As a two-time world champion, Conrad Smith knows what it takes to be the best in the world.
And that’s why the former All Black centre is worth listening to when he says he believes Joe Schmidt’s men are ready to compete with New Zealand for the title.
Ireland are currently second in World Rugby’s rankings after their Six Nations Grand Slam success, but Smith has seen plenty to impress him over the last few years, not just the last two months.
In fact, given the drop off in class from Australia and South Africa, typically New Zealand’s biggest rivals, Smith believes Ireland are now the best placed team to challenge the All Blacks.
Ireland lost against New Zealand in the final seconds in 2013, when Joe Schmidt was only in charge of the team a number of weeks, but then beat the All Blacks for the first time in Irish history, in 2016.
A return clash weeks later in Dublin brought out the best and worst in the Kiwis, in
violent game that the visitors edged, but that was a sign of respect, according to Smith.
“When you come off a loss as an All Black team, it hurts, you don’t like losing those games,” Smith, who yesterday announced he will retire at the end of the season, said. “You earn that respect by beating the All Blacks and there comes an edge to that next game.”
The All Blacks have not needed to find that edge much in recent years, but Schmidt’s team have consistently brought out the best in the Kiwis.
With the rugby championship becoming little more than a procession for the All Blacks in recent years, Smith sees a new, enduring rivalry beginning.
“It’s been a little disappointing the way Australia and South Africa have fallen away a little bit, I love really good contests and really close games, which the All Blacks have had with Ireland as an example,” he said.
“I’d like more like that, regularly, that’d spice it up.”
Ireland and New Zealand will meet this November, while the pair are short odds to come up against each another in the knockout stages of next year’s World Cup. With that in mind, will November’s clash mean that little bit more?
Not so fast, Smith says.
“I think Ireland are clearly the second-best side in the world and will challenge for that top spot,” he said.
“The All Blacks have done it for a long period, and Ireland for three or four years now have been playing really good rugby, so it will be a good battle. But history shows a lot can change in the months of rugby ahead. You talk about the November Test and then a World Cup will be totally different.
“As a player, I experienced that all the time: you’d be playing games and everyone would be telling you, ‘There’s going to be so much riding on this’, and then you’d get to a World Cup and you’re almost a different team. The personnel has changed, momentum’s changed. A lot will change, but I think it will be a good game.”
Schmidt would rather beat the All Blacks next year than this autumn, no doubt, but there’s growing talk that he will be the man in the Kiwi dugout in the not-too-distant future. His Ireland contract ends at the end of the World Cup, and with Steve Hansen also stepping down then, the door is open for a potential move.
He may be required to work in Super Rugby before making the move to the All Blacks, but Smith says it’s not out of the question to imagine the Ireland boss landing the role immediately.
“He’s doing a great job with Ireland, he’s someone who could potentially come back and coach the All Blacks,” Smith said.
“It’s not an outrageous thought, and it’s been there before now, the last two or three years he was already talked about as someone we’d love to have back.
“The fact Steve and Graham [Henry] came from up north helps. People realise it’s a global game, it really helps if you’ve experienced the way rugby is played and operates up here, it can only help your CV and your intel about the game, so I don’t think that’d be much of an issue.
“He’s very highly rated in New Zealand. I speak as someone within rugby, and I think he is getting more widely known in the public, and rightly so.
“Within New Zealand rugby and with players he worked with before coming overseas, he was always highly regarded. That filters back from players he has coached up here. He’s a very good operator. He has a very good reputation.”
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