Saturday 24 February 2018

0 The number of Irish players who would make the All Blacks team

Former New Zealand star Justin Marshall's blunt message to O'Driscoll and Co

World Cup winner Justin Marshall is a Puma ambassador.
World Cup winner Justin Marshall is a Puma ambassador.

Hugh Farrelly

WITH 81 caps for New Zealand, five Tri Nations titles, four Super 12 titles and a Lions series win, it is fair to say that Justin Marshall's opinions carry considerable weight.

Having finally hung up his boots in May, the 37-year-old now works full-time as a rugby pundit with Sky Sports and, while the All Blacks have been drenched with diplomacy this week, Marshall can apply a clinical eye to the challenge facing Ireland on Saturday.

This includes a worrying assessment of Ireland's recent performances, which he believes have not reflected the quality of player at Declan Kidney's disposal, and his belief that no Irish player would make it into the All Blacks starting XV.

"It's hard to see where it could happen," he says. "In the backline, O'Driscoll on his day is a very, very talented player and Gordon D'Arcy is a fine player too, but I don't know if they would force their way past Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith, who is one of the best I've seen, and now you have Sonny Bill Williams there too.

"Luke Fitzgerald is a very good footballer, but I don't think he would get in ahead of Hosea Gear. The Irish back-row is pretty good, but the All Blacks loosies are in phenomenal form. Keiran Read has had a phenomenal year at No 8, Jerome Kaino is playing the best rugby of his career and Richie (McCaw) is Richie.

"I really like Cian Healy, the Irish prop, I think he is dynamic, his work-rate is really good which New Zealand teams like and he gets around the park. But, in terms of any Irish player making it into this All Blacks side, I think it's a struggle to be honest."

So, on that basis do Ireland have any chance of causing a massive upset and recording their first win over the All Blacks in 105 years of trying?

"If it's like this," he says, pointing out the window at yesterday's bright and dry conditions in Dublin city centre, "then I can't see it happening. New Zealand could put a lot of points on them if the weather's good. If the conditions deteriorate then it could be more difficult for the All Blacks but, either way, it's hard to see Ireland winning.


"There's definitely a psychological thing there," adds Marshall. "The All Blacks have never been beaten by Ireland and you question whether they have the ability to get over that psychological hurdle.

"The reverse side of it is that the All Blacks do not want to be the side that recreates history; that's a powerful motivation, it's a record that New Zealand have and you do not want to be in the side that relinquishes that record.

"So, it's doubly challenging for Ireland -- they have the mental history of their own and also have to deal with the fact the All Blacks, mentally, are going to be more attuned to not wanting to damage our history. That makes it very difficult.

"We always mention the history. In the year 3000, when New Zealanders are looking through their rugby history, they would see '2010 -- this All Blacks team was the first to lose a Test match against Ireland'.

"That's always going to play on your mind as a player, you want to protect what has gone before -- it's a huge part of the All Black psyche. You look after and protect the jersey and those who have gone before.

"There's no lack of respect for Ireland, because of the quality of players they have, and definitely no sense of complacency. You come to this part of the world and you play teams who you know are determined to rewrite the history books so, if you are even slightly off your game, these teams are capable of beating you."

Following his spectacular display against Scotland last weekend, the hoopla surrounding the off-loading, heavyweight boxing, former rugby league sensation Williams has gone up several notches and Marshall is a massive admirer.

"I think this guy will be the star of the next World Cup, without a doubt, even if he doesn't start," says Marshall. "Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith are a phenomenal midfield combination and Williams could be used off the bench but he can play 12 or 13 and he is a game-breaker. I played with him for the Barbarians against the Aussies last year and met him when he was with Toulon. He really impressed me -- he is a humble guy, he's not getting carried away with all the hype.

"How do you tackle him? He is brilliant at bringing men outside into play so you need to come at him from the outside in and try and cut off the supply. If you hit him low, his hands are free to off-load so you have to try and pin his arms. But the guy is 6ft 3ins so it's easier said than done."

Since he first came here with the 1997 All Blacks (a team he says was the most significant he ever played with and one he captained to a 63-15 victory over Ireland), Marshall has always enjoyed his trips to Ireland and he is looking forward to Saturday when he expects to experience a familiar itch.

"I love coming here," he says. "I remember in 1997 when we got to the hotel, the management got us to drop our bags and took us straight to an Irish bar where they had set up a night of Guinness and 'craic', a great night.

"The hard thing now, working in television, is being at every game and I can't help thinking 'I shouldn't be here in front of the camera, I should be out there with my boots on'."

A final prediction?

"The weather will come into play and I expect Ireland to be better than they have been so far (in November) but I can definitely see the All Blacks winning by 20 points or more."

Irish Independent

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