Ireland v New Zealand, Irish Rugby, Rugby, RWC 2019

Time to end the streak

After six weeks of admittedly variable quality, we’re finally at the business end of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Having been lucky enough to spend the first two weeks out there, we can say that Japan has delivered beyond our wildest expectations.

This, of course, should be considered in the context of the devastating Typhoon Hagibis. The typhoon caused untold damage to the island of Honshu and makes the self-absorbed threats of the SRU look increasingly laughable.

Unfortunately, as with the 2011 iteration in New Zealand, the time difference makes it very difficult for the public at home to really immerse themselves in the tournament. And, while it was easy to forget the rugby while travelling around that extraordinary country – like the rest of the Irish in Japan we had the audacity to enjoy ourselves even in the wake of defeat to Japan –  the degree of negativity surrounding the team following that unexpected defeat has been proven to be excessive.

Scotland were torn apart for 60 minutes last Sunday, in far less trying conditions than Ireland faced in Shizuoka, and while it was most certainly the result Ireland didn’t want, it was difficult not to be won over by Japan. Certainly, we’ve been caught in the frenzy and instantly fell in love with the country, and if say England or New Zealand had performed as Japan have to date, pundits would be slobbering over them.

Kotaro Matsushima and Kenki Fukuoka have provided moments of magic akin to those of Cheslin Kolbe, and, their pack, led by their adored captain, Michael Leitch, have provided quick ball on foot of outstanding, manic rucking. They move the ball with the same speed and accuracy as the reigning champions and their fans have been extraordinary.

It was incredible to hear that volunteers whose homes had been destroyed by Hagibis still turned up early on Sunday morning to ensure the final group match would go ahead. There are some snide critics of the unquestioning self-discipline of the Japanese but their sense of duty and generosity was never so vividly displayed than as last Sunday.

Japan are deemed to have played their final already by many but there’s a sense that the hulking – massively hulking – South Africans won’t have it all their own way on Sunday. The real winners on that side of the draw are Wales, however.

Warren Gatland’s side were brilliant for 60 minutes against Australia before the northern hemisphere’s great enemy, the humidity, kicked in and they were really holding on by the end. They were fitful against Fiji but now find themselves with the perceived easiest quarter final opponent in France.

Gatland, French unknowns, rampant South Africans and the exuberant Japanese are the least of Ireland’s worries right now though, as the back-to-back word champions and presumptive saviours of humanity, New Zealand, await on Saturday.

We all know at this stage that good All-Blacks, including Sevu Reece apparently, make good people and that the sun shines out of everyone of them. Incidentally, while Guinness and Vodafone have been wildly successful on turning people off the Irish team, New Zealand’s sponsors have been churning out this bile-inducing shite for years to little or no criticism.

Undefeated in the World Cup in 12 years, New Zealand go into Saturday’s quarter final as red-hot favourites and rightly so. While they are not the supreme side of four years ago – who admittedly scraped by South Africa in the semi-final – they are the best in the world and their ability to succeed in high leverage situations is unmatched.

Ireland did beat them last November but that seems like an eternity ago now. There is a cautionary tale that nobody beats New Zealand back-to-back but given this is knock out rugby past results are largely irrelevant. The last and only time these sides met at a World Cup, young phenom Jonah Lomu erupted on to the scene, shortly after Gary Halpin gave the most ill-advised middle finger in sporting history. For many, this writer included, Lomu remains the most exhilarating, electrifying player to ever grave the field, rugby’s equivalent of The Rock.

While Lomu’s New Zealand side never managed to get their hands on the William Webb Ellis trophy, the current side, captained by all-time great, Kieran Read, look well primed to reel off a hat-trick of tournament victories. And yet this side, more than ever, have shown vulnerability over the past 18 months.

Notwithstanding the quality of the incumbents, the New Zealand back row and midfield are simply brilliant, and not the standard bearers as was the case four years ago. Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Richie McCaw were generational talents and Sonny-Bill Williams 2019 is, unsurprisngly, a lesser version of the younger model. This is not to say that this is a weak by any stretch New Zealand but they simply do not hold the aura of their predecessors who, admittedly, may have been the best side of all time.

Because you never get tired of watching this man in full flight.

On the tournament’s opening weekend, New Zealand prevailed over South Africa in a thrilling contest while Ireland delivered a dominant victory over an appalling Scottish side. Watching both games, you would hazard that Ireland were never going to live with the Kiwis. The events in the forests of Shizuoka a week later – aside from providing fuel for bell ends like Ewan McKenna and Colm Parkinson – did little to dispel the notion that Ireland were nowhere nearer to breaking their World Cup quarter-final hoodoo.

And yet….. Ireland have probably produced four of their eight best performances during Schmidt’s reign against New Zealand. Perhaps, psychologically, the Kiwis bring Ireland up to their level, or Ireland know anything far from their best will mean humiliation. Whatever the reason, the last six years have provided four superb matches between the sides, each side winning tough in low scoring affairs while also coming away victorious after free-flowing contests.

