Are Ireland ready to raise the bar again?

With Sam Whitelock, and especially Brodie Retallick back in black, the challenge facing Joe Schmidt and Ireland has to be tougher than when they made history in Chicago, writes Donal Lenihan.
Are Ireland ready to raise the bar again?

1 Can Joe Schmidt work his magic once again?

While the line out was an obvious target in Chicago, the absence of Israel Dagg in the New Zealand back three also facilitated Ireland’s kick/chase with Waisake Naholo and Julian Savea regularly put under pressure.

New Zealand also struggled with the line speed delivered by Ireland in defence but it isn’t as if Hansen hasn’t come across that type of suffocating formation before. South Africa, for one, regularly employ it in the Rugby Championship but his sides normally find a way to cope.

Now that Hansen knows what’s coming, I expect New Zealand will kick more and with greater variety than we saw in Chicago. Beauden Barrett is masterful at putting in those tantalising grubber kicks that somehow always seem to sit up at the right time for the support runner.

There is a vulnerable area just in behind that onrushing Irish midfield defence that Barrett failed to recognise or exploit two weeks ago. He will look to exploit it this time out. One of the reasons Schmidt loves having Jared Payne stationed in midfield is that he is very good at recognising when those key defensive adjustments have to be made. Hansen will be looking to his experienced half-back combination to make better decisions this time.

In their last 12 test matches, New Zealand have scored four or more tries. Despite Ireland denying them the time and space they are accustomed to, with a very impressive defensive performance, New Zealand still managed to bag four in Chicago.

Ireland won because they scored five of their own. The challenge for Schmidt now is to devise a plan that restricts New Zealand’s try-scoring prowess to less than that, as it’s extremely unlikely Ireland will score five tries again — something that has only happened twice to New Zealand over the last 25 five years.

It is imperative therefore that the improvements Ireland have been making in defence since Andy Farrell came on board in South Africa continue today. If Ireland concede four tries again, they will lose.

The one thing we do know with certainty is that, despite that 11-point win two weeks ago, Schmidt will have forensically dissected that game, highlighted to the players all the things they did wrong, yet still won. His message will be clear. Eradicate those errors and deliver on the subtle tactical tweaks he is certain to make and there is no reason why you can’t beat them again. That is a great starting point.

Do second rows really have such an influence?

New Zealand have coped adequately without one of their frontline locks on many occasions in recent times but the absence of both Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock two weeks ago proved a game-changer.

The most obvious area impacted by the absence of that experienced combination was the line-out where Ireland’s maul proved unstoppable. Munster used a similar platform to derail the Maori side in Limerick last week, so Hansen will be better briefed on what to expect.

Having Retallick back is a big boost. New Zealand will be far more assured on their own throw and with more possession now likely to flow from the middle and tail of the line out, Barrett will have a far greater attacking platform. With Retallick and Whitelock working in tandem, New Zealand will also attack the Irish throw with far greater purpose than two weeks ago. Schmidt must be prepared for this and cut his cloth accordingly with a new menu of options out of touch.

Despite his undoubted ability as a ball winner, the real-positive with having Retallick on board will be seen in broken play. He is a key decision maker with ball in hand, superb in acting as an additional playmaker. He is the one who often decides whether to carry into contact, pass out the back or deliver one of those deft tap-on passes to a supporting forward running a short line.

With 140 caps and three World Cup winners medals between them, this pairing represent the best locking partnership in test rugby at present. In the build up to the 2015 World Cup, New Zealand had moved on from the days when they placed an over-reliance on Dan Carter and Richie McCaw.

In a step backwards, Chicago reinforced the view that the presence of their first choice second row pairing is key to this side performing to its optimum level. Having those two back is a huge game changer and Ireland are going to have to find a way to cope with that.

Can Ireland control the intensity level of this contest

Throughout their 18-game winning streak, New Zealand were masters at dictating the pace and intensity of the game. Ireland never allowed that to happen at Soldier Field. Much of that was due to how successful Ireland were in slowing New Zealand’s renowned ability to recycle quickly at the breakdown. The fact they managed to achieve this, only conceding a measly four penalties over 80 minutes, was an incredible achievement.

That extra second or two meant Ireland had sufficient defensive numbers available to shut down the space out wide. By double-teaming in the tackle, Schmidt’s men also limited New Zealand to just nine offloads in total which had a big impact. They averaged 18 per test in the Rugby Championship and as many as 28 when stuffing Australia 42-8 in their opening game. A contributory factor in halving their test average in Chicago was that the NFL pitch was a good five metres narrower than the standard international rugby pitch.

With more acres available in Dublin, they will look to shift Ireland around the place and look for the holes. They are brilliant at that, with hooker Dane Coles a freak at using his pace to suck in defenders, while offloading to a support runner, as he did for that brilliant try from TJ Perenara two weeks ago.

The other reason New Zealand failed to control the tempo of that game was the fact that Ireland mounted massive pressure on Aaron Smith and spooked him. He was outstanding in the Rugby Championship but subsequent off field indiscretions appear to have hit his confidence.

Hansen has backed him to perform today and if he can recapture his championship form then Ireland will be under pressure.

The most impressive thing about the New Zealand performance two weeks ago was the speed with which they were able to transfer the ball across the pitch to launch counter attacks. Out of nothing they had the capacity to score, as they did from their first piece of decent possession after only five minutes.

We will see a vastly improved performance from the visitors today. The question then comes down to how much more can this Irish side improve from Chicago. To win, you feel they will have to raise the bar even higher.

Over to you Joe...

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