Player of the Year. Coach of the Year. Team of the Year. Any scintilla of doubt as to the scale of the task Ireland face in seeking a second straight win over the world champions this Saturday was all but atomised by the string of major awards claimed by Beauden Barrett, Steve Hansen, and the All Blacks at the World Rugby Awards last weekend.
“They are licking their wounds,” said Brian O’Driscoll, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame that same night in London. “There is no doubt they are coming ready. I heard a lot from them because they picked up a lot of awards. That says a lot about their team. That wasn’t New Zealand as they saw themselves (in Chicago) 10 days ago. They want to put that right. We are going to see a different team. We are going to have to produce a better performance ourselves. There is no reason to think that we don’t have a bigger performance too.”
O’Driscoll was there in the Windy City to watch history go down. It was the first time since he began playing for Ireland 17 years ago he attended a game involving the national team in which he wasn’t involved as a player, injured, or a pundit.
It was an experience that, he said, allowed him to reconnect with the team as a fan for the first time but his critical faculties weren’t left behind at the turnstiles and he believes Joe Schmidt will have plenty of sticks with which to metaphorically beat his troops after the 40-29 victory.
“Joe would have pulled the game apart with a fine tooth comb and he would have picked out eight or 10 things we could improve on. It wouldn’t have been: ‘let’s have a look at the great tries we scored’. It would have been about: ‘look at the errors you made.’
“System errors, defensive, lost ball, inaccuracy at the ruck. All those things. So he will plant the seed in all the player’s head that: ‘look, we could all improve by 5, 10, or 15%, without a shadow of a doubt. And if they think that and do manage to do that we will be a handful to deal with.”
Some areas offer less room for betterment than others.
Among them is Robbie Henshaw’s performance two weekends ago. Pegged long before O’Driscoll retired as the great man’s successor in the Irish midfielder, Henshaw wears 12 rather than 13 but has already managed to ape some of the feats performed by the Leinster legend.
The late try that sealed the win in Soldier Field typified that knack of right man, right place and right time. It was the type of act that will stand out in the memory when the British and Irish Lions coaching ticket locks itself into a room to choose their touring party for New Zealand next summer.
“For me, people always focus on those moments, the try moments,” said O’Driscoll. “Take that out completely, I thought he had a phenomenal game. It’s his work rate and his engine, his appetite to get back in the line and work for players around him, either carrying the ball or doing the nasty stuff.
“The thankless work. That’s where he differentiates himself from a lot of other centres in Ireland and in the northern hemisphere. He has to be a guy who is now in the mix in Warren Gatland’s eyes.”
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