It’s time for heroes to emerge in the battle of Soldier Field
Ireland’s history against All Blacks is bleak but another opportunity beckons in Chicago
Ireland’s Johnny Sexton practices his kicking at Soldier Field in Chicago ahead of the November Test against the All Blacks. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho
Daunting is hardly the half of it. Ireland once again boldly seek to go where no senior Irish men’s team has gone before – cross the winning line against New Zealand. In all 28 have tried and none have succeeded.
And to put that in perspective, no other team has done it against the All Blacks since Australia in Sydney in August 2015.
Since then there have been 18 Test wins on the bounce – they retained the World Cup – and the last seven of those against three fellow World Cup semi-finalists by an average winning margin of 19 points.
Whether they are the greatest All Blacks team of all time, which would make them the best ever, is a legitimate question. It is hard to recall a team so dominant at any point in the game’s history. Or a team that genuinely looks unbeatable.
They have become a winning machine, seamlessly replacing stellar players with well-groomed, equally gifted younger replacements.
Beauden Barrett’s ability to take the ball to the line and exploit space with that gliding pace of his has, if anything, added even more to their running game post-Dan Carter.
True, his goal-kicking is iffy, but that does not matter too much when he is helping his team to bucketloads of tries.
Missing their three frontline locks, their secondrow combination is a little makeshift and untried, but Aaron Smith is back to reapply their high tempo game.
Indeed, it is their execution of skills from one to 15 at a high tempo, and their ability to transition from defence to attack at the instigation of Ben Smith, Barrett and their kindred spirits, which sets them apart.
Their strength in depth is ridiculous. If the starting XV don’t get you, the finishing XV generally does.
Yet Ireland have hope, not least having come within one kick or one play of beaten the All Blacks to deny them their perfect record in 2013. Six of that starting Irish side are retained, and everyone trusts in Joe Schmidt.
There isn’t the same array of carriers as there was in November 2013, so we will need big games by the likes of CJ Standerand Robbie Henshaw.
We will also need the same unrelentingly accurate and emphatic clearing out by the first two support men to maintain that tempo.
The defensive blueprint and alert commitment to the breakdown and counter-rucking remains from that day. Andy Farrell, who was defensive coach when England beat the All Blacks in 2013, can add to the master plan.
There’s a dizzying, sporting buzz in the Windy City this week, what with the Chicago Cubs ending a 108-year drought for a World Series title. The Ireland squad had to receive a police escort to Soldier Field yesterday morning via underground roads as the main routes were closed due to the million-plus fans who descended upon downtown Chicago for the team’s ticker-tape parade.
Even in this sports mad city rugby has seemed like an interloper this week, but come match day the sense of occasion is guaranteed, with an estimated 5,000-plus travelling over from Ireland to swell the Diaspora and make the 61,500 sell-out akin to a home game .
History weighs Ireland down, yet opportunity knocks to make history.
“I’ve played in a lot of very good Irish teams and it seems very strange that Ireland have never beaten the All Blacks, for whatever reason,” said captain Rory Best at the pre-match media briefing.
“We would see ourselves as a top-tier nation, one of the better sides in the world, and it’s almost like we’ve shown it against everyone except the All Blacks.
“The big thing for us is to make sure we get our stuff right. History is history, and we can’t affect that. All we can affect is what happens on Saturday, every minute from 3pm onwards when we eventually get there. That’s all we can look at.
“It’s disappointing Ireland have never beaten New Zealand, but we have a chance now on Saturday to change that.”
More concerning than the dimensions of the pitch is the state of the surface; the Chicago Bears having played there last Monday.
“Yeah, look, I think it is alright,” was the best that Best could put it. “It is a little bit patchy in place. The Aviva is really like a carpet. I don’t think there is any better surfaces; the problem is if you try to compare like for like.
“It will be an unbelievable cauldron to play in. It is a fantastic stadium. Pitch-wise it has got a lot of games on it, but as long as it holds up for the scrums then every else will be fine.”
The pitch itself is narrow, at 66m wide, and shorter than normal at 95m, but that didn’t stop the All Blacks putting 74 points on the Eagles when here two years ago, and Schmidt doesn’t believe it will be a huge factor.
“I know the last time we were in Argentina the dimensions were very similar, and yet the game was quite expansive and there was a heck of a lot of rugby played in those two Test matches that summer.
“I watched their full game against USA and there still seemed to be far too much space when they cut them up and got away on them. I think from their prospective it won’t be over-relevant, but the relative space that is there will be a challenge for both teams to find.”
The All Blacks are a huge challenge to any opposing team but it will be a surprise if Ireland aren’t a good deal more competitive than the betting suggests.
And then there is the Anthony Foley factor. As a tribute to the 62-times capped backrower, the Ireland players will form a figure of eight before kick-off.