November Internationals, November Internationals 2018, Rugby, Rugby Union

Ireland v Argentina Preview

Last week’s largely unnecessary return to Soldier Field may have proved an on-field success for Ireland but when viewed on the whole the journey appears to have been largely pointless. Were the IRFU trying to give an opportunity to the diaspora to see Ireland play our least competitive Six Nations opponent or did they sense what now appears to be a relatively unsuccessful attempt to make money? Couldn’t this game have taken place before a full house at Thomond Park against one of the Pacific Island nations, who are crying out for opportunities  to play meaningful games against top tier opposition? And what about the carbon footprint?

Of course, you hear the usual nonsense about growing the game – the lip service regarding the Pacific Nations comes to mind – but it’s very unlikely that kids on the South Side of Chicago ripped off their Bulls and Bears jerseys to see what all the fuss was about in the barely half full Soldier Field last Saturday afternoon.

There were positives some to the trip to be fair. Jordi Murphy got to enjoy a night at the United Centre, we witnessed more of the carefree, attacking brilliance of Jordan Larmour and Tadhg Beirne continued on his ascent to becoming one of the best second rows in European rugby. But was the trip really necessary? Is a 4000 mile round trip entering one of the busiest phases of the season really conducive to the welfare of the players? Only time will reveal, of course, but in the short term it appears that Larmour and Beirne were the big winners against a weakened Italian selection who, unfortunately, do not appear to be closing the gap on their European rivals.

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Tadhg Beirne has given Joe Schmidt some very welcome selection issues in the second row. (photo courtesy of the Irish Mirror)

Ireland’s relentless ascendancy up the World Rankings – not like 2007’s flash in the pan – means that all eyes have moved to the contest with the double world champions, New Zealand, on Saturday week. However, it would be remiss to ignore the upcoming challenge of an Argentinian side that put in its best ever performance in this year’s Rugby Championship, culminating in victories over South Africa in Mendoza and Australia on the road.

Unlike Ireland, the Argentinians have scuffled around the World Rankings in between World Cups, rarely bedeviled by the notion of facing one of the traditional big three (or Ireland) at the World Cup. We have an unusual obsession with the World Rankings which, admittedly, stems from a time when our place in the top eight was far from assured. While we have seen ‘ the Golden Generation’ and the deepest squad in Irish rugby history falter at various stages, Los Pumas with their fusion of confrontational forward play and expressive movement in the backs have now competed in two of the last three Rugby World Cup semi-finals.

The natural and slightly irritating consequence – we’re as guilty as anyone – of Ireland’s recent success is that contests against Argentina are viewed as games Ireland will win comfortably because, well, the only side better than Joe Schmidt’s team are New Zealand. Argentina caused real problems for New Zealand on both of the occasions they met this year, moving the Kiwis around relentlessly, changing the point of attack and finding holes in the New Zealand defence quite regularly. It is of course testament to the World Champions that victory was achieved relatively comfortably in the end but this isn’t the week to sing their praises.

Argentina made a potentially questionable call in choosing to omit those players who ply their trade in Europe from selection for the national team.  Given the size of their playing base this is quite an extraordinary move and there is no point or sense in drawing similarities with the policies mirrored in Ireland and New Zealand. When Argentina qualified for the semi-final in 2007 only seven of their squad played their club rugby at home. By 2015, just eight of their squad plied their trade in the European leagues.

Admittedly, the selection policy over overseas based players is set in mud as the most recent Rugby Championship saw players slowly return to the fold but if the aim is to produce an international squad drawn largely from home based players, then the policy has stuttered its way to effectiveness. Argentina had admittedly been pretty awful prior to this summer but it appears that once their confidence lifts lift their game returns almost immediately. They either have unflinching confidence, the ability to only look forward or a combination of both but with the World Cup less than 12 months out, Argentina are once more a dangerous opponent.

