Gerry Thornley: For one week only let’s park the World Cup

Meeting with All Blacks could influence next year but it can also stand on its own two feet

The All Blacks perform the haka before facing Ireland at the Aviva two years ago. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

The All Blacks perform the haka before facing Ireland at the Aviva two years ago. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Less than a year out from Japan 2019, so much of this month, this week and most of all this coming Saturday at the Aviva Stadium is being viewed in the context of next year’s World Cup. That’s understandable. But here’s a thought. Sod the World Cup.

Yes, a second Irish win in this four-yearly cycle would be a psychological boost, especially were the two teams to meet in either the quarter-finals or the final in Japan. Equally, were New Zealand to make double their revenge for Chicago it might re-assert their historical mental edge over Ireland.

Then again, Saturday’s losers might be even more motivated by a sense of fear and/or the desire for revenge. In other words, come the World Cup, it might not make a blind bit of difference.

Either way, this Saturday’s 31st meeting is quite unique. By rights, a 28-1-1 head-to-head would suggest the result shouldn’t be up for discussion on Saturday. But not only did the class of 2016 in Chicago finally remove the biggest monkey Irish rugby has ever known, the aggregate over the last three meetings since Ireland’s favourite Kiwi took over the national team is +3 points to the All Blacks.

Never in the 113-year history of the fixture have Ireland been so competitive over three consecutive meetings.

Brazil of rugby

The All Blacks are still the canine’s spheroids. They are the back to back reigning world champions. They’ve been the world’s number one side for nine years on the trot. In football terms, they are the Brazil of rugby. They are the standard bearers. But this is also a different Ireland.

For the first time ever, Ireland host New Zealand as the second best side in the world. This is the Grand Slam champions of the north against the champions of the south. This billing has never happened before, and might never happen again.  

Hence, this game could probably have been sold out three times over. Has there been a bigger international sports fixture this year in this country? Hardly.

Chicago was great and removed that monkey, but there are little hints out of New Zealand that the All Blacks were ‘distracted’. Certainly they love the heightened sense of occasion and full houses that come with their end-of-year matches in famed northern hemisphere citadels.

But by the same token, while Chicago was indeed great, it wasn’t Dublin, or Lansdowne Road, old or new. Beating the almighty All Blacks there next Saturday, in front of a 51,700 capacity who will be mostly Irish and, even more remarkably, mostly seated well in advance of the kick-off thanks in the main to the haka, might be even better.

After 15 defeats and one draw in Dublin, to become the first group of Irish players to beat New Zealand on home soil would be one to tell the grandchildren about. And something special to witness.

Already every day seems significant in this momentous week.

Mind games

Steve Hansen is a wily old dog. Akin to Eddie Jones and Warren Gatland, and unlike Joe Schmidt, he doesn’t mind a few mind games. For starters, Hansen happily plays the media game. To that end, almost uniquely, he conducts an additional, more considered, post-match debrief on Sundays. Last Sunday, his scheduled press conference was moved from London to Dublin and deferred from morning to tea-time. Then, scarcely two minutes in, and entirely unprompted, he suggested, again, that Conor Murray would play.

He didn’t have any inside information, any more than he did when forecasting that Gatland would be bringing in additional players on the Lions’ tour before the Test series. Gatland had tagged that all along.

New Zealand’s Damian McKenzie skips through the England pack during their win at Twickenham on Saturday. Photo: Andy Rain/EPA
New Zealand’s Damian McKenzie skips through the England pack during their win at Twickenham on Saturday. Photo: Andy Rain/EPA

Knowing that in all probability Murray was hardly going to play his first game in five months after a neck injury against the All Blacks, the sub-text was clear. Basically, they’re desperate to play him. Ireland wouldn’t be able to beat the almighty All Blacks without Murray.

Schmidt and Ireland could have played along with the Murray sub-plot, maintaining a smidgen of doubt that Murray might play. Suffice to say, this Irish set-up wouldn’t be the most transparent when it comes to injuries. But against that, why give Hansen any more scope to highlight how dependent Ireland might be on Murray?

Furthermore, if Murray was never going to play this week, then best to declare as much, and in the process back their men, most likely Kieran Marmion and Luke McGrath in that order.

Busy and entertained

The deliberations and speculation over selection will also keep us busy and entertained. Ireland have, perhaps, more issues, although Murray and Robbie Henshaw being ruled out, along with Sean O’Brien, does help to resolve them, even if it leaves them without two of the four major Irish components to the Lions series draw in New Zealand.

No less than Ireland – who are likely to recall the steadying influence, experience, physicality and aerial skills of Rob Kearney over Jordan Larmour – Hansen and co will consider whether to play safer, with Ben Smith at fullback, and re-deploy Damian McKenzie’s X factor off the bench.

McKenzie is every bit as electric as Larmour but his career is at a slightly more advanced stage. Even when struggling under the high ball last Saturday, he still seemed to be running on a different Twickenham surface from everyone else. His outrageous footwork beat 12 defenders. Next was Beauden Barrett on seven. When McKenzie was hauled off, and Barrett shifted to fullback, they didn’t look like scoring a try again. But the less Ireland see of McKenzie the better.     

Either way, if Ireland do reach the World Cup quarter-finals, they are destined to face the All Blacks or the Springboks. Given how Rassie Erasmus has already transformed the latter, it’s going to be the toughest quarter-final ever.

So yeah, sod the World Cup. Saturday at the Aviva could be epic. 

gthornley@irishtimes.ie 

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