History suggests Ireland facing a glorious defeat
One chink of light may be that The All Blacks are showing signs of weariness
All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw and number eight Kieran Read during the New Zealand captain’s run at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Rarely can one recall such a feeling of foreboding before an Irish Test match. The almighty Blacks beat them 60-zip last time out and, comfortably the best side in the world, are seeking their 14th win out of 14 this year. Ireland, just off a 32-15 beating by Australia, are 20-point, 10 to 1 underdogs. Should they even show up today?
Well, of course they should, for every team is beatable, even if this New Zealand side are proving more difficult to beat than anyone else on the planet right now, and of course Ireland never have in 109 years of trying. But who knows, fear along with a shot at redemption, a shot to nothing and indeed, as Paul O’Connell has again been reminding his team-mates this week, a “shot at history”, can be powerful spurs.
It could even be that the scale of last week’s defeat, in particular the passivity and lack of line speed in defence, will be a salient reminder, ie take a leaf out of the All Blacks’ almost arm-locked four or five-up defence, and the in-yer-face defensive line speed employed by France and England in the last two weeks when restricting them to seven and eight point wins.
To this end, restoring Gordon D’Arcy alongside Brian O’Driscoll (equalling Ronan O’Gara’s mark of 128 Irish Tests) for a world record 52nd time together, should help, as should Conor Murray’s recall.
Signs of weariness
It could also be that the All Blacks are showing signs of weariness. Both teams fell along predicted lines, and in their reshuffling, some of it injury enforced, this cannot be described as the All Blacks’ first-choice XV per se, or at any rate not the starting team they’d have chosen for a Rugby Championship shoot-out in Johannesburg.
Then again, their capacity for regenerating from within is, as Joe Schmidt noted on Friday, what sets them apart. “You can’t get them at a vulnerable moment because the vulnerable moments, selection-wise, just don’t really exist. You’ve got to force those vulnerable moments in the 80 minutes that you’re on the field.”
The referee for the Jo’burg classic was Nigel Owens, who also made the critical call to ping the Irish scrum for deliberately wheeling in the endgame in Christchurch last year with the score 19-all and Ireland pressing for an historic win.
The scrum has been the least potent of the All Blacks’ vast array of weaponry this season and after last week you’d expect a better Irish scrum behind the targeted and insufficiently protected Ross. There could, possibly, be scope for going after the New Zealand throw but to negate these superb All Blacks perhaps most critically Ireland need to gamble on flooding the breakdown.
A TV-dictated 2pm kick-off this afternoon is far from ideal, but with the crowd still on edge after the anthems and the haka, the quicker after 2pm that the home team get the crowd into the game the better. It can be anything. A kick-chase, a lineout maul, a big hit – whatever. Just once it comes with intensity.
Carry hard enough
Mixed with some of the back-to-Irish basics stuff, if Ireland carry hard enough and persistently enough, and clear out accurately, there will be more space out wide. But therein perhaps lies the biggest shortfall, for as the Aussies deduced last week, stop Seán O’Brien and you stop Ireland. There is a shortage of ballast in that department, and Ireland need more carrying from Cian Healy, Paul O’Connell, Peter O’Mahony and Jamie Heaslip, who we know is a big-game player.
Schmidt acknowledged on Friday that there was “a risk” attached to Jonathan Sexton’s selection, and for the miracle to happen it would help no end if Sexton and Rob Kearney complete their seemingly miraculous recoveries to not only start but play the full 80. Ireland haven’t won against front-line opposition since beating Wales in February – the last time Sexton completed 80 minutes for Ireland.
With Aaron Cruden now altogether more “comfortable”, according to Steve Hansen, in the role of an All Blacks number 10, these All Blacks are not as comparatively dependent upon the sadly absent Dan Carter. Cruden’s kicking game, out of hand and off the ground, have improved immeasurably, and his ability to attack the gain line destroyed Ireland in Hamilton.
Thankfully, not only is D’Arcy back, but Sonny Bill Williams isn’t there. Yet the All Blacks still have so many other arrows in their quiver, not least Ma’a Nonu, a complete inside centre who is playing as well as ever, the ridiculous potent Julien Savea (18 tries in 19 Tests) and Israel Dagg, a beautifully balanced runner who, ominously, has yet to score a Test try this year.
Then there’s Kieran Read, the world’s best player right now, lethal in those wide channels as creator and finisher; witness tries in each of his last four Tests, not to mention of course, Richie McCaw.
On Friday, Schmidt cited the All Blacks’ “ability to play whatever type of rugby is required in the conditions”, based upon the way they can revert to their default settings of their set-piece or their brilliance in the air.
“Their ability to play on the hoof and transform situations where they’re under pressure into sudden pressure points for the opposition is incredible,” he added. Extracting a glorious defeat from the embers of last week seems about as much as Ireland can achieve.
Overall head-to-head: Played 27, Ireland 0 wins, 1 draw, New Zealand 26 wins.
Forecast: Eh, New Zealand to win.