Sunday’s crunch tie against New Zealand represents a colossal test for Ireland as they look to derail the All Blacks’ 18 game unbeaten run.
Much of the pre-match talk ahead of the Chicago clash points to another win for Steve Hansen’s men, but Ireland are, naturally, relishing the prospect of overcoming the world champions for the first time in history.
After the heartbreaking defeat to the All Blacks in Dublin in 2013, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, born in the small town of Woodville in New Zealand’s South Island, is extra-motivated to beat a side who are coming off the back of a stellar Rugby Championship campaign.
On that November afternoon three years ago, Ireland – playing some of the most majestic rugby under Schmidt’s reign – marched into an early 19-0 lead but conceded an agonising last minute try to lose 24-22. With many lessons taught in defeat, victory against the All Blacks is driving this Irish side.
Schmidt has never been allowed to forget it, as the game has been constantly referenced in press conferences, no matter the opposition, and is a shadow that hangs over both him and his senior players.
Schmidt’s team selection for tonight is strong and should be enough to threaten their all-conquering opponents, but the question remains whether Ireland can compete for the full 80 minutes. If the Men in Green believe in their game plan and attack on and off the ball, then they have a chance.
The decision to select Rob Kearney at full-back and stick with the centre partnership of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw emphasises the level of importance Schmidt has placed on this game because, with the second Test in two weeks, one or two of these key players could have been held back.
Of the new faces, expect Garry Ringrose and Joey Carbery to make an impact; two young players who have been rewarded after their dazzling performances for Leinster in the Pro 12. Ringrose, in particular, has been a revelation, with many considering him a future Irish 13.
Fitness and a solid bench with the ability to make an impact are among the critical factors, and the addition of defence coach Andy Farrell to the ranks has helped improved structures around set-pieces. Farrell was England’s defence coach when they beat the All Blacks in 2012 – the last time a Northern Hemisphere team defeated the world champions.
With Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan in fine form for Leinster and Munster of late, this is a seminal test for the Irish line-out as Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock – two world class locks – are withdrawn for this game. If Ireland can engineer a platform of dominance at the line-out, then they have enough steel in their back line to unleash the significant qualities of Jonny Sexton and Henshaw in midfield.
The All Blacks’ pace and power will be difficult to stop in the closing stages, with Ardie Savea, Malakai Fekitoa and TJ Perenara to come off the bench. Ireland will have a tough task on their hands to curtail that trio’s impact when they are inevitably introduced and must stay organised and tighten the defensive line.
Ending the season unbeaten is Hansen’s major goal, but, at the very least, if Ireland put on a good showing on US soil, then there is renewed belief that they can beat them in Dublin on November 19.
A competitive performance will undoubtedly please Schmidt but his longing for victory against his home nation is a burning ambition, and one that won’t go away until he achieves it.
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