A few Irish issues resolved but others remain ahead of All Blacks
Seán O’Brien ruled out with injury while Connor Murray return highly unlikely
Ireland’s Bundee Aki scores a try in their 28-17 victory over Argentina at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Decisions, decisions. Heading into the big one, the opening skirmishes of this November window have left Joe Schmidt and the Irish coaching and medical staff with more headaches than ideally they would have liked. Against that, Ireland’s hard-earned 28-17 win over Argentina last Saturday – a record tenth in a row at home – may have highlighted but also resolved a few issues for Schmidt prior to next Saturday’s eagerly awaited rendezvous with New Zealand.
First and foremost Ireland will be without one world-class performer, Seán O’Brien, albeit that Dan Leavy looks a ready-made replacement. Pending any further injury news that we don’t know about, with Robbie Henshaw (a late withdrawal due to a tight hamstring), Kieran Marmion and Bundee Aki, both ankle, at least minor doubts but expected to be fit, scrumhalf and midfield are issues, not least as a Conor Murray comeback has still not been ruled out.
Murray hasn’t played in five months but trained with the Irish squad in Carton House the week before last, and last week with Munster. No less than O’Brien, Tadhg Furlong and Johnny Sexton, Murray has been a key figure in the relative successes against the All Blacks of recent times with the Lions and Ireland.
The scrumhalf has won two and drawn one of his last five encounters against them, and scored four tries in nine meetings. And as one of Ireland’s most influential players, no doubt Schmidt would be tempted to play him. Schmidt will phone Murray today, and said whether he came back into camp “will really be Conor’s call”.
“It’s not the injury, it’s really just how ready Conor is. How fully fit he is because the injury itself has gone really well, but it is tough to come back into a game of that magnitude though. It is highly unlikely he will be involved, but as I said, I will talk to him.”
With Garry Ringrose and Rob Kearney expected to train fully this week, Schmidt may yet have to choose two from three between Ringrose, Henshaw and Aki, who had another big carrying game against the Pumas – well though Will Addison performed in a hurried full debut in place of Henshaw.
Given Ireland’s difficulties in the air at the back, Kearney seems sure to be restored and, similarly, the aerial skills of Devin Toner were also highlighted in his absence before his arrival nearing the hour, not to mention the carnage wreaked on England’s throw by Brodie Retallick..
“I thought Iain Henderson certainly gave us advantage line on a number of occasions and I thought Dev Toner came on and did really well,” said Schmidt, “so there’s that and Tadhg Beirne and Quinn Roux sitting in behind, adding ballast and complicating the decisions that we’ll have to make next week”.
O’Brien – a player who generates more respect than most in the Land of the Long White Cloud and all the more so after his world-class form in the Lions’ Test series there last year – has, again, been cruelly ruled out of an Irish-All Blacks clash due to the fractured forearm he suffered approaching half-time.
At least O’Brien has a chance of returning in time for the Six Nations and Ireland are, as ever, well stocked with loose forward options, with Leavy’s second-half display not far from the heights of his Grand Slam exploits.
“Dan Leavy came on and played really well,” admitted Schmidt. “But I don’t know if you remember the last time we played the All Blacks here, Josh van der Flier had a phenomenal entry into the game. He had two searing line-breaks and really impressed.
“So, I know that’s two years ago now and it’s all about the current context and what people can deliver in the next seven days but it all feeds into a melting pot that we’ll have a look at and make some decisions on the back of. It’s nice to have that back-up, but I would reiterate that I would be pretty disappointed for Seán.”
That Ireland broke their hoodoo in Chicago before a vengeful All Blacks won in the Aviva two Novembers ago (Ireland’s last home defeat) adds to the potency of next Saturday’s game. As the top two sides in the world rankings, with Grand Slam champions of the north hosting the Rugby Championship winners of the south, it’s been the standout fixture of this month’s global feast for some time.
That Ireland enter the game as six-point underdogs is also fair enough, and as for flawed preparation games, recall that Ireland lost to Australia 32-15 a week before rattling the All Blacks cage in that heartbreaking 24-22 loss five years ago at the outset of the Schmidt era.
“Yeah, look, it is exciting,” admitted Schmidt on Saturday night. “I’ve had guys from New Zealand ringing me looking for tickets for the last six to nine months. I haven’t got tickets, ‘I can’t give you tickets’. So, if you guys have got any spare I’ve got people to give them to.
“We shouldn’t really be giving them to Kiwis anyway, because we want to get as much green in there, as much volume supporting us as possible,” said Schmidt, correcting himself and recalling the two previous meetings here under his watch.
“I remember the roar in 2013 was phenomenal. When we were driving that lineout with 10 minutes to go, the roar was just deafening. While it didn’t work out the right way, it was the same last time we played them, but they scored a phenomenal try very, very quickly at the start of the game that was pure All Blacks class.”
Now the scale of the task was vividly coming to his mind.
“The speed of the ruck, the speed of transfer, the quality of the passing and the running lines . . . all of those things that we know that are coming (next Saturday) they presented. There’s no doubt they’ll want to hit the ground running in a similar fashion and we have got to be ready to do the same.”
And, no doubt, he went off into the night as excited, if also a little daunted, as anyone else by the prospect of it all.