New Zealand, as is often the case, are being credited with reinventing the wheel by placing their outstanding out-half, Beauden Barrett, at full-back to allow him chime into the line at will. Aside from the fact that this has been the practice in rugby league for years, a friend pointed out that New Zealand were already doing this with Damien McKenzie prior to his injury. Admittedly, when Barrett moves to number 10 after 60 minutes, the game is liable to open up but Ireland can starve him of ball if they kick with intelligence. That said New Zealand are outstanding at pressurising possession and making you put the ball where they want it.

If Barrett is crucial to New Zealand in various guises, no one player is more important to Ireland’s chance of success than Jonathan Sexton. Joey Carberry and Jack Carty may be the future but right now Ireland’s game revolves so completely around Sexton that it is almost worrying, in the sense that if New Zealand can shut him down then the Irish team will be back in Dublin by next Tuesday night. Injury and stark conservatism have prevented Ireland from finding a creative option outside of Sexton and with Schmidt opting for Rob Kearney, there is no sense of Ireland’s out-half being able to rely on an extra layer of playmaking from the back field.

Given the nature of Schmidt’s selction policies, no one really expected Jordan Larmour to start so you can expect conservative, high-intensiy rugby from Ireland. Ireland need Conor Murray and Peter O’ Mahony to perform at their peak while Iain Henderson needs to prove why Devin Toner has been left back home. One player from the Chicago victory is conspicuous by his absence but as we have learned under Schmidt, all players are equal but some players – who play out-half for Ireland and Leinster – are more equal than others.

Ireland may not be at the heights of November but, frankly, they don’t need to be. South Africa found cracks on the opening weekend and Ireland have absolutely no reason to fear this side. Yes, we’ve found various ways to lose at the quarter final stage and the route to tournament victory is extremely tough but like the MLB playoffs, Ireland need only care about the next game up.

The Gods have gathered in Izumo Taisha Grand Shrine for the month of October for their Kamuhakari. While we’re not partiacurlay religious in this neck of the woods, we find the Shinto religion fascinating. The Kamigami – all eight million of them – held their Kamiari Sai last week where they decided on the outcome of certain major events throughout the coming year. Ideally, they’ll have a word with Nigel Owens and ask him to ref the game properly and not for maximum entertainment levels.

An unprecedetned era of success for Irish rugby will end shortly when Joe Schmidt and his family return home. This would be some feather to add to the cap. Ireland, just.

Straight Up Sport prediction – Ireland to win @ 5/1

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Ireland v New Zealand, Irish Rugby, November Internationals 2018, Rugby, Rugby Union

Here Comes the Boom: Ireland v New Zealand – Preview

After Irish journalists and ‘rugby’ people took turns hopping off Bundee Aki and CJ Stander in the last couple of years, it seems the Kiwis are miffed at the fact that European sides – particularly England and Ireland – are displaying the temerity to pick the players New Zealand don’t want. We’re largely unmoved by the rule either way. International rugby is a pretty closed shop – you’d be pushed to name ten top-tier international sides- so if a rule exists to allow players experience international rugby, so be it. To assist the slightly myopic aspect of our argument, it’s worth noting that Ireland have, thus far, taken advantage of the residency rule by moving for players who had been overlooked in their own countries.

If Brad Shields last week and now, Aki, this week are to be at the core of Kiwi whining then why not look to the age-old hypocrisy stemming from New Zealand when it comes to international selection policies. The “All Blacks continue to cynically and systematically loot the Pacific Islands of their best players. It’s an old and depressing story and nobody in New Zealand has been able to give a convincing defence of their actions.”

These are not in fact the words of our learned Minister for Sport, Shane Ross, but an article written by Brendan Gallagher which appeared in the Daily Telegraph during the grim Lions tour to New Zealand in 2005. There is the caveat that British and Irish folk were becoming dispirited and bitter after being beaten and humbled from the deep south up to Auckland and everywhere in between.

Nevertheless, Gallagher argued that New Zealand have long been happy to lure the best talent of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga to their rugby nurseries and ultimately give them an opportunity to don the most famous jersey in world rugby. During that summer, we were lucky enough to witness Sitiveni Sivivatu, , born and bred in Fiji, give one of the most dominant wing performances ever, dominating an all-time great in Shane Williams and helping New Zealand decimate the Lions in Wellington. Yet even when joking, it stung any Kiwis when you accused them of poaching the best players their neighbours had to offer.

Sivi

Sitiveni Sivivatu from Fiji’s Yasawa Islands is regarded as one of the best wingers to ever wear the New Zealand jersey. (photo Getty Images)

The bare facts don’t lie, though. It suits New Zealand and Australia for the Fijians, Samoans and Tongans to produce incomparable raw talent without ever possessing the financial strength to keep their players from moving to the richer pastures of Auckland and Sydney. With the three island nations so close in proximity to the Antipodes, surely it would behove the traditional powerhouses to foster the well-being of the international game. Perhaps when it comes to the notion of teams naturalising or poaching players, are teams are equal but some are more equal than others.

