Ireland go once more unto the breach against New Zealand in Dublin this evening, armed with the confidence of having at last beaten the world champions but under no illusions about the challenge of beating them twice in a row.
Two weeks on from the heroics of Soldier Field, Joe Schmidt’s team are in a position to savour but also fear. Belief among the Irish players they possess the skills, heart, mental strength and gameplan to beat the best team in the world has been transformed into fact by their extraordinary performance in Chicago.
Yet the words “backlash” and “revenge” have been to the fore during the 14 days since the Irish defied 111 years of failure against the All Blacks and ran in five tries for an historic 40-29 victory and Rory Best and his players know it is going to take a performance even more special than that if they are to become the first side since South Africa in 2009 to record back-to-back wins against the Kiwis.
New Zealand, it can safely be assumed, will be fuelled at the Aviva Stadium by the anger of becoming the first of their countrymen to lose to Ireland and to have lost an 18-Test winning run stretching back to August 2015.
The changes they have made in personnel, particularly with the returns of first-choice locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, will bring a greater ferocity, focus and ruthlessness to their game, while there is an additional emotional aspect to their motivation this week, not just on yesterday’s first anniversary of All Blacks great Jonah Lomu’s death at the age of 40 but following the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit New Zealand’s east coast and the South Island in particular six days ago.
Just as Ireland paid tribute to their own fallen hero Anthony Foley in Chicago, the All Black family will close ranks this weekend and honour the rugby superstar that was Lomu.
“One of the things that is important to us is our legacy which is a fancy word for history,” head coach Steve Hansen said. “He’s a big part of that. The boys are aware of it. They will talk about it amongst themselves and as a team about our history.
“We let our history down in Chicago and did not perform to the level we expect. If you lose games and play well and get beaten by the better team... If you lose and don’t play well then it becomes very frustrating. We know we didn’t play anywhere near as well as we could play. We know we have to play to that very high level if we are going to win against Ireland because they are a good side.”
Hansen’s opposite number Schmidt has made clear his desire to see Ireland improve on the benchmark set down two weeks ago and though Hansen cheekily suggested, based on that result in Chicago, that Ireland were the favourites today, the Irish boss was at pains to separate external expectations of his team from the necessity to execute their gameplan in an efficient, accurate and disciplined fashion.
“I don’t think you’re ever super comfortable with the expectation, because we stay focused on trying to hit some performance markers and sometimes the expectation, we don’t control,” Schmidt said.
“Some people say some things about what we are capable of doing, of what we should be doing or what our opponents aren’t capable of doing and we know that on any given day any of that information might be false because on any given day somebody can turn up and deliver. Somebody can get a couple of things right and it swings a game.
“What you try to do is be as studious as you can, try to be as clear as you can in what your plan is.
“I don’t think we tactically did anything extra-special (to beat the All Blacks), it wasn’t a lot different to what we’d done in South Africa but you get access points through a couple of lineouts in the first half, get a bit of momentum and a bit of confidence and suddenly when you’re playing with confidence it’s a little bit different. I think one of the advantages the All Blacks have, is that they’ve been afforded the luxury of feeling a confidence about what they can deliver because their performances reflect exactly that.”
Vengeance may be the primary motivation for New Zealand but Hansen and his coaches will have been busy seeking improvement from their players after the Chicago performance. Chief among the “work-ons” will concern discipline. The All Blacks conceded 12 penalties compared to Ireland’s remarkably low tally of four and saw prop Joe Moody spend 10 minutes in the sin bin in the first half for a spear tackle on Robbie Henshaw. The Irish punished them for it, scoring 12 unanswered points during the 15 v 14 period.
Schmidt’s side also made great hay from a malfunctioning New Zealand lineout as a makeshift second row of Patrick Tuipulotu and Jerome Kaino failed to get on the same page as hooker Dane Coles or their captain Kieran Read in the set-piece. In welcoming back first-choice locks Retallick and Whitelock today, Hansen will hope to have sealed off that particular Irish access point. Schmidt is certainly expecting them to get their act together in terms of both discipline and the lineout, which means his side will have to pinpoint other areas to apply pressure to the world champions.
Having cracked the code once, Schmidt has been presented with another, equally challenging brainteaser. It is one few coaches have had the privilege of solving: preparing his players to face a seldom seen beast, a wounded All Blacks team. History suggests a successful outcome is rare yet if anyone can achieve it, is this team and this coach.
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