Monday 16 September 2019

Sexton vs Barrett and Ryan vs Whitelock - All Blacks have the edge over Ireland in combined XV

Johnny Sexton (left) and Beauden Barrett (right).
Johnny Sexton (left) and Beauden Barrett (right).
Will Slattery

Will Slattery

The waiting is nearly over and we are now just five days away from one of the most eagerly anticipated Ireland games in years.

Sure, the Grand Slam-clinching triumph against England in Twickenham last March was circled on the calendar, but with the title already secured, it wasn't as do-or-die as the best Six Nations finales.

While there is no trophy at stake this Saturday at the Aviva Stadium, the prospect of the Grand Slam champions vs the back-to-back world champions - and world number two hosting the world number one - is mouthwatering.

Tickets are so difficult to come by that even Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt is struggling to satisfy demand.

"Look, it is exciting," Schmidt said. "I've had guys from New Zealand ringing me looking for tickets for the last six to nine months.

"I haven't got tickets, so I can't give you tickets. So, if you guys have got any spare I've got people to give them to."

What this test match will do more than anything is give Ireland a strong idea of how far away they are from the top ahead of the World Cup in less than 11 months time. Ireland have made giant strides under Schmidt since he took over in 2013 and that progress has been accelerated since beating New Zealand for the first time ever in Chicago in 2016.

So as of today, how does the Irish team measure up against the All Blacks? Here is our attempt at picking the best combined XV, taking injuries into account.

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15. Damian McKenzie

The diminutive Chiefs playmaker lines up at out-half in Super Rugby but is deployed in the back three by Steve Hansen due to the presence of double World Rugby Player of the Year Beauden Barrett at number ten. McKenzie's basic fullback play - dealing with the high ball and defensive positioning - isn't as good as Rob Kearney but the 23-year-old makes up for it with searing pace and elusive broken-field running.

14. Ben Smith

Regularly selected at fullback, Smith has been a world class operator since breaking into the starting team in 2012. Smith will be 33 at the World Cup and is expected to move to the northern hemisphere thereafter, but he remains a calming veteran presence as well as a potent attacking threat.

13. Garry Ringrose

Centre is probably the one area of the All Blacks team that they haven't replenished in full since the last World Cup. Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu's departure in 2015 has seen Steven Hansen try a number of different combinations in midfield but none of them have reached the heights of that iconic duo. Jack Goodhue is a solid outside centre but Ringrose, if fit, could have the edge on Saturday.

12. Ryan Crotty

With Robbie Henshaw and Sonny Bill Williams injured, it comes down to a shootout between Bundee Aki and the man who broke Irish hearts in 2013. While Crotty may not be as highly regarded as the aforementioned duo who won two World Cups with the All Blacks, his contribution off the bench against England last weekend highlighted once again why he is an underrated and effective part of the set-up.

11. Rieko Ioane

It says a lot about the level Ioane has reached that the omission of Jacob Stockdale - who has scored 11 tries in 12 tests - doesn't raise a murmur of disagreement. Notching 22 tries in 22 tests ends all arguments.

10. Beauden Barrett

The toughest choice of the lot. Would Barrett suit Joe Schmidt's game plan more than Johnny Sexton? No. But as a pure rugby player, it is hard to look past a man who has already scored a staggering 31 test tries from out-half by the age of 27. He has electric pace, great distribution and an eye for a gap that keeps defences guessing. His goal-kicking is suspect but everything else is so, so good that we are willing to overlook it.

9. TJ Perenara

The will-he-won't-he speculation around Conor Murray has dominated the build-up to this game, which highlights just how valuable the Munster star has become. Given the uncertainty around his availability, Murray - who has consistently troubled the All Blacks - is omitted in favour of TJ Peranara. A left-field call, given that Aaron Smith remains the All Blacks starter and has a body of work that is hard to match, but Perenara has been in better form and his introduction off the bench is often what swings games towards New Zealand.

1. Cian Healy

The injured Joe Moody is a good player and his replacement Karl Tu'inukuafe is an even better prospect, but Cian Healy is motoring superbly in the here and now. Ireland's scrum has never been stronger and the rejuvenated Healy has been a huge part of that. Combine that with his bulldozing ball-carrying and explosive ruck work, and he is well worth a place on this team.

2. Codie Taylor

Like the centre position for New Zealand, hooker is one area where Ireland - if not light - don't have the same overall quality as elsewhere. At 36, captain Rory Best looks to be slowing down and although Sean Cronin is a dynamic alternative, Joe Schmidt has never shown faith in him as a starter. Taylor's emergence for New Zealand couldn't have come at a better time, just when the world class Dane Coles started missing time with concussion issues. He is the complete hooker - holds his own in the tight, can gallop like a loose forward and has the hands to match an outside back.

3. Tadhg Furlong

Furlong's ascent to the top of the game means that like Ioane, he relegates illustrious company to second place. Owen Franks is going for his third World Cup medal next year in Japan but Furlong is redefining what we expect from tighthead props with every appearance.

4. Brodie Rettalick

The man is like a T-Rex with Pterodactyl arms. The only lock to win World Rugby Player of the Year, he is the high powered engine driving the All Blacks machine. A nightmare for the opposition lineout, he also matches his big contributions in the tight with some deft touches around the pitch. Already an iconic All Black at 27.

5. James Ryan

Leaving out the second man in the best second row duo in the world may smell like a hometown decision, and maybe it is. But put it this way - would you swap James Ryan for Sam Whitelock ahead of Saturday night? If you say yes, fair enough. Just take another long look at Ryan's stat sheets, and then answer the question again. Everything that was said in the previous paragraph about Retallick is in sight for Ryan. The 22-year-old has limitless potential and this weekend is the perfect opportunity to show the rugby world how good he is.

6. Peter O'Mahony

O'Mahony is in a rich vein of form and while he has always been a brilliant lineout operator, his work over the ball this season has made him even more valuable. He doesn't have great memories against the All Blacks, missing the Chicago triumph through injury before being jettisoned by Warren Gatland after captaining the Lions to a first test defeat in the 2017 series. He would love to make amends this weekend and we give him the edge over Liam Squire, a good but not great blindside.

7. Ardie Savea

The younger brother to ex-All Black Julian, Ardie has had to bide his time behind Sam Cane but with the flanker sidelined by a neck injury, the dynamic back row has a lot to prove. This spot was reserved for Sean O'Brien - a man who always produces against New Zealand - before his cruel injury last weekend and while Dan Leavy and Josh van der Flier are both cracking players, Savea gets in ahead of the Leinster duo.

8. Kieran Read

CJ Stander will carry for you all day but Read's all-round game is immaculate. While he has been slowed by injuries recently, he remains the smartest player in the New Zealand team. Has made a habit of popping up multiple times during moves and always seems to know where the ball will be. Another legendary All Black who is targeting a hat-trick of World Cup medals in Japan.

Head coach: Joe Schmidt

With all due respect to double world champion Steve Hansen, there is no coach Ireland would rather have going into battle this Saturday than Joe Schmidt. Every game Ireland have played against the All Blacks since Schmidt took over has been a tight affair, and he will have the team primed to go down to the wire once again.

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