it will be an unbelievable cauldron to play in, it is a fantastic stadium. Pitch-wise, yeah look, it has obviously got a lot of games on it but and it does look like it will hold up, and as long as it holds up for the scrums then every else will be fine."

Since he returned from South Africa in June, Joe Schmidt has been looking for weaknesses in the world champions' armour.

They're pretty hard to find," the Ireland coach said. "One of the things that's been difficult is that we didn't know what the make-up of their team was going to be, so we've been kind of waiting until we had a bit of a look at that. Then we'll try to maybe engineer a few things from there.

"The other thing is that we trained on Monday and we trained Thursday. You don't really have too much time to get too opposition-focused.

"We have to take them into account in terms of what we're trying to achieve, but at the same time for us it was really just let's get in and get ourselves organised a little bit and try to be as well prepared as we can, because over half the squad played last weekend for their provinces.

"So we got them on the back of that and a couple of the boys were a little bit knocked about, so we tempered what we did on Monday a little bit and had a hit-out on Thursday which was good for us, we've felt we got a bit out of. Hopefully that's a good starting point for us."

Stopping a team who are on an 18-game winning run, who have scored 60 tries in their 10 games in 2016 and who have the strength in depth to make a couple of changes without significantly weakening most of their team is quite the challenge. Ireland won't admit it publicly, but the absence of Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano has exposed New Zealand's second-row depth.

Jerome Kaino is one of the greatest blindside flankers to have played the game and he has some experience in the engine room, but the 33-year-old can be put under pressure at lineout time where the men in green will look to dominate.

They will also target the breakdown as they did in 2013 when their ferocious approach to contact put the All Blacks on the back foot.

Even players of the calibre of Julian Savea and Waisake Naholo don't like getting the ball going backwards, and Schmidt will want to see every contest for possession as an opportunity.

In Beauden Barrett, the All Blacks have a mercurial talent and arguably the best player in the world right now, but they lack a goal-kicker because of his selection.

Against Australia last time out, he missed five attempts at goal and with Ireland hoping to make a fight out of this one, every point will have to count.

Unfortunately for Ireland, Barrett's capacity to slice defences open with his pace and lines of running are the reason Steve Hansen is forgiving of his inaccuracy off the tee. He's worth it.

Ireland's mission is to take the world champions to a place they haven't been since Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Co retired after they had retained the Webb Ellis trophy.

In 2016, they have never trailed at half-time and have finished games in impressive fashion as their phenomenal bench comes into the game and keeps the tempo high.

Johnny Sexton will be key to everything, as always with Ireland. The Leinster out-half has had a patchy run-in and didn't kick in his only 40 minutes of action in the last three games.

Along with Conor Murray, he will look to test New Zealand in the air, but any inaccuracy will be punished ruthlessly.

Schmidt has been accused of conservatism with his team selection, but his bench is exciting.

Joey Carbery might not be here if wasn't for Paddy Jackson's issues, but the 21-year-old finds himself on the cusp of the most meteoric rise in recent times. Alongside him, Garry Ringrose is a player who looks born for this stage, and Kieran Marmion can raise the tempo if required.

All of the forwards will pack a punch too, with Sean Cronin, Cian Healy and Ultan Dillane all impact players. Schmidt is hoping to meet fire with fire. In the minus column is the lack ball-carrying might in the starting pack, where Sean O'Brien and Iain Henderson will be sorely missed. The bookies are offering New Zealand 23 points, and based on their average winning margin of 28 points so far this year, it is not unreasonable.

But there are question-marks over the calibre of the opposition they have played. Wales were shattered, South Africa and Australia are both in crisis and Argentina, despite their impressive World Cup, are still struggling for consistency.

So, there is hope for Ireland but outside of the four walls of their opulent base at Trump Tower there isn't much belief. Yet, as Best said yesterday, under Schmidt Ireland always have confidence in their abilities and game-plan.

Hansen's focus has been on righting the perceived wrongs of that win over Australia. They still scored six tries, but the All Blacks are relentless. For Ireland to pull off a victory at Soldier Field, they'll need everything to go their way, but with Schmidt in their corner they have a chance.

It's been a week of sporting history in Chicago, as the Cubs said: Why not us, why not now?

Verdict: New Zealand

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