Ireland hoping to make up for 2013 heartache against New Zealand

Ireland went for a cruise along the Chicago River yesterday afternoon, wending their way between the towering skyscrapers and enjoying some peaceful moments before the storm brewing in tonight’s clash with New Zealand. 

Ireland hoping to make up for 2013 heartache against New Zealand

Above them more than a million Chicagoans were celebrating the Cubs’ remarkable World Series victory as baseball’s newest champions paraded through the streets having ended their 108-year curse.

Ireland have a similar mission, to end 111 years without a win over the All Blacks yet compared to their afternoon on the water, the sailing is guaranteed to be anything but smooth.

The size of the task at Soldier Field is not lost on head coach Joe Schmidt, a man whose first brush with the country of his birth as a Test boss ended so agonisingly three years ago.

That 24-22 defeat has stayed with the Ireland set-up since, only October 2015’s World Cup quarter-final defeat to Argentina causing as much angst to the management.

In signing a new contract last month to extend his stay as head coach through to 2019, Schmidt has time to plot his way to World Cup vengeance.

Tonight provides him with the opportunity of a different sort of redemption.

The odds are stacked against Ireland, but then they were in 2013 when Paul O’Connell’s side were seconds from an historic first victory over the All Blacks.

That was a chance that went begging and against a New Zealand outfit that has since retained the World Cup, coped with the Test retirements of Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Tony Woodcock, Ma’aa Nonu and Conrad Smith and looked stronger again, Ireland will have to work twice as hard this time around just to get themselves into a similar position to finally get over the line.

The cause has not been helped by the scheduling that has seen Steve Hansen keep his All Blacks together in camp throughout the summer and into autumn, playing seven times since Ireland hung up their boots for the holidays following their third Test in South Africa.

New Zealand have used that time well, sweeping the Rugby Championship with barely a scare and amassing up bonus-point victories in all six games against South Africa, Argentina and Australia, and then beating the Wallabies for a third time in their most recent outing on October 20 to stretch their winning streak to a world-record 18 games.

While the All Blacks have evolved further along the path to greatness, Schmidt has had to make do with one-day mini-camps as the Pro12 and Champions Cup campaigns have occupied his players, whom he could only gather as a squad last Sunday.

So while addressing the threat the All Blacks pose is mind-boggling enough, Ireland’s lack of preparation is a further cause for concern.

“We trained on Monday and we trained today, You don’t really have too much time to get too opposition-focused,” Schmidt admitted when he announced his team on Thursday. “Yet we have to take them into account in terms of what we’re trying to achieve, but at the same time for us it was really just let’s get in and get ourselves organised a little bit and try to be as well prepared as we can because over half the squad played last weekend for their provinces.

“So we got them on the back of that and a couple of the boys were a little bit knocked about, so we tempered what we did on Monday a little bit and had a hit-out today which was good for us.

“Hopefully, that’s a good starting point for us.”

It is difficult for Schmidt not to praise the All Blacks for the consistently high level of their performance and their ability to shoulder the loss of key leaders by taking a new generation of future stars off the conveyor belt of rugby talent at home.

“I just think they’re a super side,” he said. “I’d have to say I’ve got incredible respect for the likes of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw who aren’t with them now but even the last time we played them when Israel Dagg went off and Beauden Barrett came on I thought he was a little bit of a game changer for them playing at full-back.

“So you haven’t got Dan Carter but you’ve got Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden was super against us last time as well.

“They just have that ability to add that shock value with new players coming in. I was a spectator watching in Auckland five years ago when Ireland were relatively well beaten at Eden Park but then went to Christchurch and almost beat the All Blacks.

Then the All Blacks had a few injuries and it looked like a fantastic opportunity for Ireland and 60-0 later guys announce themselves on the international stage, the likes of Aaron Cruden with a freakish offload to Sonny Bill Williams running a close line off him early in the game and that just continued in that vain.”

The list could go on but it is Ireland’s job to take this collection of rugby behemoths to a place they have not been taken too many times. They have to be as ferocious as they were in 2013 when they jumped out into an early 19-0 and then do more than just hang on.

This time around that ferocity has to be sustained to keep Ireland on the front foot for 80 minutes and then some.

The All Blacks supremacy has got to such a point where success against them is now measured in terms of how long a team has managed to stay with them before being swatted aside by an all-powerful combination of stronger mindset, better execution and a mighty bench.

Yet Ireland have to break the mould, they have to keep asking questions of the New Zealanders and they have to remain error-free.

They are facing a great side, the last thing they need to do is gift them another victory with just a couple of lapses of concentration. Just ask Richie McCaw.

“You can’t afford to make a mistake against the All Blacks because man they punish you,” the retired double World Cup-winning captain said in Chicago yesterday.

“They get two or three opportunities and they take it at the minute, the two or three that pop up, bang, and then other teams are perhaps having them and not nailing them. That’s a 15-point difference.”

Ireland need no further warning of that yet preventing it is easier said than done. They have to find the way to practice what they preach.

Ireland v New Zealand: The vital statistics

Ireland and New Zealand have played 28 times since 1905 with the All Blacks victorious on 27 occasions. The 1973 Test was a 10-10 draw.

Scott and Beauden Barrett will become the 45th set of All Blacks brothers on Saturday. Uncapped lock Scott takes a seat on the All Blacks’ bench and should join the fray in the second half. Fly-half Beauden will win his 47th cap.

Leinster young guns Garry Ringrose and Joey Carbery are in line for their Test debuts on Saturday, having been named on Ireland’s bench. Centre Ringrose has made just 29 Leinster appearances and fly-half Carbery only nine provincial bows.

Victory would see New Zealand extend their winning record for a top-tier nation to 19 matches.

Ireland could move up to fifth in the world rankings should they record their first-ever victory over the All Blacks.

New Zealand will field two sets of brothers on Saturday for the first time since 1961. Alongside the Barrett brothers, Julian and Ardie Savea have been named in the All Blacks’ match squad.

The last time New Zealand selected two sibling pairs was on July 22, 1961 when Ian and Don Clarke played alongside Colin and Stan Meads against France at Eden Park.

Rob Kearney will start his first Test for Ireland since February, returning at full-back for his 70th cap, after boss Joe Schmidt opted for an experienced starting backline.

New Zealand will play their second Test match in Chicago today, having beaten the USA 74-6 at Soldier Field in 2014.

Captain Rory Best will draw level with Peter Stringer on 98 appearances as Ireland’s fifth most-capped player.

All Blacks players hold the top five slots for Test match try scoring in 2016. Israel Dagg tops the list with eight, while Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea and Ben Smith have seven. Next is TJ Perenara with five.

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