While Conor Murray’s status remains up in the air, Saturday evening provides a huge opportunity for Kieran Marmion to stake his claim to potentially start against New Zealand and then lock down a place in the 23 for this year’s Six Nations. Joe Schmidt, like all coaches, has his preferred players who generally earn his respect after doing a job when called upon in trying circumstances. When people think back to Ireland’s victory over England in 2017 that thankfully prevented Eddie Jones side from matching New Zealand’s winning streak, they may forget that it was Marmion who came in at relatively short notice and performed outstandingly well. Similarly, in 2016 and with the Irish backline ravaged by injury, Marmion unexpectedly played 40 minutes on the wing and somehow managed to prevent the winning score going in down his flank. The point is Marmion has been there and done it for Schmidt and given there is a width of paper between Marmion, Luke McGrath and John Cooney – the latter has the highest ceiling in our view – it’s no surprise that he’s starting on Saturday night.

Another making his return to the starting line-up is the rarely seen, Sean O’ Brien. We all know at this stage that O’ Brien is a force of nature when fully fit but that sight has become more and more of a rarity these days. If the Tullow man can somehow run through an injury free 12 months which will have to be aided by luck and judicious selection by the Leinster coaching staff, Ireland will arguably possess the best back row of any team appearing at the World Cup. O’ Brien’s performance, effectively off the couch, in 2016 against New Zealand confirmed everything we already knew but two years have elapsed since then and he now has formidable, proven opposition for his place in the shape of Josh van der Flier and Dan Leavy. Van der Flier excelled, admittedly against largely disinterested opposition last week and Leavy himself is just back from injury but a big seven days for O’ Brien could see him entrenched once more as Ireland’s first choice number seven. If his body can withstand the rigours of the Latin and Antipodean grindhouses, then it bodes well for his chances in 2019.

Rob Kearney’s absence gives Jordan Larmour the opportunity to state his case in a game that will provide far greater insight into the 22 year old’s fundamentals at the back. While Andrew Conway may feel slightly disappointed, Larmour’s audaciousness last week – he’s in heat check territory at the moment- means he thoroughly deserves his chance tomorrow.

There’s a nice balance to the Irish back line – Marmion has intimate knowledge of his centres’ game –  and Argentina spent the southern winter throwing the ball around so for once, Cardiff in 2015 excepted, the contest between these two teams may flow. Argentinian winger, Bautista Delguy, has garnered plaudits for his performances throughout this year’s Super 15 tournament and it would be wonderful if two enthralling young talents were the talk of the game afterwards.

The annual peddling of the line that the European sides are at the start of their seasons and therefore ‘cold’ rings less and less valid these days, at least for Ireland. This side resembles the 15 that Schmidt has picked for the last 18 months and by all accounts players entrenched in Joe Schmidt’s camps are extraordinarily well prepared. At this stage, barring injuries, there are probably five positions up for grab on the starting fifteen so the de facto World Cup trials start tomorrow evening.

For Larmour, in particular, the challenges will come thick and fast from hereon. His footwork and pace made everyone sit up and take notice but Joe Schmidt will be honed in on the fundamentals of the 21 year old’s game, particularly when Rob Kearney has been a near permanent fixture in Schmidt sides. Larmour, like his team mates, is not short on composure though and the home side should ease to victory here.

S.U.S. Prediction – Ireland by 12

Tips

  1. Jonathan Sexton anytime try scorer @ 7/2
  2. Andrew Conway last try scorer @ 8/1

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ireland, Irish Rugby, November Internationals, Six Nations 2017

Kings in the North?

After back to back defeats in South Africa, albeit in frustrating and slightly unfortunate circumstances, the pessimist in us wondered just how far down the world rankings Ireland might slip before the World Cup seedings were finalised next May. The toughest November in history lay ahead, key men were ruled out, and the question wasn’t whether New Zealand would win in Chicago, but rather by how much.

That Ireland emerged with a drawn mini-series against the record-breaking New Zealand side, and three wins from four in all are testament to this Irish sides ability to dig deeper and more successfully into their reserves than ever before. Of course, none of this would be possible without Joe Schmidt’s outstanding coaching but in recent weeks the Irish squad have managed to display some true grit in the face of adversity. The victory against New Zealand will obviously stand out for most, particularly with the passing of time, but in many ways, Saturday night’s tensely eked out victory over Australia was almost as impressive.

