Wednesday 24 July 2019

Ireland vs All Blacks preview: Schmidt's men must beat the best to be the best

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

"It's one and two so whoever wins will be the best team in the world, regardless of rankings that's what people will take out of it. It will be a goodie."

Amidst all of the things that have been said and written about the most eagerly anticipated rugby match of 2018, Steve Hansen's one-liner on Sunday stands above the rest.

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The All Black coach didn't have to be backed into a corner to deliver his message to Ireland and his own players, he gave the hype machine its fuel of his own volition.

With less than a year to go until the World Cup in Japan, the context of this meeting of the Rugby Championship winners and the Six Nations champions, the teams ranked numbers 1 and 2 in the world is clear.

They can't meet again until the quarter-finals or, if results go according to seeding, the final. Laying down a marker has never been so important.

Only recently have Ireland begun breathing the same oxygen as the world champions and, having entered their ecosystem they've discovered that it can be quite toxic when you get too close.

When England beat the All Blacks in 2003 in a result that was viewed as pivotal to their World Cup success later that year, the All Black machine went to work and the local press came out with the immortal description of the victors as "white Orcs on steroids".

"We had won the Grand Slam in Dublin, another famous day when we had played really well," former England prop Graham Rowntree later recalled. "It was the right time. The squad had been together a long time. It was just a stepping stone to what the lads achieved in the World Cup."

The parallels between Clive Woodward's team's build-up and the way Joe Schmidt's side are making their way towards next year are clear. By going to Twickenham and performing the way they did to claim the Grand Slam last March, Ireland made a statement.

Valuable

Tonight, they'll need to make another to keep their momentum building towards Japan where they'll have eyes on going far beyond where any Irish team has gone before.

These are the days when Ireland get the valuable experiences that will count for so much when the heat comes on.

Presuming they can negotiate their way out of a pool featuring Japan, Scotland, Samoa and Russia, the Springboks or the All Blacks await in the last eight.

They have beaten both teams during this World Cup cycle, but a knockout game is a very different kettle of fish. The winning mentality they have built over the past three seasons will count for a lot and that's why another victory over the men in black would be such a fillip.

The players are fully aware of the stakes and the expectations that come with the visit of the world's best team.

"Yeah, there is obviously a lot of pressure going into the game to perform, to get that performance right and get the best out of you," Ireland second-row Devin Toner explained.

"There is this feel about the place going into the week. It's an All Black week, it's hugely important, one of the most important games of your career. It's just because it's built up so much in the media, friends and family and all are looking for tickets. They're all texting you about the game.

"So, it is different going into a game like this. We know we'll be coming up against the best team in the world. There is that bit of extra edge."

More than any other opponent, facing the world's best team demands focus.

"You're probably on your toes a bit more," Toner said. "You're expecting more on the counter-attack with the backs they have, it's ridiculous."

They can fall back on Chicago, but know what the response to that defeat was like two weeks later when New Zealand arrived in Dublin determined to decapitate anyone in a green jersey.

Tonight, they will bring the force but it will be more controlled.

Their focus all week has been on possession. Their wily assistant coach Ian Foster pointedly said that Ireland would look to "suffocate" his side by holding on to the ball, and Hansen is determined for his team to deny Ireland the chance to take control of the game by going through their phases. So, we can expect Rory Best's throw to come under sustained pressure by the superb All Black defence, the tackle area will be ferociously contested and every kick will be designed to get the ball back.

The big question on Irish minds is whether they can win without Conor Murray who misses out with a neck injury.

Kieran Marmion is a decent player, but he needs the game of his life today if Ireland are to succeed.

Robbie Henshaw, Seán O'Brien and yesterday's late cry-off Dan Leavy will be missed, but the coverage in the midfield and back-row is stronger.

Bundee Aki will be pumped after having his decision to move north picked apart in the New Zealand media, while Garry Ringrose's classy attacking game is sure to provide opportunities.

Operation

Up front, Ireland's scrum has the edge on most opponents but they're up against a superb operation here. The All Black second-rows are sensational players, but their back-row - while talented - is not the unit it once was.

Johnny Sexton will have a key role alongside Marmion and his battle against Beauden Barrett is worth watching.

If New Zealand can afford their play-maker time and space, he has the weapons on the wings and in full-back Damian McKenzie to cause serious damage.

Murray is a loss, but Ireland have demonstrated an incredible capacity to absorb the absence of key players since the disastrous World Cup quarter-final against Argentina.

In the same period, New Zealand have remained the world's No 1 team but defeats to Ireland, Australia, South Africa and the drawn Lions series have opened up the possibility that they've come back to the pack.

Rassie Erasmus's Springboks showed the way and England almost followed last weekend.

A number of Ireland's match-day squad were part of that Lions series and the regular meetings have dimmed the aura.

"It shows they are human I suppose," Murray said of the recent loss to South Africa. "And the more you play them the more you realise that.

"They are just really, really clinical... I don't think their crown is slipping. I think they are still as good as they were. I think the gap might be closing. We'll see. South Africa proved that over the Rugby Championship and we get the next shot. We will get a good gauge of where we are at."

Chicago was an important milestone in this team's development and it's one of many achieved by Schmidt since he came into the job in 2013.

Toner reckons Ireland are a better side than they were in Soldier Field.

"I think we've grown as a squad since then," he said. "The last couple of times we came close, obviously 2013... everyone knows what happened. Since then as a squad we've grown hugely. So I think we're in a really good place.

"We don't necessarily need (to win), we'd like it. We know we're going to be contenders in any match we go into, we're never that far behind anyone. We'll put up against anyone."

There's no doubt they will, but without Murray the All Blacks hold the edge. They are in Dublin to make a statement. Beating them would set Ireland apart as World Cup contenders.

Verdict: Ireland 20 New Zealand 28

Irish Independent

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