Sunday 25 February 2018

Tony Ward: Ireland put reputation on the line

Let me start as I finished my take on last weekend's Eden Park mismatch by re-emphasising the beauty of sport in its unpredictability. Like most people, I believe the All Blacks will make it two wins from two tomorrow mornin but, for the players, hope springs eternal.

I was reminded of this fact when listening to under-fire Robbie Keane giving his verdict on the prospect of facing reigning European and World champions Spain in Gdansk. From his angle, as a player, he believes that he has a chance of winning every game he plays.

It may be a long time since I was a member of the Players' union, but I can identify with that outlook.

With New Zealand being the current world champions, the parallel between our rugby and soccer teams is obvious.

From Cian Healy to Simon Zebo, the match-day 22 chosen for Christchurch knows the outside world has written them off. On Auckland's compelling evidence, who could argue?

Players say they don't read papers and what they might term the 'associated nonsense', but they do.

They are only too aware of the added emotion of the Christchurch occasion and that, from Donegal to Dunedin, the watching world doesn't give them a snowball's chance in hell.

A repeat performance of last week and the difference will be in excess of the 32 that finally divided the sides on North Island.

I think it is safe to assume that, given an extra week in preparation -- bear in mind they are in mid-season Down Under -- the All Blacks will be that bit sharper, perish the thought, in execution this time round.

Steve Hansen has made one enforced change to a pretty impressive post-World Cup unit first time out -- Andrew Thompson for Victor Vito.

Declan Kidney, by contrast, has made four adjustments in personnel in a Leinster-loaded team.

The return of Gordon D'Arcy for the injured Keith Earls is of necessity. D'Arcy had a disappointing Six Nations, but has returned to form with Leinster in the interim. There is no doubt he is a centre who is more at ease with himself and the position when alongside Brian O'Driscoll.

The decision to recall Mike Ross for debutant Declan Fitzpatrick is as expected as it is risk-driven. The hamstring is a complex injury which can only be fully tested in the white heat of battle.

Kidney has understandably opted for both first-choice props, but there's no doubt Healy and Ross carry significant concern into tomorrow's second Test of three.

Kevin McLaughlin's call-up for Peter O'Mahony is both fair and pragmatic. Fair, in so far as McLaughlin has been in good form for Leinster, while O'Mahony, though industrious as ever in Eden Park, did not make the next step as seamlessly as he has done for Munster. Perhaps coming on as an impact replacement on the hour makes the more sensible option.

The same rationale probably applies to Zebo in the context of this emotionally-charged game.

To me, his attacking strengths far outweigh any defensive weaknesses, but sometimes needs must and in the search of better defensive solidity post-Auckland, the obvious sweeping traits of Andrew Trimble need little elaboration.


Zebo, like O'Mahony, Sean Cronin and Eoin Reddan -- who is unlucky not to start -- offer the potential for mid-match impact off the bench although, that said, Jamie Heaslip and, in particular, Conor Murray owe their coach a big one.

Donnacha Ryan was in every respect a tower of strength last week and, hopefully, Dan Tuohy will operate at the same level of second-row efficiency this time.

For Hansen and the All Blacks, the call is simply "more of the same please", but the emotional baggage of Christchurch could add an unlikely pressure.

If both teams replicate last week's performances, it will be no contest, but I would like to think the words of Andy Haden -- lock forward in a certain game in Limerick many moons ago -- will come back to haunt him.

In his view: "New Zealand rugby is sold short by these sort of teams turning up."

If that doesn't elicit the necessary response, then I don't know what will.

Put simply, our rugby reputation is on the line.

Irish Independent

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