Only twelve months ago, we bemoaned a lack of player depth, a lack of line speed in defence and an inability to move the ball with accuracy and intent. Against Australia, in the face of an almost unprecedented injury toll, particularly in the back line, Ireland conjured some really good attacking rugby, with one try finished out wide, another created there and the third taken with skilled opportunism by a rising star.

Best of all, perhaps, is that Ireland managed to claw their way back against Australia while playing some heavily, error-ridden rugby in front of a crowd that appeared to be lifeless until the hour mark. With more crisp passing, Australia might have won this game, but we’ve made that very point about Ireland on so many occasions in the past. The best teams find ways to win, even when best-laid plans go awry. No doubt, Ireland’s makeshift back line was plugging holes at an alarming rate but somehow they survived. And, just as in Chicago, with a southern hemisphere side rampant entering the crucial final quarter, Ireland not only resisted but responded in style, ending each game on the front foot.

How many generations of Irish rugby fans recall 60 minutes of blood and guts performances from their team, only to see the fatigue set into the side before they fell away to technically and aerobically superior sides? Under Joe Schmidt, and particularly post-New Zealand 2013, Ireland have gradually matured into a side that will stay all day long. While the coaching staff have ensured heretofore unseen levels of fitness, the side will also have reaped the benefits of closing out these tight end games.

Good sides hone their skills and bust their lungs all week long but, in the context of performing, no one in the world can coach a player into possessing an inherent sense of confidence. Yes, sports psychologists are all the rage, but to the untrained eye, their work seems to focus more on helping players apply themselves to specific tasks and ‘staying in the moment’. This presumably relates to how players approach their tasks and build up to games as opposed to the actual games themselves. It would be hard to imagine that a player could be anywhere but in the moment during a high intensity, physical contest.

Tadhg Furlong with Kieran Read 19/11/2016

How did Kieran Read end up there?

However, for a team to have the widespread confidence to back themselves so thoroughly is something that can only be nurtured through winning games. The coaches’  roles are to prepare the side to the best of their ability, an area in which Joe Schmidt and his coaches are perhaps peerless. Once a side builds residual stores of self-belief, it becomes a different sort of beast. New Zealand have played like this for as long as most people can remember. Australia too, even when the quality wasn’t there, although that bullet-proof confidence seems to transcend all Australian sport. England displayed the trait most clearly in the eighteen month period leading up to their 2003 World Cup victory, and to their credit are always very capable of instilling self-confidence. Although, sometimes, like the occasion on which  Girvan Dempsey ruined their homecoming party, the English can get more than a little carried away.

Irish teams have often struggled down the years in this area. Obviously, Ireland lost numerous games because the opposition possessed superior levels of skill and fitness. However, we can all recall occasions, generally against France or the southern hemisphere sides where a mental block or failure to execute under pressure led to defeat. Often times, also, expectation has weighed too heavily and Ireland have underperformed: Wales in 2011, South Africa in 2016, the entire of the 2007 World Cup.

This current Irish side have benefitted from an extraordinary coach who leaves nothing to chance. As the players have learned to execute Schmidt and, latterly Andy Farrell’s tactics nigh on perfectly, and the fitness levels have increased, so too have they grown comfortable relying on their intuition in the crucial moments of a game.

Before we get too carried away with our recent success, it is worth remembering that the World Cup is almost three years away and recent events will be water under the bridge come 2019. Just ask the Starks. While the reality is that people can’t help but get giddy after witnessing the events of the last month, inevitable talk of a Grand Slam showdown with England on March 18th is presumptuous. The form graph is trending upwards for all Six Nations, and Ireland will need to tread particularly carefully in their competition opener in Edinburgh, against a Scottish side that will go wide early and often.

