When we set about measuring tomorrow’s test match in Dublin on rugby’s Richter scale, the most appropriate device might be perspective.
Not alone will it have little material influence on what happens in Japan 10 months from now, it will hardly survive until the Champions Cup back-to-back rounds in Europe next month. Life goes on.
So it’s all a ball of hype? Not quite.
In challenging the Joe Schmidt process, and in informing Steve Hansen of key areas of focus ahead of their World Cup defence in 2019, the meeting of No’s 1 and 2 in the world should prove a highly informative evening at the Aviva Stadium.
The world won’t stop turning at 9pm tomorrow night, but we will all walk away from Lansdowne Road with a whole load of new and intriguing scenarios in our heads.
The pre-game narrative has bounced from Conor Murray to a bit of barbed back-and-forth across the net about who’s the best and baddest cat in town. Behind it all is a healthy wariness in both camps of each other.
Jordan Larmour said this week that no-one in the Ireland camp is scared of the All Blacks any more. He genuinely believes that.
That is not a hostage to fortune or something that’s forced like it could be from a veteran like Best or Kearney, who’ve had too many chastening experiences against New Zealand to sound authentic on that one.
The New Zealanders should respect that mentality. They invented it.
It can be easy to overlook the obvious bits of important detail in searching for the microscopic, but the biggest advantage Ireland have tomorrow is being coached by a New Zealander.
There’s nothing like having one of their own coaching against the All Blacks. Joe is pure Kiwi, he knows and understands stuff that indigenous Irish coaches from the past couldn’t, in terms of what Ireland are facing here.
It’s not that long ago there was guesswork involved in Irish preparation for the All Blacks. That’s not an unreasonable place to be in for a country reared on videos of 101 Great All Black tries.
Ireland had good game plans and we did rock up with real conviction on a Sunday night — yet the feeling of detail was missing on how we were going to beat them so and sos.
There were times when playing the All Blacks was like facing monsters with four legs and four arms. Happily, those days are over. That’s all Larmour is saying.
But don’t feel too bad for Hansen’s nice All Blacks either. They’re not that nice. There’s no nice at this level, let’s get that straight.
To be that good, you have to be absolutely ruthless, and your mindset has to be the same. Steve Hansen will be there eight years at the next World Cup.
On the ground over there, he’s well liked and respected and has overseen the monopolisation of rugby by New Zealand.
He oversees the people’s game in a country where the natives surgically scrutinise any and every test loss, and Hansen is usually the one at the butt end of often crudely conceived analysis. ‘He’s there too long’. ‘The players need a fresh voice, a different message’. That sort of stuff.
Tomorrow New Zealand play in Dublin, the home of the second-ranked side in the world, and if the All Blacks lose, there will be a reaction inside the camp and in the country as a whole.
Hansen is coach to the reigning world champions, and has lost on only four occasions since 2015 but he will wake up Monday to read that the clock’s ticking towards the midnight hour if they happen to come up shy tomorrow.
And yet he remains an utterly even voice in a wildly surreal debate.
Therefore, in the context of what he and his players have done, it’s no bad time to get a bit respectful of what New Zealand continue to do year in, year out.
They are entitled to lose a game, though they rarely do.
They consistently prevail, sometimes in the most challenging mental circumstances imaginable, in arenas in different parts of the world which specialise in conjuring up terrifying ferocity.
Every single test match they play is against opposition playing 20% above themselves because it’s the All Blacks in the other corner.
They must be weary from playing mini World Cup finals, because that’s what the opposition turn every test into. Every single time.
Put yourself in Beauden Barrett’s shoes, or Dan Carter’s before him, or Kieran Read or Sam Whitelock’s. It’s a fair challenge to be submerged in all that and rise to it every single time.
Joe Schmidt gets all that as a Kiwi and is moving his Irish players into that space.
The one-time Irish school of thought wondered would it be necessary to win at all tomorrow. Shur, why would we poke the bear when the win we really need is nearly 12 months down the track?
The New Zealand attitude to all that would be: We win Saturday, we win the World Cup, because it’s all part of the process.
This ‘there’s only one chance to beat them’ doesn’t even come into their process. And it doesn’t come into Schmidt’s either.
