111 years and 29 attempts. Ireland’s one and only victory over the All Blacks was a long time coming. It only took Munster 6 attempts for goodness sake, beating the midweek tourists 12-0 in that famous encounter at Thomond Park in 1978.
After the Chicago victory just over 2 years ago, normal service was resumed a fortnight later in Dublin, the All Blacks winning a bruising encounter 21-9. The bear had certainly been poked. Oh, and Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock returned for that one, after the Irish had targeted the lineout at Soldier Field. 28-1-1 (yes, Ireland managed a draw in 1973). If we were looking at a boxers record, it would be mightily impressive. In a two horse race between Tier One rugby nations it’s utter domination.
I looked back and had a count up; I’ve watched the last 21, starting with the 1989 test in Dublin. Plenty of clips of that match were being promoted via social media this week, including John Gallagher’s try and a ball boy helping to deny Grant Fox his first test try; Willie Anderson also advanced his troops towards the Haka in a spine tingling moment.
Back then, matches were few and far between. There had only been 9 tests before that one, starting in 1905. Before all 21 I expected the All Blacks to win and win well. Even after Chicago, I knew they’d bounce back and sure enough they did. Defeatist? Unpatriotic? I prefer realistic.
18 months ago, this All Black tour was all about Twickenham, but when the Eddie Jones juggernaut started to cough and splutter, Irish eyes were smiling. Grand Slam winners, a series win in Australia and a deserved World Ranking of No 2; the Aviva Stadium this weekend became the hottest ticket around. Although Ireland and the All Blacks were short of their best in their respective wins over Argentina and England last weekend, they kept to the script and set up a potentially epic clash between the two best sides in the world.
I had high hopes of Irish success at the 2015 World Cup. I didn’t expect them to win it, that would have been foolish, but I thought the semi-final and even the final were realistic. They were soundly beaten by Argentina in the quarters, with Paul O’Connell, Johnny Sexton, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Jared Payne all out injured or suspended, following a brutal group match against France. The strength in depth just wasn’t there and Argentina were too good.
After that, Joe Schmidt realised there was too much reliance on the first choice players and since then he has managed to follow the example of the All Blacks and develop a strong, experienced squad, while racking up the test victories. He is, in my opinion, the best thing to ever happen to Irish Rugby. Yes, the Irish Rugby Union have made some great decisions, especially with regard to their central contract system, but Schmidt makes everything tick. He will be a huge loss when he inevitably moves back to his homeland.
He has developed a system of play which allows players to come in and out of the team almost seamlessly. Everyone knows their role inside out and how it impacts the team. Yes, they still have the big names, Murray & Sexton for example, but when they don’t play, the gap is nowhere near as big as it was a few years ago. When I used to watch Ireland, I always felt fitness was an issue in the closing stages of test matches, but sensible oversight of player’s workloads has ensured that’s not an issue anymore.
The All Blacks continue to bounce from one challenge to another. Having won tight games at Loftus Versfeld and Twickenham in the last 6 weeks, they now meet an Irish team who have won their last 10 games in a row at home, and a total of 16 of their last 17 tests.
There are mouth watering clashes throughout, but below are some of the biggest.
Tadhg Furlong v Karl Tu’inukuafe
In my opinion, the second best forward in the game (see below for the best) versus the most improved player around. Tadhg is powerful in the scrum, carries all day and is fierce in defence. Karl will need to match him in the front row, it’s his biggest challenge to date. If one side gets the upper hand in the scrum and penalties start to mount, it will be crucial.
James Ryan v Brodie Retallick
When fit, Brodie is, for me, the best player in the world. Against England last weekend he stole three lineouts in another stand out, all round performance. James Ryan put in a Guzzler effort himself against Argentina, with 18 carries and 13 tackles. At just 22, he can become an exceptional player over the next few years, but Ireland will need those heights here and now.
Kieran Marmion v Aaron Smith
A few years ago, it was no Conor Murray (and/or Jonny Sexton), no chance. With Murray not having played all season, Ireland have gone to the well; Marmion has 23 caps, although just 6 starts. Strong defensively, he needs to keep a recently under par Aaron Smith in check, while getting his own team on the front foot and nailing his box kicks. By the way, Smith becomes the highest capped All Blacks half back ever; its his 82nd test.
Jonathan Sexton v Beauden Barrett
Sexton will have been grumpy with himself last week, he was under par against Argentina. He’ll need to be at his best to get the upper hand against Barrett, who has now started to add drop goals to his armour; that’s not a flippant comment, the two time World Player of the Year continues to improve his game management skills. Beauden’s defensive effort against England was largely underrated; it was outstanding.
Jacob Stockdale v Ben Smith
Stockdale is 22, scored a record seven tries in the Six Nations this year and was player of the tournament. He’s up against the genius that is Bender. Reliable, invaluable, experienced – quite simply, Stockdale faces his most difficult match-up so far.
How will the game be played? Ireland love possession and are happy to play conservatively in that respect, going from contact to contact, recycling, low risk, not too many offloads. Even without Murray, I expect Marmion will put up plenty of box kicks when appropriate, for Earls and Stockdale to chase. Ireland’s line out creaked a bit last week, losing three on their own throw, so they will need to address that, and the All Blacks have plenty of options to crank up the pressure there as they did against England. The All Blacks continue with the two playmakers in Barrett and McKenzie, and will keep the Irish defence on its toes. Decision making will be key; arguably England should have won last week but they made the wrong calls at the wrong times – I don’t expect the Irish to make the same mistakes.
There is no doubt in my mind the All Blacks remain the best, although the gap has certainly closed this year. They have shown vulnerability, yet to their credit, have only cracked once this year. The Irish will enter the game with genuine belief they can win. Schmidt will have devised an effective game plan and, despite Hansen’s best efforts to rest and rotate, his squad must be starting to feel the effects of a long season. They need one, last big push in what should be their toughest test of the year.
During the week, Irish commentator Michael Corcoran remarked that this game could have sold nearby Croke Park out twice over (it holds 82,300 vs the Aviva Stadium’s 51,700), which illustrates how eagerly anticipated this game is. I am absolutely buzzing for this weekend, and I’m going to do something I’ve never done before – I’m calling an Irish victory. Home advantage, possession, strong set piece, making the right decisions at the right times are the keys. It’ll be tight and tense but I’m taking them by 5 or less.
Follow Aiden on Twitter