Tuesday 20 March 2018

Neil Francis: All Blacks tour will be a jolly good show... but not for the Irish

At the very least, Kiwis' end-of-season jaunt will give us view of how game should be played

Jordie Barrett, the latest All Blacks superstar, is brought to a halt by Irish trio Stephen Kerins, Ben Betts and Johnny McPhillips during last summer’s U-20 World Cup. Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images
Jordie Barrett, the latest All Blacks superstar, is brought to a halt by Irish trio Stephen Kerins, Ben Betts and Johnny McPhillips during last summer’s U-20 World Cup. Photo by Tony Marshall/Getty Images
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

It's a jolly, you know, a beano. It's a pity Hawaii or Ibiza don't play rugby because they might have got a slot. Chicago, Rome, Dublin and Paris - what an itinerary.

They may have to break a sweat in one of those games, but in a long continuous season for the All Blacks this represents a soft landing to the end of the season. Even England wouldn't have been immune from a tonking with all their injuries. 

I have often wondered why Italy always seem to get a fixture against the All Blacks. It's just great to spend a week there and experience the country. The Kiwis don't need to have the mask and the cape on the whole time. The All Blacks will mutter about how tough the Italian pack are but this fixture will be a throw-around and, sorry to convey the news to Conor O'Shea, but if he can keep the score below 80 that would be a good day's work.

You might ask if there is any point in touring Europe anymore because if the games aren't competitive what is the point? Well, there are a few points. The first one is that it is important that we learn how the game is meant to be played. If we begin to try and play like the All Blacks play now, we might actually pick it up in 10 years' time.

Another point is that they get to introduce some outrageous talent on these tours - their protégés are sometimes so good that even the Kiwis recoil in embarrassment when they introduce them to play against the weaker nations and they light the place up. They are too good.

That's right, folks - New Zealand will rotate their squad for their second fixture of their jolly - that means the Italians could probably see the likes of Rieko Ioane. This guy must be the fastest rugby player in the world that is playing for a serious team. Bryan Habana doesn't play for a serious team anymore.

I have seen some steppers in my time - the good ones come off one foot and the great ones can come off two. The really great ones can do it at top speed. The pick-up this guy has from a standing start is freakish - it's just not fair.

Ioane has dazzling hands and a mesmerising array of one-handed offloads in the armoury. The fact that he is only 19 - the Kiwis could have held him back for another year or so but they have decided to unveil him - it is totally gratuitous and not fair on the rest of us.

Over a pint though we do marvel and coo at the electricity their bright young things bring to the game. Rieko Ioane - it could just as well be Buzz Lightyear. They might not even play him - he could end up holding tackle bags for the whole tour.

It's like a line from 'Zoolander' but Beauden Barrett - so hot right now. The Kiwis are bringing Barrett's younger brother Jordie Barrett along as well. They have a Jordie too! Barrett Junior played in the Under-20 RWC tournament in England this year but New Zealand were undone by a special effort from our lads.

Maybe a look at that video would be educational. Jordie Barrett was their best player but even his efforts were not enough. The younger Barrett is also only 19 and for a centre who is 6' 5" he has the same languid, rangy running style as his brother. Already he is a superstar. He might not get a minute of game time but it is amazing that Beauden Barrett is currently the best player in the world and all the cameras are pointing at his younger brother.

Leinster’s Joey Carber. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Leinster's Joey Carbery

Our superstar will be playing against Connacht this Saturday - you would hope they'd bring Joey Carbery along for the trip to Chicago.

The reason the All Blacks tour is money. They get paid big dough to play. It's a bit like Tiger and Rory getting appearance money for turning up to tournaments in Dubai. No Majors in Dubai just moola.

When you play against them it is almost a privilege because this is a look-in-the-mirror moment. How good am I? You get to find out whether you are just a big fish in a small pond.

The last reason the All Blacks tour here is because they very charitably give you the chance to measure up against the best. This autumn the Paddies have two goes at them - just in case the first one was a fluke.

We know the tide has risen and the honest and redoubtable performances which almost yielded an historic series win in South Africa - well, that is somewhat discounted now. The Saffers are clueless under Allister Coetzee and going backwards. Ireland, you could say, are still progressing, still moving forward and are nimble-minded enough to at least go and attack New Zealand in the right areas of the pitch.

The squad was announced yesterday and it is a matter of regret that there are players who are suspended, injured or just not Test match-fit. The graphic shows the team I would have picked to play the All Blacks in Chicago.

Peter O'Mahony, right, is ready to return for Munster after a year out with knee ligament damage
Peter O'Mahony

It is unfortunate that our best combination back-row is woefully short of match practice. Peter O'Mahony would probably last 60 but Sean O'Brien is so far off the pace that he still might not be up to speed by the second All Blacks game. Jamie Heaslip gave a phenomenal performance against Montpelier last Sunday.

When everything is going backwards the quality players keep playing, limit their mistakes and eventually become pathfinders for other players who were absent or ball-watching in the first 60. In the last 20 Leinster got back into the game and got something out of it when it seemed unlikely - most of the credit due to Heaslip's work ethic.

That is the key to playing the All Blacks - keeping your head under pressure and sometimes the pressure is bewildering. Iain Henderson is gone and a partnership here with Ultan Dillane was our prime second-row pairing because the two of them are young and dynamic and fiercely aggressive. They would become that Duracell second-row where they just keep making play after play and they would make things happen. The Aussies and the South Africans kept picking massive men in their second-row - 6' 9", 6' 10" - and it did not work.

The trick is to pick smaller, lighter, more dynamic auxiliary back-row-type players who keep going for 80 and who are direct and incisive ball-carriers. Ireland aren't going to win either Test but with Henderson gone their ability to be competitive in the close exchanges will diminish greatly.

Ireland's back-line should be one that can cause headaches. Ireland caused real trouble in the 2013 fixture because they ran the ball, they didn't kick it away and their passing game made New Zealand look a little bit ordinary. It is very easy to say 'attack space' - when you play New Zealand space is hard to come by in the outfield or the back field but if you pick light players who are quick on their feet and you hold onto the ball then you will cause problems.

Connacht cause problems because they just hold onto the ball - you can't get it back from them. Ireland would also have to take risks and play close to the line. I don't think Joe Schmidt will pick Garry Ringrose and Keith Earls is gone for the Chicago game. It is a pity because if Ireland had their optimum team out and they were match-fit, they would be at the very least competitive and would have gone with New Zealand for a good stretch of the game.

Even a 10pc drop-off in quality or fitness is fatal against that lot. So sit back, enjoy the tour but don't expect too much and watch the way the game should be played.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport