All Blacks paying Ireland plenty of respect

“You can’t be off on your game, because they’ll penalise you”

There are chinks of vulnerability there, what with their first three locks all ruled out and an untried, makeshift second-row, a rusty openside and scrum-half, and some nods toward rotation out wide, but then again these things are relative.

For starters, the world's best scrum-half Aaron Smith - probably the All Blacks' most influential player and pound for pound the best player in the world - is back. Smith has been sidelined for a month, having missed the win over South African in Durban which clinched their maximum 24 point haul in the Rugby Championship and their Bledisloe Cup win over Australia in Eden Park a fortnight ago.

It is a measure of their ridiculous strength in depth that in his absence TJ Perenara made a decent claim to retain the jersey, and has scored tries in three successive games for New Zealand. There was even some debate as to whether Smith would be recalled.

But in that 37-10 win over Australia in their Eden Park fortress, Perenara resorted to his old habit of 'periscoping' on arrival at the breakdown, thus slowing down the All Blacks' normal high tempo. Their game revolves around the ball being moved on from the breakdown in two seconds or under, and no-one does that better than Smith, whom Steve Hansen has simply described as "the best half-back in the world".


Throw in his superb kicking game on top of that speed to the breakdown, laser gun pass off both hands, not to mention his support play and tackling, and Smith's return adds to their potency for Saturday's rendezvous with Ireland in Soldier Field.

With their first-choice second-row pairing of Brodie Retalick and Sam Whitelock hors de combat, and Luke Romano missing due to a family bereavement, Hansen and co have opted to pair Patrick Tuipolotu with Jerome Kaino, normally their blindside flanker, with Liam Squire starting at '6', and the uncapped 22-year-old Crusaders lock Scott Barrett on the bench. Kaino has covered and finished games in the second row before, but in his 76th test, this will be his first start there.

Openside Sam Cane hasn't played since tearing his hamstring in the win over Argentina in Hamilton on September 10th, save for a 40 minute run-out for Bay of Plenty against Otago in the NPC semi-finals a fortnight ago. "He'll last 80 if he has to," maintained Hansen, noting that they do have Ardie Savea amongst a bench of replacements with, as usual, plenty of ballast.

Out wide, it is a further statement of their competition for places that outside centre Anton Lienart-Brown and the brilliant Israel dagg miss out to the relatively inexperienced pair of Blues winger cum centre George Moala and Fijian-born, ex-New Zealand Sevens and current Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo. All told there are six changes from the team that beat Australia, and Hansen accepted that Naholo and Julien Savea are not as accomplished in the air as Dagg.

In a classy touch, Hansen began proceedings by congratulating the Chicago Cubs on their historic World Series win on Wednesday night, which had car horns tooting and the locals celebrating well into the night in the Windy City.

He also took time to add: “On a more sombre note, we haven’t had the opportunity and we have the Irish people here, we’d like to convey a message of sympathy and best wishes to the Foley family on the death of Anthony. It was a tragedy and one that was felt right throughout the world, our thoughts and prayers are with them.”

That it took the Cubs 108 years of trying, and Ireland have been trying to beat the All Blacks for 111 years (managing one draw in 28 meetings) it’s been suggested that the Cubs world series win over the Cleveland Indians as some kind of promising portent for Ireland.

“I listened to Joe (Maddon), the Chicago coach saying that curses and such things aren’t what make sport, it’s actually the process of getting across the line that makes it,” said Hansen with a smile. “So, I know that this Irish side is a good team, last time we played them they should have won and they’ve only gotten better since then.”

“They’ll be disappointed by what happened at the World Cup, but I think they had a lot of injuries unfortunately through the tournament and that put them under a lot of pressure. They probably didn’t have the success they wanted, but they’ve continued on and beaten South Africa, had a great series about them. They’ll be full noise, so we’ll need to be full noise too.”

Reflecting on Ireland’s performances in South Africa, Hansen said: “I guess the way they try and play the game; their coaching staff led by Joe - they maximise what they’ve got and they play to their strengths. They analyse the opposition and have a really, really clear idea of how they want to play against you. That means you can’t be off on your game, because they’ll penalise you. So we’ve just got to make sure that we plug the holes that we think we’ve got and hopefully he hasn’t seen more than what we have.

“We’re expecting a physical encounter, one where they’ll kick the ball a fair bit. Sexton and Murray are both key guys at driving them around the park and have real variation in their kicking game.

“Their chase of their kicks is good, they’ll compete in the air. They score a lot of points off their lineout, so they’ll see that as a part of their game they’ll want to get right, whether it be from driving mauls or scoring plays off it.

“They like to play little set-plays that they’ll have worked out, ‘we think they’re vulnerable here,’ so they’ll jack up a set play to exploit that. We’ve got to make sure we plug those holes.

“They’re all challenges because if you get focused on just one of them, they’ll hit you with the other one. So, we’re going to have to look after all three of those challenges. There’ll be more than those three but they’re the three critical ones I think.”

At their five star and less ostentatious Hyatt Regency hotel down the river from the Trump tower, there is a genuine wariness within the All Blacks ranks of the threat posed by Ireland.

Asked why he feels Ireland provide the All Blacks with such tough opposition. Julien Savea quipped: “I’m not sure, perhaps because they hate the colour black.”

If so, it is because they’ve good reason to after so many near misses of late in that 28-match winless record.

New Zealand: Ben Smith; Waisake Naholo, George Moala, Ryan Crotty, Julian Savea; Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Dane Coles, Owen Franks; Patrick Tuipulotu, Jerome Kaino; Liam Squire, Sam Cane, Kieran Read. Replacements: Codie Taylor, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Charlie Faumuina, Scott Barrett, Ardie Save, TJ Perenara, Aaron Cruden, Malakai Fekitoa

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times