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Saturday 10 December 2016

Ireland must be ready for power of 'blacklash'

Conor Murray celebrates victory over New Zealand after the match at Soldier Field in Chicago. Pic: Sportsfile
Conor Murray celebrates victory over New Zealand after the match at Soldier Field in Chicago. Pic: Sportsfile

While one man does not make a team, Irish coach Joe Schmidt will be mightlily relieved that his world class scrum-half Conor Murray is fit to start this weekend. It is an area where Ireland are not particularly blessed for options, and Murray was instrumental in his side's win in Chicago, and is a vital cog in Schmidt's game-plan.

Despite taking over 100 years to register their first win against the All Blacks, it is not going to be another century before it happens again. The question is will it be tomorrow?

Ireland have every right to be confident in achieving what few rugby nations have - back-to-back victories (South Africa in 2009 the last to do so) against the All Blacks, especially given home advantage and self-belief.

New Zealand will have looked at that match in Chicago and addressed some of their uncharacteristic flaws. Kiwi captain Kieran Read admitted that he felt that his team had lacked focus, but I think that took somewhat from Ireland's performance.

Ireland played a highly intelligent game, they kicked well, defended brilliantly and took New Zealand out of their comfort zone, which very few manage to do. Ireland went out with a game-plan that meant while they risked the All Blacks scoring tries, they scored more themselves.

Schmidt knew that you have to score more than 30 points even to be in the match, and with a bit more expression, they did exactly that.

They will need the same approach tomorrow. Of course Schmidt will have learned as much in Chicago as his opposite number Steve Hansen did, and while the focus and preparation will be the same for the Irish, the tactics will have to change and as always be tailored to the opposition's selection.

If "we poked the bear" has been used once in the media this week it has been used 100 times to describe tomorrow's revenge meeting. In New Zealand you are allowed to lose one match - that can happen to the best of sides - but twice in-a-row is almost inexcusable.

This All Black team, despite notable retirements last year, is not one in transition. In fact, it is a team that many back home hail as one of the greatest All Black sides ever.

The pressure is on them to win and win well. Ireland, on the other hand, will have slightly less pressure on them despite all the hype. Schmidt will be pushing for two wins in-a-row against a team they had not beaten in 111 years, but that 'monkey' is off Ireland's back now.

People fully expect a 'Blacklash' and that is the way that the All Blacks will be thinking. But sometimes that extra expectation can make your force the game and can have a detrimental effect on a team's ability to relax.

STATEMENT

The All Blacks must approach this match like any other and not get caught up in trying to make a statement that Chicago was a one-off. They will know that in 2013 they should have lost in the Aviva and that will make them wary.

Schmidt's teams have a history of never being too far away at the end of the game. Even when we think teams are beating Ireland they seem to stay in the hunt.

Ireland face a different challenge this weekend, especially up front with the return of one of the best lock partnerships in the game.

All Black hard men Brodie Retalick and Sam Whitelock were badly missed in Chicago, with the experiment of playing flanker Jerome Kaino back-firing. Last time out Schmidt expertly dissected the All Black team and saw serious weaknesses in their pack's ability to defend the maul, especially when missing their influential second rows.

With a flanker playing lock, the All Blacks also had a lack of lineout options, both areas that Ireland exposed in Chicago. With a misfiring lineout, Ireland knew they could kick for touch and compete.

It also contributed to poor back play and lack of front-foot possession. Backlines will always tell you that off the top lineout ball towards the tail gives you a head start in carrying over the gain-line.

When that ball is restricted to the front or even the middle of the lineout, the backs have to align a lot deeper, the ball is not coming as flat or as fast and that allowed Ireland to push up harder in defence, often tackling the All Black power men behind the gain-line.

Ireland won't have that luxury tomorrow, as the All Blacks will again win plenty of ball out of touch. But that just means looking at different defensive options.

The Irish kicking game was superb in Chicago. Simon Zebo and Rob Kearney climbed expertly in the air to claim 50/50 balls, whereas the All Blacks were surprisingly weak in that area of the game.

Again, Steve Hansen will have looked at that, and has included Israel Dagg on the wing, who is far more comfortable in competing in the air. So given the All Blacks will have strengthened their team, how do Ireland win?

The same way that teams have always beaten the All Blacks, by actually playing for 80 minutes. Schmidt has options off his bench, and you may well see him using that bench early in the second half if he needs ball-runners like Cian Healy and Josh van der Flier.

It's hard to see where the weaknesses are in this All Black side but it may just be in the 'top two inches'.

If anyone knows how to outsmart the Kiwis, it's one of their own. Schmidt will crank up the pressure valve. Ireland will have to lift their game again - but at least they now know how to win.

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