So, to the biennial consideration as to whether Ireland can finally break their duck against the all-conquering world champions, New Zealand. If Ireland’s summer trips to New Zealand are greeted with trepidation and the autumn games in Dublin give us some semblance of hope, where does a first ever foray into a Chicago test leave us?
Well, for those who, like us, readily invest in fate, luck and the other intangibles, the Irish team need look no further than the north side of Chicago for inspiration. In the early hours of Thursday morning, the Chicago Cubs ended a 108 year World Series drought with the most heart-stopping, endlessly thrilling victory over the Cleveland Indians.
Even for those who loathe baseball, the game still involved enough twists for an entire season. The Indians, luckless since 1948, will be distraught but the atmosphere in Chicago will be absolutely electric for the coming days. And, hopefully, the Irish rugby team can feed off this. Granted, Soldier Field is on the south side in White Sox territory, but the jubilation will be felt throughout the city when the Chicago River will, apparently, run blue as the parade cascades through Wrigleyville tomorrow afternoon.
In the 108 years that the Cubs sought to break their drought, the Irish rugby team have been thwarted continuously in their own attempts to beat New Zealand. There have been near misses, never more so than 2013, nonetheless the task on Saturday remains as daunting as ever.
It’s very difficult to explore any narrative that hasn’t already been advanced going into this game as the New Zealand juggernaut has eventually rolled over every team it faced this summer. That’s not to say every encounter in the Rugby Championship was a completely, one-sided affair – Argentina, in particular, offered considerable food for thought – but each contest ended with a bench inspired, New Zealand onslaught.
Using your substitutes to up the intensity and energy is hardly an abstract concept – Kilkenny and more recently Dublin have perfected the art – but when New Zealand’s starting fifteen have been testing their opposite numbers lungs for 60 minutes, the ploy becomes devastatingly effective. Indeed, in an interview earlier this week, Lions coach and world-class troll, Warren Gatland noted that the results from the GPS tracker used on New Zealand evidence the claim that their players simply cover more ground than their opponents.
The brain is inclined to slow down as the body does and this is when New Zealand pounce. When allying this mobility with their redoubtable ball handling skills, awareness of space and acuity of decision making, this particular edition of New Zealand becomes increasingly difficult to plan for. Gordon Darcy’s article in Wednesday’s Irish Times expertly highlighted the way Irishmen began making poor decisions in the final three minutes in the 2013 encounter as a result of being out on their feet.
Everybody presumed that the collective retirements from New Zealand rugby of Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith would create a contest at the top but in 2016 Steve Hansen’s side appear to have moved up to a new level of ruthless efficiency and precision.
And, perhaps to the fore of this team’s successes is its ability to ensure the machine keeps evolving to the point that when the above-named quartet retired, their importance to the team had possibly been surpassed by the Smiths, Ben and Aaron and Kieran Read. The best teams, the ones that seem to move on effortlessly and without fuss always have one eye on the future.
So, what chance do Ireland have on Saturday? They’re shorn of serious ballast in Sean O’ Brien, Iain Henderson and Peter O’ Mahony, the latter of whose exclusion seems slightly perplexing in light of his recent performances. Still, Joe Schmidt sees these players every day and with three tests to follow, the head coach can’t simply throw caution to the wind and still potentially end up on the end of a pummelling and without key players.
Ireland’s performance in South Africa this summer were extremely encouraging, particularly in the first test when they played 20 minutes with just thirteen men on the field. A series victory was denied by some basic individual errors and, for want of better analysis, a lack of good fortune.
Granted New Zealand gutted South Africa last month, but South Africa have actually regressed since June, played putridly on the day and allowed New Zealand dictate the game as they pleased. To brush over New Zealand’s performance would, of course, be careless at best as they were absolutely sublime in every aspect of performance and they exhibited what awaits Ireland if performance levels, or heads, drop in Soldier Field.
Ireland, having never played New Zealand in Soldier Field are, of course, undefeated there so there’s also that desperate crumb of comfort to cling to. However, on the face of what’s gone before and the current standings of the sides, does Rory Best’s team have a realistic chance of victory? Unfortunately, the honest and pragmatic answer would appear to be, no. However, let’s try and scratch a little deeper.
It seems that New Zealand’s vaunted second-row pairing of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick will both be missing so this somewhat softens the blow of the absence of Henderson, O’ Mahony and O’ Brien. You can argue that New Zealand will be running out of steam after a long, test summer but, surely, having games under your belt is superior to a handful of training field sessions since late June. But after that, it’s hard to find an objective viewpoint to favour Ireland.
New Zealand are superior at every position on the pitch, bar perhaps first centre and the second row, and while scarcely believable, the sum is actually better than the parts. That cliché is usually reserved for a team like Leicester City’s premier league winners or Connacht’s reigning Pro 12 champions, a collection of ‘characters’, journeymen and enigmas patched together and proving their worth to all the doubters. But, it also rings true for New Zealand. Their centre pairing does not jump off the page, nor will the second-row pair – Jerome Kaino could yet excel in this role- and yet as the game unfolds it seems as if the fifteen individuals are performing as one, almost preternaturally in sync.
While it may seem dismissive of Irish supporters to expect defeat on Saturday, this attitude is more as a result of New Zealand’s grim stranglehold over the game for the past two years. Ireland have a chance, of course they do, but it will take a bit of adventure and guile to really get at New Zealand and it appears that Joe Schmidt, through a combination of necessity and choice, will be reverting to a more pragmatic game.
Ireland will need to perform at somewhere close to perfection in terms of accuracy, decision-making and defensive intensity while relying on every bit of luck to go their way. In this era of painful over-analysis, those obsessed with statistic evaluation hate to acknowledge that fortune, or lack thereof, can have a massive impact on the outcome of a game. For all their qualities, the unexpected rain shower last night may have been the decisive factor in the Chicago Cubs’ historic victory.
Nonetheless, it would require a borderline, delusional optimist to go into Saturday’s encounter expecting an Irish victory. And yet, here we are in the city where one of sport’s longest, most famous droughts was just ended. Look, we’ve never beaten New Zealand anywhere so it’s not like we’re out of our comfort zone. Still, it would be remiss of us to look past anything other than a New Zealand victory. And yet………
New Zealand by 8