Neutrals think Ireland are heading to Chicago in hope rather than expectation, but can Joe Schmidt's team cause a major upset and defeat the All Blacks?
By Alex Shaw
The 27-man Ireland squad jetted off to Chicago this week with the most difficult question in rugby to answer weighing heavily on their minds – how do you stop the All Blacks?
New Zealand collected their 18th consecutive win two weeks ago against Australia – breaking the record for consecutive victories among Tier 1 nations – and have looked imperious all year, even with celebrations still ongoing after their Rugby World Cup victory last October.
They dispensed with Wales in the summer, cruised to Rugby Championship success with two games to spare and then poured salt on to Wallaby wounds, wrapping up a clean sweep of all three Bledisloe Cup matches this year.
The moving on of all-time All Black greats such as Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith has barely been a bump in the road for Steve Hansen’s men and the succession planning and depth of New Zealand’s player pool have both come to the fore in 2016 and stood out as way ahead of any other team in the world.
Their ability to break the gain line at will, dominate the lineout, control field position with their tactical kicking and keep playing at the same high intensity after the 60-minute mark has separated them, comfortably, from any team they have faced in 2016.
These are the areas of the All Blacks’ game that teams need to shut down, or at least minimise if they are to have any chance of beating them.
In fact, New Zealand may be the only team in the world that is more important to game plan a way of stopping their strengths, than it is to prioritise playing to your own. If the two happen to be one and the same, you have the ajar door you need.
It’s what England, South Africa and Australia did in their victories over New Zealand over the last four years and though this current All Black side is different in personnel to the sides that lost to that trio of teams, it still sings from the same hymn sheet.
A lot gets made of attacking the Kiwi scrum – a perceived weakness – and beating them at the breakdown, but parity in these areas is enough for Ireland, albeit that is much easier said than done.
The best chance Ireland have of beating the All Blacks may well come a few weeks from now when they take them on in Dublin – the final game of New Zealand’s season – and Joe Schmidt’s men can try to make the most of any fatigue in the All Black camp, but they do have the personnel out in Chicago to cause the world champions some problems.
Ireland will have Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton to help contest the tactical kicking battle, not to mention a back line filled with aerially-adept players, many of whom have experience at full-back. If Murray can measure his kicks and the chasers are on the same page as the scrum-half, they can compete with New Zealand in that area.
The All Blacks have been without Aaron Smith, a masterful utiliser of the box-kick, for their last two games and if there is any rust or lack of cohesion with his chasers, Ireland need to make the most of it and look to control the territorial battle.
Next on the checklist is stopping the Kiwi ball-carriers from owning the gain line.
The best way to prevent them getting over the gain line is with a high intensity defensive press – best illustrated by England and South Africa in their victories over New Zealand – with as much pressure put on the All Black first and second receivers as possible. It’s risky, especially with a fly-half as fleet-footed as Beauden Barrett, but this is not a game that can be won without being bold.
Andy Farrell is a coach well-suited to playing in this style and the Ireland pack is relatively mobile, although no Iain Henderson, who could have brought great speed off the line for a second row, is an impactful loss.
The quickness off the line of the likes of Ultan Dillane, Cian Healy and Josh van der Flier – relative to their respective positions – could be integral to disrupting the All Blacks’ attack patterns, with the same applying to a potential centre pairing of Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose.
Disrupting the New Zealand lineout may be the hardest prospect of all, with the trio of Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Kieran Read, as well as hooker Dane Coles, setting the set-piece standard in Test rugby.
One of Schmidt’s biggest tactical decisions will be whether to go with Devin Toner. The towering lock will help ensure Ireland can retain their own set-piece ball but he doesn’t operate with the same speed off the line and general mobility in the loose that other options do.
Set-piece superiority didn’t prove to be among the decisive factors when Australia beat the All Blacks last year or when South Africa did in 2014 and whilst seeming counter-intuitive, sacrificing stability there – for speed and power in the loose – may be Schmidt’s best option.
The final facet, maintaining the intensity of play for an entire 80 minutes, is something which is beyond tinkering or adjustments now. The 27-man squad currently in Chicago cannot significantly improve their fitness levels between now and the game on Saturday and the players’ work at their respective provinces and in Ireland’s training camps will be put to the test and evaluated.
Realistically, the All Blacks are clear and comfortable favourites.
As mentioned earlier, Ireland’s best shot at beating New Zealand will come a few weeks from now, back at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, when they should also be able to call upon the likes of Henderson, Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien.
However, if Ireland can tick off the boxes in Chicago – tactical kicking, intensive defensive press and maintaining energy and composure for 80 minutes – they will at least give themselves a puncher’s chance at Soldier Field.
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That’s quite a bit more than many of the All Blacks’ opponents have given themselves this season.
If Ireland can land the punch, it will be the biggest knockout in Chicago since Sonny Liston floored Floyd Patterson at Comiskey Park back in 1962.