Sch­midt ex­pect­ing tight game against the USA

Op­por­tu­nity knocks for Ad­di­son, Con­way and Cooney in fi­nal au­tumn Test

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - FRONT PAGE - Gerry Thorn­ley Rugby Cor­re­spon­dent

Af­ter the Lord Mayor’s Ball and all that. No mat­ter what way you look at this game, every­thing has con­spired to re­ally put it up to this group of Ir­ish play­ers. They are 100/1 on to com­plete a win­ning Novem­ber, so back­ing up last week’s his­toric win and in the process avail­ing of an op­por­tu­nity that, re­al­is­ti­cally, will not come the way of most of them un­til next Au­gust at the ear­li­est.

Sym­pa­thy

You’d feel some em­pa­thy for them. Win by 50 and it might ac­tu­ally be de­val­ued. Strug­gle to get over the line, and it might not re­flect well on them, al­beit the coaches will learn more about th­ese play­ers if they are forced to per­form un­der pres­sure.

Ei­ther way, pretty much all bar the sole sur­vivor from last week, Garry Rin­grose, have suf­fi­cient credit in the bank to with­stand a bad day at the of­fice here.

Go through the team and it looks like a hugely sig­nif­i­cant game for so many with re­gard to their Test fu­tures and specif­i­cally the World Cup. Ver­sa­til­ity will be worth its weight in gold and so two weeks af­ter step­ping in as an emer­gency out­side cen­tre, Will Ad­di­son can un­der­line his worth as a full­back.

Sim­i­larly, with the back three cup­board a lit­tle bare, op­por­tu­nity knocks for An­drew Con­way and Dar­ren Sweet­nam, while in be­ing af­forded his third cap, Stu­art McCloskey, for bet­ter or for worse, goes head to head with the Ea­gles wreck­ing ball, the ex-Chicago Bears Amer­i­can Foot­baller Paul Lasike, now with Har­lequins.

Ver­sa­til­ity

This is a first Test start for John Cooney, who also has ver­sa­til­ity to his bow, but seems to have three “9s” ahead of him. Sim­i­larly, the slimmed-down duo of David Kil­coyne and Fin­lay Beal­ham have earned this re­call, but no less than Niall Scan­nell, need to avail of it.

Also bear­ing in mind Devin Toner’s re­vival and re­vived im­por­tance, and the emer­gence of Tadhg Beirne, both he and Iain Hen­der­son will be acutely aware that the sec­ondrow has rarely looked more com­pet­i­tive. As for the back­row­ers, well, it’s the back­row. ‘Nuff said. It was ever thus.

It’s hard to view this game in any other con­text.

Of course, this rel­a­tively rare op­por­tu­nity to start in an Ir­ish jer­sey at the Aviva Sta­dium is a source of pride and mo­ti­va­tion in its own right. Help­fully too, this is both an­other Satur­day night game un­der lights in the Aviva Sta­dium and, in what is a barom­e­ter of Ir­ish rugby’s rude health right now, an­other sell-out.

Mind you, so too was the Fi­jian game last Novem­ber when, a week af­ter the record 38-3 rout of South Africa, Ire­land strug­gled to put away the Fi­jians by 23-20 cour­tesy of two late penal­ties by Ian Keat­ley. Seven of this start­ing XV lined up for the kick-off that night, but as Rhys Rud­dock sug­gested yes­ter­day, the mem­ory of that game may be ben­e­fi­cial.

It’s hard to get a true han­dle on the Ea­gles, but they have won nine Tests out of nine this sea­son. Their sole de­feat was against the New Zealand Maoris in a non-Test match at Soldier Field im­me­di­ately fol­low­ing Ire­land’s 54-7 win over Italy, and six of that Ir­ish start­ing XV are re­tained in this line-up, and 14 of the match-day 23.

Tricky

But the Ea­gles were with­out their Euro­pean-based pro­fes­sion­als as it fell out­side the Test win­dow, and more rel­e­vant is their first ever Test win over a tier-one coun­try last June, when they beat Scot­land 30-29 in Hous­ton. Tellingly, all bar the in­jured AJ MacGinty of the back line have been se­lected by Gary Gold for this game, along with six of the pack.

“Amer­ica aren’t go­ing to make any­thing easy for us,” as­serted Joe Sch­midt. “I wouldn’t be sur­prised if this game is a rel­a­tively tight one.

Last year, in this par­tic­u­lar bracket, we played Fiji and won by three points. They are the games that we in­ten­tion­ally put play­ers out there, want­ing to put them un­der pres­sure, want­ing to see how they re­spond un­der pres­sure, and they had to scram­ble their way through that game.”

This is a huge game in­di­vid­u­ally but, as Rud­dock also ad­mit­ted yes­ter­day, the key for th­ese play­ers is not to al­low them­selves to think like that.

A tricky one, in many ways.