This week’s rather abrupt, and welcome announcement regarding the trial of the bonus point system in the 2017 Six Nations means that the competition is at last willing to part with tradition, often a meaningless, bye-word for those aspects of the tournament which people think they enjoy but can’t quite pinpoint. Pragmatism shall prevail though and there will be few who expect these new incentives to create a try-fest in a reliably, grim Dublin in mid-February. Still, even if attacking benefits won’t be reaped until March, sides will still at least get a reward for enduring in a 15-9 defeat decided by the boot.

Of course, an English victory tomorrow would mean Eddie Jones’s men ending the calendar year unbeaten. Jones is arrogant, abrasive and, at least publicly, less than charming but there can be no questioning his success as a coach. Previously, he has successfully dragged a mediocre Australian team to a World Cup final, while memorably masterminding the greatest ever upset in World Cup history last year with Japan.

Now, Jones has exceptional squad depth and resources at his disposal and, though his approach couldn’t differ more from Schmidt’s, he possesses the same clarity of purpose. In a recent presentation to the RFU, Jones explicitly stated that he wanted to develop a secondary leadership group to achieve his ultimate goal: world domination by 2019 (in rugby). To his credit, the Australian never shirks a challenge and forces his players to accept pressure as a motivation. Apologists for the Australian are suggesting his antics are intended to shield the players from the media but we’re inclined to disagree as rugby players aren’t subjected to anything near the same relentless attention as footballers. Jones’ Mourinho-like abrasiveness walks a fine line but as history has proven, the antics of a winner will always be forgiven.

Time then to face back into a hugely important and intense window for the provinces before the new look Six Nations begins with renewed hope for all concerned. After a November of unprecedented success, that all began on the shores of Lake Michigan, Ireland face into the new year with enhanced vigour but they now move with a target on their back. The best sides thrive in this environment. Ireland should too.

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Ireland, November Internationals, Rugby

How deep is the Irish Well?

Before we go  any further, let’s just park any grievances we have regarding last week’s encounter with New Zealand and their excessive physicality, cynicism or whatever you want to call it. The Kiwis came correct, as it were, for a brutal encounter and did everything they had to, including those illegal acts that Jaco Peyper and his gormless assistants should have punished.

Now, of course, like every other Irish person watching, we were irate at the time but perspective and clarity, naturally enough, follow the event. Are New Zealand dirty? No, but more importantly, who cares? In a game where you’re trying to physically dominate and suppress your opponent, teams will often do what they can.

The responsibility lies with the officials, in all sports, to draw the line at what is and is not acceptable. Take last week’s light heavyweight boxing championship match between Sergey Kovalev and Andre Ward in Las Vegas as an example. Ward, a Californian defeated the unified champion, Kovalev , a Russian, in a bout scored unanimously 114-113 by the American judges. Now, for those who watched the fight, you could say it was a mildly controversial call but certainly not a travesty or a fix.

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Andre Ward (l), like New Zealand, took advantage of a weak referee. (courtesy Forbes.com)

Ward, a frustratingly, brilliant technical fighter gained traction through excessive holding and wrestling with the much more, destructive puncher, Kovalev, almost from the opening bell. Now, referee Robert Byrd could have had a word with Ward early on regarding his relentless holding, particularly after Kovalev’s explosive right in the second, but he didn’t and the challenger took advantage. Kovalev likely lost poise, and more importantly power reserves, in the deceptively energy sapping clenches which ensued. This was an extremely smart move by Ward that could have been stopped by Byrd, but it wasn’t and now, hopefully, we get a chance to see a supremely pissed off Kovalev take on Ward in the near future. Digression aside, the likelihood is that in the rematch Kovalev’s camp will be at pains to ensure that Ward’s tactics are brought to the next referee’s attention early and often.

New Zealand and Andre Ward simply worked the referees. Peyper, is frankly, a useless referee when it comes to disciplining foul-play – you need only look to the violent, illegal hits on Dave Kearney and Johnny Sexton in Paris in February – so, on what reasonable grounds was he appointed referee this game? Surely, Ireland would have politely requested a superior, and if possible non-SANZAR referee, but Peyper was the incompetent lot they were given. New Zealand have nothing to answer for here. Or to borrow and criminally butcher the words of the great Mike Lowrey, ‘don’t hate the players, hate the ref, his grossly incompetent TMO, and maybe World Rugby just a little bit.’

