Gerry Thornley: Focus returns to showdown with All Blacks
Ireland head coach wary of a New Zealand backlash ahead of Saturday’s showdown
Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has no new concerns after Saturday’s win over Canada. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho.
Ireland have never gone into a meeting with the All Blacks in better nick. Quite conceivably, the entire first-choice XV were rested up while a notional second-string team 23, featuring eight new caps, posted a 50-pointer against Canada in a near full-house last Saturday night in readiness for next Saturday’s eagerly anticipated sell-out with the back-to-back World champions. Bring it on.
Furthermore, there were no injury scares to add to the unfortunate Jordi Murphy and, of course, compared to the previous 29 meetings with the all-conquering, almighty All Blacks, for the first time Ireland enter the renewal having won the last time out. But therein, of course, lies the rub.
Reflecting on the events in Chicago following Saturday’s 52-21 win over Canada, Joe Schmidt noted: “I’ve massive respect for Kieran Read, I spoke to him briefly after the game, I’m not sure that he’s captained a losing All Blacks side and I know that it hurt.
“To a degree I think we’ve poked the bear. I’ve no doubt that they will come out mentally. I don’t think they will be any more aggressive than they normally are but I just think they’ll be sharper and to be honest, there were probably a couple of times at 33-29 where they put balls down or we were in trouble.”
“Games swing on those,” said Schmidt, adding: “If everything they do sticks we’ll find them very, very hard to contain.”
But thanks to Ireland’s win in Chicago, the game could be sold out several times over, and the world of rugby will be watching this rematch. A nation expects and all that.
“That is our part of the deal and I know what other people will bring and I think that will be a jam-packed Aviva with lots of volume and we will try to live up to deserving that by the performance we put in,” he said, with an air of responsibility.
Realistically, the All Blacks, who arrived in Dublin last night from Rome following their 68-10 win over Conor O’Shea’s Italy, have more room for improvement than Ireland, not that the latter’s performance in Soldier Field was perfect.
“There’s a couple of times we lost a few lineouts in the first-half, there’s a couple of times we probably missed a few things defensively,” said Schmidt. “I think even when (Waisake) Naholo went through early in the game, we were kind of on the front foot there, even though we were without the ball. I know he strikes a great line and he’s such a dangerous player when he accelerates. He looks like he’s jogging, I’d love to be that guy who looks like he’s jogging and he’s like a thunderbolt. But once he’s through he’s very difficult to contain, so we can maybe tidy a few things up from that perspective.”
And finally, as Schmidt noted: “To put five tries on the All Blacks, what can you do better offensively? It’s kind of quite hard, because I think they’d had five or six tries scored against them in the whole Rugby Championship, by South Africa, Australia and Argentina – three teams that are recognisable as having real threats across the board.”
Area of contention
The main area of contention within the Irish selection would appear to be the backrow, after Peter O’Mahony and Seán O’Brien’s long-awaited return to the international fray either side of what Schmidt described as a “super” debut by Jack O’Donoghue.
“I thought Seanie got on a really good ball early in the game and was probably unlucky not to get a reward for it,” said Schmidt. “He carried really strongly. I think he always looked a threat when he was carrying, even when there were numbers in front of him. I thought Pete grew into the game and got better and better as the game went on. I think Jack started well and continued in the same vein.
“Look, it’s one of those tough things. We’ve lost Jordi Murphy obviously and I know he may have been a bit of a surprise selection but Jordi was super for us in the first 24 minutes and, gee, you can’t fault 13 tackles from Josh van der Flier to be the top tackler and he didn’t play the first 24 minutes of the game.
“He added great value as well, so they are some of the headaches that we’ll have and we’ll try to sort our way through. As I said earlier, I really need to go through the footage and chat to Simon Easterby about the backrow.
“He was obviously a super backrow himself, a 62-Test match veteran, and we will have a chat about those guys and try to make the best decision with an awareness of what we’re likely to come up against with New Zealand. ”