Guaranteed, there’s no mention in Carton House this week of ‘beating the All Blacks’.
It’s all about building that performance — Joe said that repeating the uncharacteristic errors of the Argentina game would ensure a long day this Saturday and he’s spot on.
For a different era of Irish rugby player it was ‘Jaysus, it’d be great to beat the All Blacks. Let’s convince ourselves these guys can be beaten’.
Winning or losing? That’s not the language this current Irish group use.
‘To give ourselves a chance of getting a good performance, we need to do A, B, and C really well’. These are the key foundations that Joe consistently refers to.
It’s a coaching masterclass. The ‘well here’s a new idea for this week’ narrative no longer exists in Irish rugby.
New Zealand recognise that Ireland know how to keep the ball and be disciplined with it, and while Hansen will feel they have the edge in their attack game, they will be wary of the innovations the Irish coaching staff will surely throw into the mix tomorrow.
Power plays have become a Schmidt specialty, he is the genius at picking a weakness. It won’t come as a galloping shock to anyone if they go after Damien McKenzie in the air.
The full-back is a throwback in many respects when rugby players weren’t behemoths. He’s 5 ft 9 at a push and barely 80kgs soaking wet.
He is a brilliant rugby player, but like everyone else, he has a weakness, and that’s his size. Irrespective of his prodigious athleticism, he will be giving away serious inches to Stockdale before either even get off the ground.
The attacking kicking game will be something to monitor. It will be cagey.
The All Blacks have that Globetrotters mystique about them and they will definitely play when there’s space, but the idea they are all-out rugby is an illusion.
They’re actually smart in how they turn the screw and force pressure. They won’t force it if there’s a wall of 10 jerseys in front of them. They’ll kick it.
There was a good example of what Kearney brings to the table if you watch Fiji’s first try against Scotland last weekend at Murrayfield.
Stuart Hogg is a Lions full-back. He had a one-on-one tackle to defend seven metres from the post, and though he got an arm on Villiame Mata, the Fijian still burst through it and scored.
If that was Kearney, he’d chop him, stop the Fijian dead in his tracks. Team-mates get that.
It reminds me of Shaun Payne’s time at Munster. It got to a stage where every time the opposition got a line break, the mantra for everyone in red was to chase back as hard as they could because Payne wouldn’t be beaten in a one-on-one and next phase reinforcements were required.
It’s a great feeling for a team. Maybe if Simon Zebo was there we might have a different argument about full-back, but the step up from Italy in Chicago to Argentina in Dublin was self-evident to everyone including Jordan Larmour, who doesn’t play there regularly.
That cranks up three more notches tomorrow for the All Blacks.
Watch the front row too. That’s where Ireland will look to kick-start dominance. Healy, Best, and McGrath will be the ones making early statements for Ireland if they are to be made.
The All Blacks might edge the second row — just — and Ireland will look to edge the back row battle. That’s utter conviction right there.
For any rugby nerd, watching Kieran Read on the player-cam for 80 minutes tomorrow is about as good as it gets in the modern game.
Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, for all their aggressive dominance at Twickenham last Saturday, would happily take a share of the lineouts in Dublin.
That’s the measure now of Devin Toner. Where once the crowds groaned ‘ah Toner’s playing?’ this week everyone is screaming for his inclusion.
Just like his direct opponent tomorrow, Toner is an example of the benefits of coaching, guidance and perseverance on his part. He has changed his game up, improved his carrying and I would argue is fitter than he’s ever been.
He’ll be relieved he’s not sub again though. Watching him last Saturday doing down-and-ups on the bags before and during the game, I was thinking: From 6 ft 10, that’s a long way down to the ground and back up, especially when you’ve a whippet like Luke McGrath hopping off the ground beside you.
One more incentive to get your start, Dev.
Alongside James Ryan — who is so impressive seeing him in the flesh — the locks contest is podium stuff all on its own.
The only thing more surprising for me than Brodie Retallick not being shortlisted for world player of the year was Conor Murray not being shortlisted.
Those bizarre omissions passed without anyone batting an eyelid.
We can come back to that.