On Saturday, Ireland and Australia will have to deal with Jerome Garces, a man who both sides seem to have a bit of beef with. On that note, let’s park the referee issue. Michael Cheika has made ten changes to his match day squad from last Saturday’s late resistance of France in Paris. It’s a strange and sad sign of the times for French international rugby when a southern hemisphere side targets the Parisian encounter of a winter tour as the opportunity to give a few players a breather.

Cheika and Australia will probably regard this as the lesser as the next fortnight’s challenges – England have been given a very manageable winter schedule – but he’s astute enough to know the challenges Ireland will bring. Assuredly, Australia will not allow Ireland the same control of possession as their defence is not in the same league as the Kiwis. And, in David Pocock and the returning Michael Hooper, they have two of the foremost ground technicians in world rugby.

Michael Hooper and David Pocock 25/10/2015

Michael Hooper (l) and the bloodied David Pocock are probably still the best back row tandem in world rugby. (Yahoo Sport)

The pair performed extraordinarily throughout Australia’s surprising run to last year’s World Cup final and they will be integral to the visitors attempts to consign Ireland to back-to-back defeats. It’s going to be a relentless dogfight on the ground, and where New Zealand withdrew and realigned, Australia will launch themselves ferociously. Both will also look to use stolen ball to release Bernard Foley, the monstrous Kuridrani and potential, game-changer, Israel Folau.

Joe Schmidt seems to have found another well-balanced, back row, and it will be most instructive to see how Sean O’ Brien, Jamie Heaslip and CJ Stander perform against the two best back rows in the world on six days rest. O’ Brien was truly immense on his latest return from injury, carrying powerfully, dominating contact and, were it not a handling error, may have scored a decisive try. Heaslip appears to be playing his best ever rugby, with his unseen work now being accompanied once more by the powerful running so prevalent in Ireland’s 2009 Grand Slam run.

Meanwhile, Stander gets another opportunity to build on a fantastic performance in Chicago after his unfortunate departure last week. It’s probably a bit petty and whimsical but there’s a degree of schadenfreude in seeing Stander – who was apparently told he was too small for international rugby back home – emerge victorious against New Zealand while South Africa slumped miserably to record defeats, for very different reasons, against New Zealand against Italy. Stander’s rise has been prolific, after a difficult first season in Munster, and his raw passion and abrasiveness have made him a firm favourite with Irish rugby supporters. If anything, his success and popularity only further muddy the waters of the three-year residency rule.

Ireland’s midfield is, barring a frenetic hour last Saturday, a new one and Gary Ringrose, not unlike Gordon D’Arcy a decade or so ago, gets moved into his less preferred inside-centre role. Joe Schmidt has anticipated the physical threat that the hulking, Tevita Kuridrani brings and, probably wisely, has chosen to leave Jared Payne as the defensive lynchpin at thirteen. Kuridrani somehow manages to mobilise his massive, 6 foot 4, 16 stone frame into something more volatile than advertised and is an incredibly direct and destructive runner. The Fijian-born, thirteen and his centre partner, Reece Hodge, have scored in every game on this tour so far, and will be looking to match the exploits of Mark Ella on Australia’s 1984 ‘Grand Slam Tour’. Still, this Australian team just doesn’t have the look of a ‘Grand Slam’ about them.

Wales, who are very difficult to judge at the moment, were swept aside with admirable ease, Scotland pipped at the post, and France just about repelled so it would be remiss to compare this side’s feats thus far to the exploits of Farr-Jones, Ella, Lynagh and Co. in 1984. Australia have weaknesses that Ireland will be looking to exploit, mainly at the set piece. The home side’s lineout has functioned exceptionally all month and, while Australia has chosen for the cautionary inclusion of Dean Mumm on the blindside, Devin Toner’s unit should hold the edge here.

