Ireland v New Zealand, Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 7pm (Live on RTÉ and Channel 4).
It’s only taken 114 years and 31 meetings, but there’s never been a bigger, more meaningful Ireland-New Zealand Test match.
It’s champions of the north v south, number two v number one in the world, and with more than a whiff of ill-feeling in the Dublin air from the last meeting here two years ago.
It should be massively full-on indeed. Chicago was great. The largest monkey finally off Irish rugby’s collective backs. But winning in front of a febrile full house in Dublin, at the 17th attempt, would be even sweeter.
Hence, for once too, long before kick-off the Aviva will be at fever pitch. Along with other issues in recent times, the All Blacks’ abrasive and ruthless revenge mission for Chicago here two years ago – illuminated by Beauden Barrett seemingly playing a different sport – has rather sullied their reputation hereabouts as well as elsewhere perhaps.
The haka will also serve to ensure the capacity crowd (for whom there are probably at least three or four people per seat who would gladly have paid face value for the same ticket) are in situ well before Wayne Barnes signals the start.
And if it can make an Irish crowd punctual, the haka has its place!
It is also custom hereabouts, unlike Twickenham, for the haka to be afforded respectful silence before a response from the home crowd in the shape, usually, of The Fields. Cue some explosiveness.
If only Ireland were locked and fully loaded, or at any rate a little better armed. Ireland had already lost two of the outstanding contributors to the Lions’ drawn series in Conor Murray and Sean O’Brien, as well as Robbie Henshaw, albeit comfort of sorts had been provided by Dan Leavy’s sizeable impact and return to health and form as O’Brien’s replacement last week.
Alas, it was only fleeting. Not having trained on Thursday, Leavy was ruled out yesterday with “general tightness”, whatever the hell that is. Josh van der Flier, who had two impressive, hour-long stints off the bench against the All Blacks in both meetings two Novembers ago, starts in his stead and deservedly, Jordi Murphy, the opening try-scorer in Chicago before suffering a knee injury which ended the rest of his season, is added to the squad.
However, you need big game hunters against the All Blacks, and Leavy is more of a like-for-like, fearless, human wrecking ball who, no less than O’Brien, is capable of enlivening home team and crowd alike with a few charges, or big hits, or a try, or all of the above. As an aside, Murray and Henshaw, and for that matter the Paris-based Simon Zebo, were also try scorers in Chicago, as was O’Brien (memorably) in the first Lions test and Murray in the second.
Although the notion that you simply must score four tries to beat the All Blacks is not necessarily true, it does help if you can. Yes, the Springboks scored five tries to beat them 34-32 in the game of the year in Wellington in September, while conceding six. Similarly, Ireland scored five tries in winning in Chicago two years ago, when learning from the lessons of 2013 by effectively winning the game a second time as the All Blacks all but erased another big lead.
But England almost won scoring two tries last week, and the Lions won in Wellington last year when scoring only two tries, before scoring none at all in a drawn third Test in Eden Park. Admittedly too, it does help if it rains, and whereas conditions were sodden in Wellington and Twickenham, the forecast is set reasonably fair for this evening in Dublin.
Furthermore, last week was the first time in a dozen games this year that the All Blacks didn’t score at least four tries of their own. In those dozen games, they’ve averaged over 5.5 tries and almost 40 points, while conceding an average of two tries and just under 20 points per game.
They go into this match as six-point favourites, but were it not for leaving so many tries and kicks behind against the Boks in Wellington, and eschewing a drop goal from in front of the posts, they would be on a world record run of 22 wins in a row, and would probably be around 12-point favourites.
All of which, not to mention the heavy weight of history (one win in 30 meetings over those 114 years) rather demonstrates the scale of the task facing Ireland.
Of course, Ireland are on a run of 16 wins in their last 17 Test matches and have, for the first time in the nation’s history, won 10 games in a row at home since the All Blacks won here two years ago. There are some serious numbers coming into this one.
Ireland have a fighter’s, rather than a puncher’s, chance, not least as Joe Schmidt, his coaches, Johnny Sexton and the team leaders have been plotting for this one more than the other three combined. When that happens, they usually box clever. One can expect a more accurate performance than last week, with more sustained intensity, especially at the breakdown, and a ferocious tempo.
They largely kept their powder dry last week, when constantly going to the corner seemed like a dry run for this evening. More than most teams, the lineout is Ireland’s main access point into a game and go-to ploy in search of tries, and Devin Toner’s presence seems to settle Rory Best, understandably.
For Ireland, they need that platform, and even then, tries tend to be harder work. If the All Blacks aren’t brilliantly sustaining phases through the quickest of tempos to create chances out wide, invariably taken by Rieko Ioane, they have Barrett and/or Damian McKenzie, at 5’ 9” the smallest man on the pitch, as dual playmakers to pull rabbits out of the hat.
As well as Barrett’s winger’s pace at outhalf, McKenzie is freakishly strong, brave in the air, jet-propelled and has footwork to die for. England kicked and chased superbly save for two occasions last week, and ought to have conceded 14 more points as a result.
It’s not like the All Blacks to leave tries behind. As Gilesy would no doubt say, had he turned his punditry to rugby, tries change games. Tries generally win games too. And with Barrett and McKenzie in their ranks, the All Blacks just have more of a capacity to score them than any other team in the world.
IRELAND: Rob Kearney (Leinster); Keith Earls (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), Jacob Stockdale (Ulster); Jonathan Sexton (Leinster), Kieran Marmion (Connacht); Cian Healy (Leinster), Rory Best (Ulster, capt), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Devin Toner (Leinster), James Ryan (Leinster); Peter O'Mahony (Munster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster).
Replacements: Seán Cronin (Leinster), Jack McGrath (Leinster), Andrew Porter (Leinster), Iain Henderson (Ulster), Jordi Murphy (Ulster), Luke McGrath (Leinster), Joey Carbery (Munster), Jordan Larmour (Leinster).
NEW ZEALAND: Damian McKenzie (Waikato/Chiefs); Ben Smith (Otago/Highlanders), Jack Goodhue (Northland/Crusaders), Ryan Crotty (Canterbury/Crusaders), Rieko Ioane (Auckland/Blues); Beauden Barrett (Taranaki/Hurricanes), Aaron Smith (Manawatu/Highlanders); Karl Tu'inukuafe (North Harbour/Chiefs), Codie Taylor (Canterbury/Crusaders), Owen Franks (Canterbury/Crusaders); Brodie Retallick (Hawke's Bay/Chiefs), Sam Whitelock (Canterbury/Crusaders); Liam Squire (Tasman/Highlanders), Ardie Savea (Wellington/Hurricanes), Kieran Read (Counties Manukau/Crusaders) (capt).
Replacements: Dane Coles (Wellington/Hurricanes), Ofa Tu'ungafasi (Auckland/Blues), Nepo Laulala (North Harbour/Chiefs), Scott Barrett (Taranaki/Crusaders), Matt Todd (Panasonic Wild Knights), TJ Perenara (Wellington/Hurricanes), Richie Mo'unga (Canterbury/Crusaders), Anton Lienert-Brown (Waikato/Chiefs).
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)