Ireland need 'controlled abandon'
RUGBY SECOND TESTVIEWED REALISTICALLY, beating the All Blacks last week on the ground where they were crowned as world champions last October would have constituted Ireland’s greatest one-off win. Fresh from a 32-point beating and with all the emotional inspiration which the All Blacks will draw from their first outing here since the earthquakes devastated the city, so this applies again – in spades.
The bookies see it accordingly. Deemed 17 point underdogs last week, Ireland are +23 points this week and, 13 to 2 outsiders last week, they have morphed into a 12 to 1 shot, with the All Blacks 40 to 1 on favourites. History has shown us that having hit the ground running, these remodelled All Blacks may take off this week.
“I know for a fact they’ll improve, they’ll improve 10-15 per cent and that’s why this is an even bigger challenge than last week,” Declan Kidney admits. “They’ll obviously be on an emotional roller from it being back in Christchurch. None of those things we can do anything about. We just need to get a bit upset with ourselves and we’ll perform an awful lot better – and I know that we can.”
This has dawned on the team as well, having experienced a sharp increase in the need to execute skills and defend more accurately at a consistently higher tempo than pretty much anything in European rugby can equip them for.
Whether they are equipped to do so – missing key men in the 16th Test of an exhausting season against the best team in the world – remains to be seen. The changes have been moderate, not least as there is a dark cloud over the participation of Mike Ross.
But even on the slightly dangerous presumption the set-pieces hold up, down here that really is only a starting point. Attack is the best form of defence, but losing the ball leaves a team vulnerable defensively, and against the All Blacks more than any other team in the world. “When you turn over the ball you have got to ramp it up again,” said Brian O’Driscoll, “not think or pray that the referee is going to call a scrum. They don’t want any scrums, they want to play. And when they turn the ball over, that’s a great attacking option for you too.”
Kevin McLaughlin’s presence can add ballast in the collisions and free up Seán O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip to carry more. Fergus McFadden has been picked on trust, a la Dan Tuohy, but Andrew Trimble’s recall should toughen up the wide defence.
Then there’s O’Driscoll himself. Inside centre looked ill-fitting on him and he admits to feeling more comfortable back in the position where he has had no peers over the last 13 years. He and Gordon D’Arcy also know each other inside out. In mitigation of O’Driscoll’s failed offloads last week, it would help if others were more in tune with him. Ireland could also bring Rob Kearney into the line more.
Silver linings? Well, there could be dark clouds. The sunshine which greeted the team’s arrival on Wednesday has given way to two days of on-off rain with cold south-westerly winds, and though the forecast is for the showers to possibly clear by kick-off, the Christchurch climate is capricious.
Although clichéd, rain could be a leveller, in reducing the sustained high tempo in which the All Blacks flourish. Nevertheless, Ireland’s best win since the Grand Slam was the 15-6 success over Australia in Auckland at the World Cup. “We don’t know what to expect this week, there’s interesting forecasts around,” admitted All Blacks’ assistant coach Ian Foster. “We’ve got to be prepared for everything, a bit more kick-chase, perhaps. But it’s all about attitude and commitment in those conditions and we’ll be ready.”
Buoyed by more thousands in green, “attitude” shouldn’t be an issue with Ireland either. Asked why he believed there was a big performance, even a winning one, in this team, O’Driscoll said: “Because no one gives us a chance, which is a good place to be. I know what the capabilities of the team are, and it will take a massive effort from everyone to play . . . one of their best games. But that’s happened with Irish teams I’ve been involved with, when we’ve beaten world class opposition.”
There are also 10 reigning European champions in the team, hence the argument for an 11th, Eoin Reddan, as the link. But as good as Leinster are, would the European club champions be capable of beating the world champions away from home, and without Isa Nacewa and Brad Thorn? One suspects too Kidney may also have had one eye on the conditions when retaining the physicality of Conor Murray around the fringes.
The latest entry in the winless history against the All Blacks raises questions regarding Ireland’s inner belief. “I asked them that and they said ‘no’,” maintained Kidney, who said the squad had “a good chat”, instead highlighting the way possession was coughed up by turnovers, but also with restarts. Ireland’s restart game last week was conservative until Ronan O’Gara came on. However, that Kidney asked showed it was a valid concern for him too.
“You’ve got to stay with them, stay with them, stay with them,” emphasised O’Driscoll. “And take your chances when they come. We don’t have to play with any concerns, we’ve been written off over here already so just play with, not wild abandon, but controlled abandon, as such.”
Some old-fashioned organised Irish chaos would help but this display will have to tick every box.
BETTING(Paddy Powers): 1/40 New Zealand, 40/1 Draw, 13/2 Ireland. Handicap odds (Ireland +23 pts) 10/11 New Zealand, 25/1 Draw, 10/11 Ireland.
Forecast: New Zealand to win.