Joe Schmidt opts for familiar for All Blacks Test

Ireland head coach keen to get one over his native New Zealand in Chicago first Test

Gerry Thornley and Gavin Cummiskey preview Ireland's upcoming test match against New Zealand in Chicago's Soldier Field


For Joe Schmidt, this is always the special one. No games are more daunting, and no games come bigger than against his native New Zealand.

He’s a true Kiwi, and would always root for them against anybody else, but as Ireland head coach, no scalp would be more prized than a first ever win over the All Blacks in Chicago.

It’s why the dramatic last-ditch defeat to them in his first November window as Irish coach three years ago hurt so much, perhaps as much as the World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina. Three years on, his desire to win is even more acute.

‘Desperately keen’

“I am desperately keen that the All Blacks beat everyone else, especially a couple of teams, but that’s a traditional thing but I would be absolutely delighted for the group of guys who will have to be the best they can be for 80 potentially-plus minutes, because 80 minutes wasn’t enough last time,” said Schmidt on Thursday at the team’s downtown base in Chicago.

“I would be over the moon for those people and for the incredible support that we have had even since we arrived in the city from the Irish who are in the city and the Irish who are travelling to the city. I think, we have a fantastic support base in Ireland, that was evident in the World Cup when we were away from home.

“Even the support we felt we had in South Africa was fantastic. We were probably written off going down there and yet those supporters were 100 per cent behind us. So I would be just delighted for the players and those past players who can’t wait to see it happen and hope to see it happen some time and all our supporters who have had a number of visits to All Blacks’ fixtures and never had a result.”

As Schmidt also noted, Ireland are hardly alone in finding wins over the All Blacks fairly elusive, but Ireland have a chance not afforded to any other so-called Home Union on this end-of-year tour by the all-conquering All Blacks.

“They’re incredibly difficult to beat but there are a number of teams around the world who haven’t quite managed to do it either and would love to be here now.

“Getting the invitation to come here is a bit of a privilege. To get the opportunity to experience a Test match in a neutral ground, but a very, very traditional and iconic ground, and against a team like the All Blacks is fantastic for us.”

The Ireland squad are in the hub of Chicago, based as they are in the Trump International Hotel and Tower. One man’s indulgence in his own vanity. Tourists stop and take photos from the bridge across the adjacent Chicago River.

Pleasant weather

More pleasant weather is forecast for the next few days, although Jack McGrath stressed, the Irish players can ill afford to think of themselves in holiday mode, although it does afford them the opportunity to walk the streets and go for a coffee in relative anonymity, even if Friday’s mid-day victory parade (5pm Irish time) for the Chicago Cubs’ win might limit that scope.

“I don’t think we’re going to be moving around too much tomorrow afternoon,” said Schmidt. “In the centre of the city and all the way out to Soldier Field it’s going to be pretty cluttered with potentially a million people.

As for the notion that the Cubs’ historic World Series win might be a promising omen for Ireland, Schmidt said dryly: “Gee, I’d love to believe in omens, but I don’t. I’m not superstitious at all. 1908 is pretty similar to 1905 but I think the similarities pretty much stop there,” he said, referencing the start of the Cubs as an entity and Ireland’s first meeting with the All Blacks.

“If we played them at baseball, I think they’re pretty good at baseball as well. I think we’ll just try to play rugby against them and I think, whatever happens, as a group we’re looking forward to what we can learn from the game and how we can build from the game as a result of the effort we put in, the learnings we take and hopefully for the next three weeks we can see some evidence of that. And certainly into the Six Nations we would like to get back into the top end of that, certainly into that top two.”

Midfield partner

As expected, Schmidt has recalled Rob Kearney to fullback, Jared Payne to outside centre along with midfield partner Robbie Henshaw, Simon Zebo, Johnny Sexton, Tadhg Furlong and Donnacha Ryan.

All five of those backs were ruled out of either the third Test in South Africa or the entire series.

Coming into Ireland’s first game in four months, against opponents who have played seven full-on competitive Test matches in that timespan and swept all before them, Schmidt’s preference for familiarity is also understandable.

On the bench there could be a couple of potential debutants in the 21-year-old Leinster tyros Joey Carbery and Garry Ringrose. The latter has been knocking on the door for a year, whereas Carbery’s rise to a possible first cap has been comparatively meteoric.

Given the physical toll which Sexton willingly puts himself through, the odds are that Carbery will make his debut on Saturday at some point as well.

Their relatively unknown qualities adds to their potential for impact off the bench (a critical factor against these almighty All Blacks) and certainly the quintet of forwards amongst the Irish replacements have the ability to add ballast.

Sean Cronin, Cian Healy, Ultan Dillane and Josh van der Flier, whose hard lines of running must have had him pushing for a starting place, are all good ball carriers, and Finlay Bealham’s skill-set has grown at Connacht.

For Ireland to have a chance of upsetting the 23-point handicap, much less the 13 to 1 odds on them winning, they will need all of that and more.

IRELAND team to play New Zealand - Saturday 5th November, 2016

15. Rob Kearney (Leinster), 14. Andrew Trimble (Ulster), 13. Jared Payne (Ulster), 12. Robbie Henshaw (Leinster), 11. Simon Zebo (Munster), 10. Johnny Sexton (Leinster), 9. Conor Murray (Munster), 8. Jamie Heaslip (Leinster), 7. Jordi Murphy (Leinster), 6. CJ Stander (Munster), 5. Devin Toner (Leinster), 4. Donnacha Ryan (Munster), 3. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster), 2. Rory Best (Ulster) (c), 1. Jack McGrath (Leinster), Replacements: 16. Sean Cronin (Leinster), 17. Cian Healy (Leinster), 18. Finlay Bealham (Connacht), 19. Ultan Dillane (Connacht), 20. Josh van der Flier (Leinster), 21. Kieran Marmion (Connacht), 22. Joey Carbery (Leinster), 23. Garry Ringrose (Leinster)

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