Warn­ing to off­shore Ki­wis: re­turn home pre­dict­ing a New Zealand loss at your peril. Def­i­nitely don’t do it on na­tional tele­vi­sion. The grief! Be­fore kick-off last Sun­day morn­ing I was sur­rounded by All Blacks. In the Sky TV stu­dio, Mils Mu­li­aina, Steven Bates and Wy­att Crock­ett each ad­mit­ted it was the first time they felt ner­vous as pun­dits be­fore a Test match.

Yet when we went around the cir­cle for pre­dic­tions I dou­bled down – “Ire­land 21 New Zealand 10” – while the three boys ex­pressed grave con­cerns be­fore the usual: we’ll run away with it in the last 20 min­utes.

Be­cause that’s what the All Blacks al­ways do, es­pe­cially against Ire­land. No more. The Nacewa clan is slightly con­flicted. Well, I am. My daugh­ters – Mia, Elle, Lucy and Laura – are life­long mem­bers of the Johnny Sex­ton fan club. Rob Kear­ney is an­other hero they wor­ship. Ire­land be­ing the coun­try of their birth and home for as long as they can re­mem­ber, the green jer­seys were out and on. Even af­ter re­turn­ing to our ac­tual fam­ily home near Auck­land, they’ll al­ways re­main a lit­tle Ir­ish.

So I’m caught be­tween a rock and a hard place. There’s a dif­fer­ent men­tal­ity to how New Zealan­ders see rugby. The bones of 10 years we spent liv­ing in Dublin hasn’t led to much change in this re­gard.

Chicago in 2016 didn’t break any­one’s re­solve about where the All Blacks and Ire­land lie in the peck­ing or­der. Worlds apart. Soldier Field was a blip, the “luck of the Ir­ish” most peo­ple agreed and sure enough, two weeks later, when Brodie Re­tal­lick and Sam White­lock were back on deck, nor­mal ser­vice re­sumed at the Aviva sta­dium.

The same again was ex­pected last week­end. Plucky Ir­ish, with a few more world-class play­ers than usual, but the All Blacks don’t lose this fix­ture. No way.

There is no longer any clar­ity. Ex­pec­ta­tions have been tem­pered. A na­tional ar­ro­gance, which in­evitably builds when play­ers like Kieran Read earn 100-plus caps with a win­ning per­cent­age of 86.75, has soft­ened some­what.

De­spite three losses, two on home soil, in the past 16 months with one win from three against Ire­land since 2016 and the drawn Lions se­ries, New Zealan­ders firmly ex­pect to win next year’s World Cup and ev­ery game in be­tween.

It’s not their fault. That’s a mind­set cre­ated by his­tor­i­cal ex­cel­lence. The All Blacks win. The World Cup wrin­kles be­tween 1987 and 2011 have been ironed out.

Ev­i­dence

I tried warn­ing them about Ire­land. I’d tell any­one who was will­ing to lis­ten that a real and sus­tain­able ri­valry is about to re­veal it­self. Not too many peo­ple were happy with my pre­dic­tion.

Most of the pub­lic pre­sumed Isa Nacewa was talk­ing shite. Maybe I was try­ing to hitch my wagon to some con­tro­ver­sial anti-All-Black stance to build a me­dia per­sona. Ac­tu­ally, I was work­ing off the over­whelm­ing ev­i­dence com­piled dur­ing my se­cond com­ing as a pro­fes­sional rugby player (I briefly re­tired be­tween 2013-15 and the boots are def­i­nitely hung up now).

It’s the men­tal­ity of this Ire­land team that I at­tempted to con­vey. It’s gone to an­other level even since Chicago.

Here’s what ev­ery­one in New Zealand now knows:

1. Ire­land are a very, very good side with gen­uine depth (no Conor Mur­ray or Seán O’Brien – peo­ple down here pre­sumed they hadn’t a prayer with­out two start­ing Lions).

2. New Zealand were not only out­played, they were out­coached by Joe Sch­midt and Andy Far­rell. Af­ter the game, as most Ki­wis were lit­er­ally wak­ing up to the fact that Read’s men had been beaten fair and square, the back­lash flooded onto so­cial me­dia. The coaches must go. Vet­er­ans must be brought back.

Young play­ers

Less dra­matic change is re­quired. Los­ing is alien to an All Black. My counter ar­gu­ment – if they are lis­ten­ing now – is the young Ir­ish play­ers, from James Ryan to Ja­cob Stock­dale, feel ex­actly the same. Ryan’s un­der-20s, which in­cluded Stock­dale and An­drew Porter, beat the Baby Blacks at the 2016 Ju­nior World Cup.

There is no fear. They only want to get bet­ter.

Up un­til last sum­mer I wit­nessed this day in day out. The word was out about Ryan, a tow­er­ing St Michael’s teenager, on my re­turn to Dublin 2015. When I first landed at Le­in­ster in 2008 th­ese kids were au­to­graph hun­ters (that tells us some­thing in it­self). That Ryan has lost just two matches as a pro­fes­sional – the se­cond Test in Aus­tralia and re­cently in Toulouse – is phe­nom­e­nal. Only mod­ern All Blacks could claim such records, un­til now.

