Sunday 21 January 2018

Tommy Conlon: An ambush built on a foundation is an ambush that can be repeated

Maybe wins over the All Blacks are like buses: you wait ages for one, then two come along at once

Joe Schmidt and Simon Zebo share a smile after last week’s historic victory over New Zealand in Chicago Picture: Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt and Simon Zebo share a smile after last week’s historic victory over New Zealand in Chicago Picture: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

Call it the Blacklash, but no sooner had they beaten New Zealand last Saturday than various Irish players were warning of a swift and severe reprisal.

The All Blacks would get their chance for revenge within a fortnight. First they had to deal with Italy in Rome yesterday. And then, the raiding party was on its way to Dublin and it could almost be a case of shut down the city and lock up your daughters. This has nothing to do with the fact that scrum-half Aaron Smith, the old romantic, will be among them.

It's just that in losing to Ireland last weekend they made a piece of embarrassing history. Having entered the hall of fame for a record-breaking 18-match winning streak, they shuffled ignominiously into the hall of shame. They'd become the first senior New Zealand men's team to lose to Ireland. It had only taken 111 years. But when the music stopped it was this particular bunch of players who were left holding the clatty diaper.

Now, we would like to think that this is a good Ireland team and, therefore, losing to them should not be deemed a catastrophe. But the All Blacks are blushing like a man caught in the disabled toilet of an airport with a woman who is not his partner.

They suspended Smith for this, eh, offence in early October. Like it was any of their business. But of course it was bad for business: the corporate dollar demands total conformity to certain moral values. Naturally, the most important of these values is to never get caught. Smith got caught. So he had to go down the well-worn grovel path of a public apology and a plea for forgiveness.

New Zealand supporters will find it a lot easier to forgive Smith than forgive the team if they lose to Ireland again. Like, if it's just a one-off, then it's tolerable. The winning streak had to come to an end some time, and it would've been a lot worse if the opponents were Australia or England. But the Irish? It's not too bad. At the same time, you wouldn't want them getting too uppity either. Once is okay; twice and they'll be wearing out their welcome. Twice in a fortnight is downright unacceptable.

And the New Zealand press corps will have to put down their pom poms and pick up a scalpel instead. No one's going to be happy.

The squad arrive in Dublin carrying this baggage. They will be under pressure to even the score. Andrew Trimble has been around long enough to know what's coming. The Ulsterman had been typically brave and dependable in Chicago last weekend. But within 24 hours he was reflecting on the challenge that lay ahead rather than revelling in the afterglow of Saturday's sweet achievement.

"They're going to come with a massive backlash," he warned. "A lot of sides can produce a one-off performance. All your energy goes into one massive big effort and you just fall flat on the floor exhausted knowing you've achieved something special. To get up and go at it again is a big challenge."

Nervous Irish fans should take comfort in knowing that the Chicago performance didn't come out of the blue. It wasn't a sudden bushfire that sprung from nowhere. It wasn't a lucky haymaker. It was an ambush built on a foundation. The national team under Joe Schmidt is a team of structure, substance and consistency. It is not a flighty outfit that blows hot and cold. Schmidt sets the standard and his standard is not a fickle thing.

The summer tour of South Africa reinforced this reality. They lost the series but they won the first Test and fought with tremendous resilience in the other two. They faced setback after setback and made no excuses.

The major concern going into last weekend's match was ring rust, a deficit of the match sharpness one felt was essential before facing the world champions. It had been four months, more or less, since they'd been together. And yet Schmidt managed to camouflage this problem. Again, there would be no excuses.

Rob Kearney revealed as much in a telling post-match quote. "The preparation time that we've had has been minimal," he said, "but I haven't felt as prepared for a game in a long, long time."

Backlash or not, this Ireland team is well equipped tactically, physically and psychologically to face down the All Blacks again. They have beaten them. They have taken away some of that all-conquering aura. New Zealand normally play at their own phenomenal tempo week in week out. But they could only conjure that familiar, formidable rhythm in spasms last weekend. Gordon D'Arcy said on television at half-time that they looked a "tired" team.

They were also missing key players from their pack in particular. Schmidt, impeccably rational as always, conceded afterwards that the All Blacks were "under-staffed" on the day. "The reality is that we did get them when they were a little bit vulnerable." And maybe just a tad complacent too.

If they were weakened by fatigue or complacency, we can assume that those issues will be parked for the 80 minutes at Lansdowne Road. But that's their business. Ireland's business is to meet the Blacklash with a backlash of their own. It is not unknown in Dublin for two buses, after an eternity, to come along at the same time.

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