For many years (111 years to be precise), this fixture brought apprehensive tidings – nerves aplenty with an outside chance of beating the best team in the world. But now, having conquered the All Blacks in 2016, Ireland enter this match not as underdogs but as true contenders. This is no longer a David and Goliath affair – it is a true heavyweight bout.
Ireland are two for two so far in this November series. In Chicago, they put eight tries past Italy and last week they beat Argentina, a famous bogey team for the boys in green. While this makes for pleasant reading, the truth of the matter is that Ireland did not have it all their own way in those fixtures.
Ireland waited until the second half in both of their previous fixtures to put the game to bed. Against a team like New Zealand, they cannot take their time getting into the match. They must be playing at full tempo from the first whistle. At the weekend, England threw away a golden opportunity to beat the All Blacks. They put themselves in the driving seat by scoring early and often. Ireland should aim to emulate that style of play when New Zealand come to the Aviva.
Poor discipline is another thing Ireland can ill afford this weekend. Schmidt’s men gave away five penalties in their own half against Argentina, costing them 12 points; another unacceptable statistic if they are to beat the All Blacks. However, there were positives to take away from the games as well. Scoring 11 tries in two matches is no mean feat and Ireland’s pack were completely dominant, in both attack and defence. And while injury has ruled out some players, Ireland are no longer reliant on one or two players to function. The strength of the squad means that, even with injuries, Schmidt has some selection headaches ahead of him.
Steve Hansen might have thought it was all a ploy, but it has been confirmed that Conor Murray will play no part in Saturday’s clash with the All Blacks, meaning Schmidt needs to think carefully about who starts at scrum-half. Kieran Marmion is Joe Schmidt’s go-to guy of late, but his kicking was poor against Argentina and, though he scored a try, his pass is very slow. Loose kicking and slow passing would play right into New Zealand’s hands. Luke McGrath, however, changed the game when he came on against Argentina, increasing the tempo and preventing Los Pumas from organising. Hopefully he can bring that same intensity to Saturday’s match.
Brodie Retallick stole three line outs in the latter stages of the game against England. Each one was thrown to the front at the imposing figure of Maro Itoje. They should have been easily won by Itoje but Retallick was on a different level. When it comes to line outs, Ireland need options to keep the All Blacks guessing. Peter O’Mahony is always a nuisance in the air but the figure that strikes fear into the opposition at line out time is the 6’10 frame of Devin Toner.
With a 2-inch advantage over Retallick, Toner will hopefully find himself in the starting XV, giving Ireland a solid platform from the set piece. However, Tadhg Beirne and Iain Henderson will hope to see their names on that starting team sheet. Beirne, in particular could feel hard done by should he miss out, given his impressive performance against Italy in Chicago.
Sean O’Brien was forced off after 38 minutes against Argentina and Schmidt must figure out who will replace the Tullow Tank. New Zealand’s back row of Liam Squire, Ardie Savea and captain Kieran Read are going to make hell for Ireland at ruck time and it is of paramount importance that Ireland have somebody to slow down the ball and disrupt the All Blacks’ flow. Dan Leavy will hope to be that man, having had an incredible season last year and thoroughly impressed against Argentina. Josh van der Flier is another option, but Leavy’s ability to menace the break-down might just get him the starting spot.
Jordan Larmour had a phenomenal game against Italy, scoring a hat-trick, which included a sensational solo try, and setting up Luke McGrath’s try as well. Unfortunately, the young Leinster man was less impactful against Los Pumas last weekend and struggled greatly under the high ball. Beauden Barrett is sure to exploit that weakness with some well-placed kicks if Larmour starts on Saturday.
Given the number of powerful and imposing players in the All Blacks squad who could compete for those balls, Schmidt should consider playing Rob Kearney at full back. Despite being Ireland’s most decorated player, Kearney has come in for criticism recently with some people unimpressed with how frequently he runs into contact. However, his mastery under the high ball is second to none in the Ireland set up, often claiming balls he had no right to get to.
Turning now to New Zealand, apart from Sam Cane, their squad is at full strength and they pose threats all over the pitch. Brodie Retallick was phenomenal against England and their flexibility in the back line is dangerous. Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie and Richie Mo’unga can play many positions making it more difficult for Ireland to predict their game plan. Famed offload machine Sonny Bill Williams is back in form and Rieko Ioane is scoring tries for fun.
Ireland’s defence on the wing will have to be top notch to limit the impact Ioane can have on the game. The All Blacks also have a habit of turning a match around late in the game. We need only think back to the heartbreaking 2013 match for proof of that. Not only will Ireland’s fitness need to be at 110% but they will have to resist the urge to get complacent should they begin to build a lead.
It has often been said that this Ireland team is the best team the nation has ever had – that they will be the group of players to overcome the quarter-final curse Ireland has when it comes to the World Cup. If Ireland top their group, they won’t face New Zealand again until the final. If they are to hold any aspirations of winning the Webb Ellis trophy, Ireland will have to show the world on Saturday that they can beat the best.