Meanwhile, it’s probably fair to say that the scrum has surpassed all expectations this November. Jack McGrath is deservedly keeping a surging Cian Healy on the bench, while Rory Best continues to flourish in the role he was made for. However, it has been the performances of Tadhg Furlong at tighthead, an area of real concern until recently, that have given most cause for optimism. Just twenty-four, a teenager in tighthead years, the Campile man has excelled since Joe Schmidt brought him into the fold. While there were always cautious expectations that Furlong would develop into a serious player, his performances in Chicago and then a fortnight later have emphatically announced his arrival onto the international scene. The former, New Ross, youth standout thinks his ball-carrying isn’t one of his strong suits, but the strength involved in grounding three New Zealanders, including Kieran Read, would suggest otherwise. While Stephen Moore and Sekope Kepu return, it’s still advantage Ireland in the scrum.

Tadhg Furlong with Kieran Read 19/11/2016

Tadhg Furlong has been immense through the early stages of his international career. (courtesy Newstalk)

So for all the explosiveness in the Australian backline, they can’t live from scraps, although they have exposed Ireland on a number of occasions with breakaways on recent visits. Still, Joe Schmidt will have drilled the importance of ball protection into his players all week long, so you suspect an incident like the unfortunate, Luke Marshall’s against Canada would be detrimental to a player’s chance of selection in the Six Nations.

On the flipside, the issue remains that for all Ireland’s evident forward dominance, the backline play can appear lacklustre with players sometimes slow to look for the offload and lateral movement often prevalent. Ringrose and Paddy Jackson were thrust into a war zone last week, and while the former found his feet,  it was difficult to make any assessment on Jackson.

In Jackson’s defence, there are few sides, if any, who would be able to attack cohesively after losing their midfield axis. New Zealand also would have struggled last week if the outstanding Beauden Barrett and Anton-Lienert Brown had departed so early. The Belfast man is a technically gifted player who performs consistently well for Ulster, but Saturday offers a serious opportunity to quieten the Carberry uprising, for now, and take control of this slightly new-look Irish backline. Coaches pore endlessly over previous games and sessions to find the right combinations and then, sometimes, an injury comes along and forces a new one upon you. Jackson, a slick passer, and the fleet-footed Ringrose might just unlock an Australian midfield that will know little of them. Of course, to earn the right to play, the young Irish will have to be ready for Hodge, Kuridrani and whatever else the resurgent Bernard Foley throws at them.

Paddy Jackson

Paddy Jackson’s performance tomorrow will have a huge bearing on Six Nations selection.

If someone said to you on 1st November that Ireland would win two tests in the month, you’d shrug relatively happily and think, a win against Australia should always be savoured. Now, Chicago has happened and everything has changed. Defeat against Australia would bring a sense of deflation to the month’s end which, while unfair, is only natural. Beating New Zealand thrusts a side into the role of favourites and this is a position with which Ireland need to become more comfortable, particularly against their more illustrious rivals.

Australia are rising from a low ebb and the past three weeks will have rejuvenated Michael Cheika’s side. Further, the visitors would never be readily associated with terms such as ‘low self-esteem’ and they’ll fancy a crack off a side who are close to breaking up the southern hegemony.

Tomorrow requires one more massive push from Ireland after last week’s unusually, intense contest. Win and this will be the most successful winter in Irish rugby history. There’s just about enough left in the tank.

S.U.S. Prediction: Ireland by 6

Odds: Ireland -1 (Evens)

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Irish Rugby, November Internationals, Rugby, Rugby Union

Seconds Out, Round Two!

As it turns out, all Ireland needed to do was get New Zealand on neutral soil, in a city sprinkled with a little magic and, most importantly, put in an outstandingly accurate and intense performance for nigh on two hours.

Bizarrely, considering the meeting between the sides in 2013, Ireland managed to fly into Chicago somewhat under the radar. AIG had gone to typically, ludicrous American lengths to promote the game as a showcase for the ‘AIG New Zealand All Blacks’ – the stadium announcer was unintentionally hilarious  – with Ireland seemingly appearing to make up the numbers.

