Monday 19 February 2018

American payday makes for tough start to hectic month

Ireland's clash with the All Blacks at Soldier Field evokes memories of classic Aviva battle

Coach Joe Schmidt is tipped to stick with Rory Best as Ireland captain for the class against the All Blacks in Chicago. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Coach Joe Schmidt is tipped to stick with Rory Best as Ireland captain for the class against the All Blacks in Chicago. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

It may be the longest gap since the turn of the century since Ireland and New Zealand got together on a rugby field, but the reference point for this fixture feels so close at hand: Aviva Stadium, November 2013. Perhaps the most analysed couple of minutes in the history of our international side - or, as Eddie Butler described it in his TV commentary when it was all over: "One of the most pulsating games of rugby we'll ever have the privilege of watching."

Pulsating and utterly enervating. We watched it again last week, and from the opening seconds of that endgame it is impossible to keep manners on your heart beat.

Coincidentally that epic win for New Zealand was about establishing a new record for a Tier 1 nation in the pro era: to go through a calendar year unbeaten. In Chicago on Saturday they will be looking to embellish a record they established in Auckland just last weekend, when their win over the Wallabies broke new ground for a Tier 1 country: 18 consecutive happy endings. It is hard to envisage Ireland in either league: a clean 12 months, or a world-record number of wins.

Subtract Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith, the best 10-12-13 combination ever to play the game, from the equation and it's impossible to see your sums adding up. Factor in the loss of Richie McCaw, for most of his 14-year career the most influential player in world rugby, and the least you'd expect is that the All Blacks get out of the fast lane for a while.

That quartet, along with hooker Keven Mealamu, all retired from Test rugby after the World Cup final 12 months ago. Since then the All Blacks have played 10, won 10 - and if you haven't seen the way they mowed down Australia, South Africa and Argentina in the Rugby Championship then check it out. If most teams aspire to be great to watch and a nightmare to play against then this is the prototype.

So where are Ireland in all of this? Well, financially better off, which is a good start. The reason we are playing in Chicago is because the sports marketing agency, Legacy Worldwide, is run by a Kiwi. They have the rights to bring in Test rugby to the US, and IRFU commercial manager Padraig Power put Ireland in the frame in a city that is home to the All Blacks' sponsors, AIG. With the Irish diaspora in that part of the world it is, as they say, the perfect fit.

It's understood the IRFU will clear circa €1m from the gig, where all the usual expenses once you land are catered for. Like resting your head in Donald's gaff. Could they not have stayed somewhere else?

Ireland will play five home games this season. Four of them are sold out, and the fifth - against Canada in a fortnight - has less than 10,000 seats to fill. It's only the second time that the Guinness Series schedule has had four Tests, the other time, in 2010, Ireland could not sell out against any of South Africa, Samoa, New Zealand or Argentina, and only won two of those games.

If supporters are voting with their euros then expectations would seem to be a bit higher this time around. On the back of a failed World Cup campaign, and a Six Nations journey that took us to mid-table after two podium finishes, this is interesting.

The unique win in South Africa in June accounts for some of the uptake, another first on Joe Schmidt's CV. Clearly news of our 6N standing has yet to reach Illinois, where last week the Soldier Field website was billing Ireland as 'Six Nations champions'.

Maybe it will feel that way given what will be enormous Irish support at the 61,000 capacity stadium. It's not exactly sold out - if you're prepared to remortgage your house you'll be able to get seats on 'resale' for circa €275 a pop, but come kick-off it will be as good as full, and we are in for an historic occasion.

To cope with all of this, Joe Schmidt last week announced a squad that ostensibly covers the first game only. Thirty-four players for one game is giving yourself plenty of elbow room, so this is Schmidt telling us that all 34 will feature over the course of the month, but he might add to that as the games unfold.

So Stuart Olding, an omission last week but a player for whom the coach has a high regard, shouldn't consider the door closed. Neither, although he is close to the end, should Mike Ross.

Tommy O'Donnell, on the other hand, understands clearly that he is behind the glass marked 'break in case of emergency'.

The exclusion of the Munster flanker drew standard comment last week that it was another case of him being hard done by, but if you're assembling, on form, the best back-rowers in the country over the 10 weeks since pre-season games started, then Dan Leavy would be high in the queue.

The key issues, however, are the exclusion of the prodigal sons, and Garry Ringrose's position in the pecking order. Although it's early on their new road both Ian Madigan and Marty Moore are travelling well in Bordeaux and Wasps respectively. Their omission is Schmidt being unequivocal on company policy: stay home if you want to stay close. Fair enough. Where it will get tricky is when he has to reach for the phone in an emergency and one or both respond with flying colours. At which point others will think it's worth the risk.

As for Ringrose, Schmidt has minded him carefully, and now is the time to reap the benefit of that patience. Currently the best midfield combination Ireland can produce is Johnny Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Ringrose, with Jared Payne at full-back. So get on with it. If the opening instalment is anything like the 2013 version everyone will have something to talk about.

He is likely to run with the following: J Payne; A Trimble, G Ringrose, R Henshaw, S Zebo; J Sexton, C Murray; J McGrath, R Best (capt), T Furlong, U Dillane, D Toner, CJ Stander, J Heaslip, J Murphy. Replacements: S Cronin, C Healy, F Bealham, D Ryan, P O'Mahony; K Marmion, P Jackson, R Kearney

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