Monday 22 January 2018

Tony Ward: My starting 15 to play the wounded All Blacks

Schmidt has big calls to make

Ireland players Tadhg Furlong and Ultan Dillane celebrate victory after the International rugby match between Ireland and New Zealand at Soldier Field
Ireland players Tadhg Furlong and Ultan Dillane celebrate victory after the International rugby match between Ireland and New Zealand at Soldier Field
Cian Healy, Andy Farrell and Sean O’Brien at Ireland training in Carton House ahead of Saturday’s re-match against New Zealand. Photo: MATT BROWNE/SPORTSFILE
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

It's been an extraordinary few weeks for Irish rugby with such a range of emotions packed into such a short period.

And there's no time to even draw breath as a challenge greater than the one faced in Chicago comes into view.

Beating New Zealand was always going to happen but the timing of it caught a lot of us by surprise. I did not see the win at Soldier Field coming but given the absence of three first-choice locks for New Zealand in the lead-in to kick-off, I would be lying if I didn't admit to thinking: 'what if today is the day we finally beat the All Blacks?'

No team can replace their top three players in one position without there being a knock-on effect. Throw in the Joe Schmidt factor and you knew one guaranteed area of attack.

We were presented with an opportunity and we capitalised. But that is now history and you can guarantee coach Steve Hansen, captain Kieran Read and every Kiwi on this tour will fly in from Rome to the Aviva with ferocious determination.

This Test is about getting even; the All Blacks will not struggle for motivation on Saturday.

Think of it from their perspective; they travelled to Chicago as the back-to-back world champions, and having created history with 18 Test wins on the bounce.

They'll still be hurting from their first defeat to Ireland; to lose to Schmidt's side twice in a fortnight would be a massive, deflating blow given the status of rugby in New Zealand.

This, in All Black currency, is payback time. A wounded animal is one thing but a wounded Kiwi in a rugby context is something else again.

From an Irish perspective, to win on neutral territory was an extraordinary achievement but to do so again on our own patch 14 days on would represent arguably our greatest achievement in the international arena.

There may be no Webb Ellis Cup at stake but you can be sure New Zealand will come out with comparable determination to that shown when facing Australia at Twickenham in the World Cup final a little over a year ago.

Read more: All Blacks' star second row has just two days to prove his fitness for Ireland battle

Ireland beating New Zealand for the first time has resonated around the world. However, there has been no gloating (one win and one draw from 29 attempts for God's sake) but instead a growth in respect for New Zealand rugby and everything it stands for.

Since returning from Chicago we have witnessed Munster defeating the Maori All Blacks (preceded by the most amazing tribute to 'Axel' Foley) and Ireland with eight new caps, in addition to Joey Carbery the previous week, when beating the Canadians.

It wasn't the perfect performance and how could it have been given they had just two training sessions as a unit in the build-up. But with nine more internationals in the mix the reservoir is deepening.

In Limerick, Munster were magnificent to a man but Robin Copeland (who still hasn't come close to fulfilling his potential), Conor Oliver (physically small but a dynamo at the breakdown), Tommy O'Donnell, the back three of Andrew Conway, Darren Sweetnam and Ronan O'Mahony, and Rory Scannell, the player who has impressed me most over the last month or so, were outstanding.

The atmosphere was electric in a packed Thomond, just like it was against New Zealand in 2008 and Australia in 2010. Anthony Foley has reignited the Munster flame and long may it burn.

In terms of Saturday's game, we will leave the probable tactics until later in the week but one key factor will be the likely return of former World Player of the Year Brodie Retallick, and possible selection of Sam Whitelock, in the New Zealand second row.

Schmidt will be forced into at least one change in personnel from the team that started in Chicago with the unfortunate Jordi Murphy ruled out for the rest of the season.

The approach will be interesting - do we go for a similarly robust but even more dynamic ball-carrier in Sean O'Brien or stick with the balance by selecting the more fluid and in-form Josh van der Flier in the back row?

It's a massive call and that's without mentioning Peter O'Mahony.

And what of Ultan Dillane, a deserving man-of-the-match winner against Canada in his first Test start? His Connacht team-mate Tiernan O'Halloran (now a real candidate in the last line going forward) put his hand up for selection and Finlay Bealham was immense.

To that you can add the impact Keith Earls made off the wing throughout. It would be tough on Andrew Trimble or Simon Zebo were they to lose out after Chicago but Earls' utility may see him make the bench for the rematch at the expense of Garry Ringrose.

The call as shadow out-half to Johnny Sexton is also enormous. Paddy Jackson continued against the Canadians where he left off against South Africa in the summer. The decision is whether to cover Sexton with an equally astute game manager should that need arise or opt for clear and obvious attacking potential in Carbery off the bench.

It is a big call and I'd have no hard and fast feelings either way with both players in top form.

If Schmidt wants someone to steady the ship from the bench, should that need arise, then Jackson will get the nod. If he foresees us going for broke in a catch-up situation then Carbery is the man.

MY TEAM TO PLAY ALL BLACKS: 15: R Kearney, 14: A Trimble, 13: J Payne, 12: R Henshaw, 11: S Zebo, 10: J Sexton, 9: C Murray

1: J McGrath, 2: R Best, 3: T Furlong, 4: D Ryan, 5: D Toner, 6: CJ Stander, 7: S O’Brien, 8: J Heaslip

Irish Independent

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