Now, we’ll never know how distracted New Zealand’s players were or whether they really did underestimate Ireland but the pre-match atmosphere, punctuated by the atrocious violin rendition of the almost equally atrocious, Ireland’s Call, gave no intimation of an Irish victory. It is interesting afterwards, that even amongst the burgeoning, Irish 20:20 hindsight community, few were deluded enough to claim that they had predicted a win for Rory Best’s team.

And that, thankfully, is what separates we supporters from Joe Schmidt, his management team and this ever improving, Irish squad. Offensively, Ireland got almost everything right, virtually all of it premeditated, and while there some defensive lapses, Ireland’s discipline meant the New Zealanders were afforded few opportunities to attack in broken play. As Eddie Jones succinctly pointed out that for all their abundant qualities, “the Kiwis aren’t as good off structured possession.”

And, unstructured attack is the essence to New Zealand victories, particularly in the final quarter. When Scott Barrett ploughed straight through the middle for his 63rd-minute try, even the most optimistic Irish supporter must have had visions of the standard, New Zealand late flurry and a scoreboard that might suggest a relative stroll home. However, Ireland’s defence remained both calm and confident, typified by Andrew Trimble’s rush inside that forced an awkward pass to Julian Savea’s back shoulder and Conor Murray’s nation-rousing smash of Julian Savea behind the Kiwi goal-line.

celebrations

Ireland’s, Munster contingent celebrate Ireland’s historic victory in Chicago (courtesy of the Telegraph)

Ireland did not hang on but, rather, finished emphatically with Robbie Henshaw’s try – one that just gets better with repeat viewings – so there is no sense that Ireland fluked a victory. That said, Irish people, not necessarily the Irish team, need to temper their excitement. Appearing on Off The Ball last Friday night, Brian O’ Driscoll good-naturedly observed that the Irish public really only seem to view this team in extremes after the presenters mulled over just how amazing Ireland might be. And, let’s not pretend we didn’t get caught up in that euphoria for a few days.

Meanwhile, on Second Captains Matt Williams – alumni of the same school of nonsense as Michael Owen – rambled endlessly about how important his views were while somewhat ludicrously suggesting injuries had nothing at all to do with Ireland’s World Cup exit. If you listen carefully enough, you can almost hear Williams suggest that Ireland are now playing to their true potential because Schmidt, at last, has seen the light and begun to heed the Australian’s advice. Some man, Matt!

Anyway, back to our visitors. New Zealand have never found themselves in this position before against Ireland so, as Brent Pope noted on RTE 1 Radio on Sunday, the real pressure is on Steve Hansen’s side, particularly back home where the expectations are exacting. Obviously, Ireland will be focused and determined but the longstanding, historical pressure has been alleviated after the victory in Chicago. New Zealand, having lost their undefeated record to Ireland may well feel the heat from their supporters if they lose consecutive tests to Ireland, despite only weeks ago being championed as the greatest team of all time.

After some amateur research, we figured that New Zealand’s win percentage when facing a team who has beaten them in their last encounter stands at 71 percent. Now, two weeks ago Ireland had a 0 percent success rate against New Zealand so, in relation to the largely unhelpful application of statistics to different teams through different eras, a 29 percent chance of success sounds just fine. Anyway, while we don’t know how Joe Schmidt’s mind works, one suspects he cares little for the historical response of New Zealand sides to defeat and more what they will bring to this particular contest on Saturday.

The return of the world’s best, though assuredly rusty, second-row pairing of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock is a major fillip and it would be errant to think Ireland will enjoy the lineout dominance of Soldier Field. The returning duo offer the traditional skills of a lock, and in Retallick in particular, excellent ball handling skills in midfield, akin to Connacht’s 2015 star, Aly Muldowney.