In any event, if Ireland are going to prevail on Saturday night in what promises to be an all-time atmosphere, Aki and, particularly, Stander need to excel. Aki has grown into his role as the anchor of the Irish midfield and while he does not possess the wide passing skills of some of his counterparts, he has the ability to beat the first tackle, brings the rare attribute to the Irish midfield of a potential offload and displays unwavering enthusiasm in all facets of his game.

New Zealand can lay claim, whether they like it or not, to changing the rules of the game the last time they visited Dublin. Malakai Fekitoa and Sam Kane in particular got away with some high stuff but amidst the furore over the high shots, Kieran Read managed to avoid one of the most blatant yellow card/penalty try combos in rugby history.

 

Stander was one of the players on the receiving end of Kane’s indiscipline with his night ending earlier than anticipated. Given his recent lull in form, he really needs a big performance against the best team and number eight, respectively, in world rugby. Stander has been exceptionally consistent since the 2015/2016 season, when he seemed to take ownership of the man of the match award in any Muster game, but he has failed to ignite thus far this season. That statement is made in light of the fact that he is still among the top tacklers and carriers in every game but the thrust of his ball carrying has been blunted.

Sean O’Brien’s absence means that Stander now, more than ever, must dominate the contact area and give Ireland go forward ball. He made two of the most important plays in Chicago, a powerful burrow through three would be New Zealand tacklers for Ireland’s second try and a subtle check of Owen Franks in the built up to Conor Murray’s now iconic score. Ireland won’t necessarily require Stander to put his name on the score sheet but in tandem with Peter O’ Mahony and Dan Leavy he can at least gain parity against a Kiwi trio that doesn’t quite hold up to the exceptional back-rows of New Zealand past.

Joe Schmidt thankfully put the great Conor Murray debate to bed on Monday but it’s difficult to ignore just how important the Limerick man was to victory to Ireland in Soldier Field. Admittedly, he got skinned early doors by Beauden Barrett two weeks later but Murray’s decisiveness in attack and defence was probably the difference in the Second City. This is the deepest squad in Irish history but every dominant team – think Brazil 1958-1970 with Pele or Barcelona with Messi – has its MVP and Murray is that for this Irish team. No one is crying for Ireland’s injury issues, obviously, but it would be in many ways their greatest ever achievement if they could overcome the World Champions without their most important player.

Having said all that, New Zealand come to Dublin on the back of a pretty patchy run of form by their standards. Their patented late game heroics saw them scrape home in South Africa and a frankly unfair, or at least inconsistent, call against Courtney Lawes last week likely spared their blushes in Twickenham. The team is still stacked to the brim with quality but when you look at the dream team that won the last World Cup – they too only scraped by South Africa – this looks like a good but not great iteration of New Zealand.

As has been pointed out this week, New Zealand’s line out was immense for the last hour in Twickenham and Ireland’s was about as bad as anyone can remember for a number of years with Argentina always competitive on Rory Best’s throws. Brodie Retallick confirmed last week that he still sets the bar when it comes to second row forwards. The intro to Ghostface Killah’s ‘The Champ’  – “He’s a bulldozer with a wrecking ball attached, he’ll leave a ring around your eyes and thread marks on your back ….” – aptly describes the Kiwi lock’s destructive abilities and he is probably the most complete forward in world rugby. Ireland simply have to improve to compete and Devin Toner’s selection sees a return to fundamentals. Parity in the lineout will be a victory for Ireland. 

There is just the slightest feeling that New Zealand were complacent going to the junket in Soldier Field and that Ireland caught them unawares. They would have been satisfied two weeks later when a show of equal parts brilliance and brutality restored the normal order. However, just nine months later the core of that Irish team played a vital role in earning the Lions a draw in New Zealand and proving for the first time to this New Zealand team that there’s more to the Northern Hemisphere than Sky Sports embarrassingly hyperbolic pre-match coverage. It feels as if Joe Schmidt’s side want to use Saturday night to show that this team is here to stay as a threat to New Zealand and that all has changed utterly.

Gerry Thornley rightly pointed out earlier this week that this encounter should be enjoyed as a standalone contest and thoughts of the World Cup should be eschewed for the night. And, while this is a fair point everyone will remember England’s statement victories over Australia and New Zealand in 2002 en-route to their victory in Australia the following year. Ireland have already ticked the box of a series victory south of the equator so imagine the impact a victory over the double world champions would have a mere ten months out from the World Cup in Japan. Particularly when you consider that if everything goes according to plan, the sides will be meeting again on an autumn night in Tokyo.

New Zealand will try to step on Ireland’s throat early and silence what will be a rarely animated home crowd so Ireland need to be prepared for brutality in the opening exchanges. More importantly the home team need to solidify the set piece as if they get on the wrong side of Wayne Barnes, Jonathan Sexton and Peter O’ Mahony will become crankier than usual.

It’s hard to remember an Irish rugby match being so hyped. These occasions rarely deliver on expectations, though, and the feeling is that New Zealand will shade this contest by the width of an offside line.

S.U.S. Prediction – New Zealand by 3

Tips

  1. Ireland +6 @ 10/11
  2. Ireland half time/New Zealand full time @ 6/1

 

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