The time has come for the admiration and adoration of the All Blacks to cease. It is instead the moment for Ireland to forget the disappointment of defeat to Australia and come out fighting against the world champions.
This may be the wrong time to expect an historic first win over New Zealand, particularly given their quest for rugby immortality with one final victory of the year is just 80 minutes away, but Ireland must at least go toe-to-toe with the southern hemisphere giants of the game at Aviva Stadium tomorrow (2pm).
After the Joe Schmidt era got off to a tame start with a less than fluent victory over Samoa on November 9, the new national coach will have been frustrated his charges failed to raise their performance against the Australians and paid the penalty with a four-try-to-nil defeat by 32-15 a week later.
It was an effort that lacked accuracy, intensity and tries, rendering 64 per cent possession meaningless, with Ireland’s 79 per cent tackling success rate making the Wallabies look like world-beaters again, which is something they are not. Not yet at least.
And all on a weekend when the All Blacks chalked up their 13th win in 13 starts this calendar year with a hard-fought victory over world number three side England at Twickenham with just 40 per cent possession.
What’s the secret of New Zealand’s success this year, to have won on four continents in a variety of ways?
“I think it’s their ability to play whatever type of rugby is required in the conditions,” Schmidt said yesterday of his countrymen.
“One of the things this autumn is that we haven’t played in the rain or trained in the rain. But I think they are capable of playing in those conditions just as much as any other conditions because they’ve got the strength in their pack, I think they have the set-piece that makes them very difficult to beat.
“I know they do a massive amount of work on the ball in the air. It is no surprise guys like Kieran Read are very good in the air, their whole back three are very good in the air. They kick a lot of contested kicks, they do that because they back themselves to get the ball back and they’ve done the work to do that.
“Therefore, if there aren’t great conditions they can go to those defaults and still be able to get the better of their opponents.
“But I think that ability to play whatever style is required, you’ve got to be adaptable to conditions. Their ability to play on the hoof and transform situations where they’re under pressure into sudden pressure points for the opposition is incredible.
“I think they just have depth in their squad as well. A lot of teams, if they could put out their top 15, and that was all that was required, then maybe they might get pushed closer, but as we talked about in their selection, if one’s out, another comes in and there’s a rich depth in their squad which makes them incredibly hard to beat. You can’t get them at a vulnerable moment because the vulnerable moments, selection-wise, just don’t really exist.
“You’ve got to force those vulnerable moments in the 80 minutes that you’re on the field.”
So how do the Ireland players expose those “vulnerable moments” should they surface in the All Blacks’ psyche tomorrow afternoon?
Forgetting the 60-0 third Test mauling they suffered in their last meeting in June 2012 would be a start, before referencing the previous week’s effort on that tour in Christchurch, when only a Dan Carter drop goal late on denied the Irish an historic first win to leave the final score at 21-19.
In the second Test, Declan Kidney’s side took the fight to the home side, fronting up in the set-piece and at the breakdown and not letting the All Blacks secure the bridgehead of an early score that allows them to get on the front foot and build momentum on both the field and the scoreboard that is so often the downfall of their opponents, as Ireland would discover seven days later in Hamilton.
Ireland didn’t quite pull off the feat but England did five months later, tearing into the New Zealand ball carriers and matching that ferocity at the breakdown to unsettle Richie McCaw’s team just enough to disrupt their rhythm and unsettle their belief.
It led to the All Blacks’ only defeat so far in 26 Tests since they lifted the World Cup on home soil in 2011 and England almost managed it again last week only to make the cardinal error of failing to maintain 100 per cent concentration and effort throughout 80 minutes. Because one dropped ball or missed tackle; one defensive misread or poorly executed lineout and New Zealand will pounce on it and punish you with clinical ruthlessness.
England allowed them a fast start at Twickenham last week but rallied and caused some panic in the All Blacks ranks with their lineout and driving maul. Yet, like so much of their game, the men in black managed to deliver the killer blow when Julian Savea’s second-half try came from a stolen lineout, as if to prove they are never beaten in any facet of the game.
Worryingly, Ireland committed one mental error after another in attack and defence against Australia last week and any repeat of those sloppy mistakes will see them hammered.
The hurt pride of the defeat by the Wallabies should mean Ireland will not be so poor a second week in a row and, amidst all the positive talk that it won’t, there is a belief they can actually make the ultimate in turnarounds, do the unimaginable and actually win this weekend.
After all, just as Ireland were taken apart in Hamilton at the sorry end of a 54-week season that had begun with preparation for the previous year’s World Cup, New Zealand will tomorrow complete their campaign with a seventh Test in nine weeks that has sees them making their second lap around the planet after Tests on home soil, in Argentina, South Africa and Australia as well as Japan and Europe. All in nine weeks.
Something has to give, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not. But it is incumbent upon this Ireland team to ensure this final leg of the All Blacks marathon is one to remember and not just as a pit stop on the road to glory.
A study in contrasts
The two teams since their last meeting: New Zealand 60 Ireland 0, third Test, June 23, 2012
Played: NZ: 24 Ire: 11
Wins: NZ: 22 (plus one draw); Ire: 5 (plus one draw)
Points: NZ: 772 Ire: 240
Points per game: NZ: 32.2, Ireland: 21.8
Tries: NZ: 83 Ire: 23
Tries per game: NZ: 3.46 Ireland: 2.09
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