Rugby Championship - All Blacks v Australia, 25 August 2012

The returning Sam Whitelock (l) and Brodie Retallick (r) could have a decisive effect on the outcome of Saturday’s match. (courtesy of http://www.lintottphoto.co.nz)

In midfield, New Zealand are down to their last men standing, Anton Lienert-Brown and Malakai Fekitoa, which may actually prove to their advantage as this is a more balanced 12-13 combination. Ireland, however, can claim superiority in this area of the field, as Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne have developed a superb understanding, the odd rush out of the defensive line excepted. Even during the Rugby Championship, where New Zealand enjoyed near, total dominance, the feeling was that their midfield was relatively average, particularly compared to those who had come before.

Israel Dagg’s return will strengthen the back three, particularly in the aerial battle,  but you get the feeling that if New Zealand are to win, the returns of the aforementioned second-rows and Aaron Smith’s form will have a far greater influence. Conor Murray’s outstanding performances of late have called some to label him the best nine in the world , so Smith will hope to put his toilet issues behind him and remind those watching of his sublime, pre-summer form.

To counter this, Ireland need to find new points of attack, and for this reason, it is objectively, understandable that Sean O’ Brien starts for his near unmatchable ball-carrying skills. Josh van der Flier, excellent in his 55-minute shift in Chicago, is the one to miss out but, Schmidt picks players to do a job for the team. So, outstanding as van der Flier was a fortnight ago, the head coach obviously believes O’ Brien can offer more to the team from the off. Detached and simple. While van der Flier will care little for the irony of the situation, he was the man who replaced Tommy O’ Donnell in the starting line-up against England in this year’s Six nations after the latter had performed superbly off the bench in Paris in Ireland’s previous outing.

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Sean O’ Brien’s return should provide explosiveness and a new point of attack. (courtesy Getty Images)

Joe Schmidt will already have drilled all the fundamentals – accuracy, intensity, discipline- into his side, so it will be very interesting to see what new plans he devises, particularly with the likely negation of the set-piece as an offensive weapon.

If Ireland are to cause serious problems for the world’s number one side then Rob Kearney will need to back up his best offensive performance in years, supplemented by another career-best outing from Simon Zebo. The same could be applied to most of the Irish side, but the reality is they will somehow need to improve upon the performance of a fortnight ago.

Oddly enough, despite winning a fortnight ago, Ireland are the ones with more questions to answer, but this comes with the territory when facing New Zealand. The visitors are close to full strength, have a score to settle in their minds and will feel they owe themselves and their coaching team a vastly improved performance. Ireland were so deservedly victors on that incredible afternoon on the south side of Chicago, but we all knew that Retallick and Whitelock’s absences presented a huge opportunity.

While we wrote about intangibles and the atmosphere in a city gone mad, clutched at straws basically, to suggest we could even get close last time, the argument for Ireland should be more compelling this weekend. Also, any suggestion that Ireland will tire in the final quarter seems moot as the entire team bar O’ Brien had last weekend off and the chances are the Tullow man may only be used for an hour. New Zealand, however, have been badly stung and they will not be complacent this time.

Still, Ireland have the opportunity to be the first side to go back-to-back against New Zealand since South Africa in 2009 and a lot of this Irish team will be facing the Kiwis in a red jersey next June. New Zealand’s players assuredly cannot imagine or allow for a scenario where they could lose three in a row to the same opponents. They should escape with a victory, but only just.

SUS Prediction: New Zealand by 6

Tips: Ireland +8  (2/1)

           Ireland to win (6/1)

New Zealand  -16 generally.

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Chicago, November Internationals, Rugby, Rugby Union

Why Not Us?

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.

 

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Celebrations in Wrigleyville began in the early hours of this morning after the Chicago Cubs ended a 108 year World Series drought.

 

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.

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Ryan Crotty’s last-gasp try, converted by Aaron Cruden saw New Zealand defeat Ireland in 2013 in heartbreaking circumstances.

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.

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Ireland will really feel the absence of Peter O’ Mahony (l) and Iain Henderson (r) and Sean O’Brien in Soldier Field.

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.

 

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Soldier Field, on the banks of Lake Michigan and home to the Chicago Bears will play the unusual home to an Irish rugby fixture.

 

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

 

 

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