I don’t need to warn Ki­wis about Ryan him any­more. Not af­ter those two tack­les he put on Brodie Re­tal­lick. They are al­ready writ­ing about him, say­ing he can match the best sec­ondrower in the world. He’s got the en­gine of a Rolls Royce. Smart, skilled and so young – the sky’s the limit.

The All Blacks haven’t had a true neme­sis since John Eales kicked a win­ning goal for the Wal­la­bies in 2000. No­body knew who was go­ing to pre­vail from Test match to Test match against the Aus­tralia team of Eales, Ge­orge Gre­gan, Joe Roff, Ge­orge Smith, Stephen Larkham, Stir­ling Mort­lock – names seared into the New Zealand psy­che.

The All Blacks just ended a sea­son where there was noth­ing be­tween them and the Spring­boks over two bru­tal games. In four matches – South Africa in Welling­ton and Pre­to­ria, Eng­land at Twick­en­ham and Dublin – they were out­played phys­i­cally, tac­ti­cally and de­fen­sively. They lost twice; re­silience and mus­cle mem­ory en­sured it wasn’t four de­feats.

This is a wake-up call. In con­trast, Ire­land en­ter year four of Joe Sch­midt’s re­gen­er­a­tion process since the 2015 World Cup quar­ter-fi­nal de­feat to Ar­gentina. The penny has hit rock bot­tom re­gard­ing Joe in New Zealand.

The fact this was the All Blacks’ strong­est team and not Ire­land’s best XV and that he tweaked some clas­sic Sch­midt moves to wreak havoc res­onates.

The great­est New Zealand back­lines are easy to se­lect. Right now, there is a re­view sur­round­ing who should play 10, 12, 13 and 15. Beau­den Bar­rett will be in the team but it’s un­clear at what po­si­tion, prob­a­bly out­half, and where he should fin­ish matches – at 10, on the bench or full­back? The Bar­rett type “first-five-eight” is what peo­ple love down here but Johnny Sex­ton’s name rings out af­ter the Lions tour and last week­end.

Joe is the com­poser of Ire­land’s play but Johnny’s the con­duc­tor of the or­ches­tra. If they don’t give him World Player of the Year some­thing is se­ri­ously wrong with the judg­ing process. Sex­ton dom­i­nated 2018, not Bar­rett, but their per­sonal ri­valry should be­come rugby’s great sub­plot in 2019.

Ma’a Nonu has been thrown back into the mix, and I’d tend to agree that he can be the mid­field so­lu­tion. Yes, he’ll be 37 when the World Cup ar­rives but so will Rory Best. Brad Thorn played a cru­cial role in 2011 aged 36 and with­out draw­ing breath helped Le­in­ster win the 2012 Heineken Cup (granted, I’m also 36 and the calves have only just re­cov­ered from Bil­bao).

Dust­ing off my coach­ing hat, Nonu would be the first player I’d re­call. He has re­turned to Auck­land, hav­ing signed for the Blues af­ter three years in France, but only Johnny and maybe one or two other play­ers I’ve en­coun­tered through­out my ca­reer com­pare to Ma’a when it comes to metic­u­lous prepa­ra­tion.

Mag­nif­i­cent

Speak­ing of se­cond-five-eights, our term for No 12 and my fi­nal po­si­tion as a player when Rob­bie Hen­shaw was in­jured, New Zealan­ders were pissed off see­ing Bundee Aki per­form so well. That’s be­cause he went off­shore when many felt he still had a lot to of­fer the game here. Same goes for Charles Pi­u­tau join­ing Ul­ster.

Let’s just say leav­ing for Europe be­fore you en­ter your prime is frowned upon but Bundee and Garry Rin­grose were mag­nif­i­cent; they out­played Ryan Crotty and Jack Good­hue.

If Nonu per­forms in Su­per Rugby early next year the All Blacks should def­i­nitely have a look.

I don’t think I’ll be in­volved with the re­struc­tured Blues coach­ing ticket. A lot has changed at board level. For­mer All Black Leon Mac­Don­ald has been ap­pointed head coach with Tana Umaga tak­ing an as­charge sis­tant role in of de­fence. I’ll talk to Leon but my hope is that he walks in and takes full con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion, so I am not needed at all.

There will come a time when I get back into rugby as a coach. Right now, I’m learn­ing a new trade as a 9-5 em­ployee for a small fi­nan­cial firm called Money Em­pire up in Pon­sonby, where I’m sur­rounded by great cof­fee and even bet­ter peo­ple.

I am also work­ing in the me­dia, pass­ing com­ment with­out the reper­cus­sions of win­ning or los­ing as a re­sult of my ac­tions. I miss the cut­ting edge of elite com­pe­ti­tion but there’s no rush to re­turn.

We, Si­mone and I, re­ally en­joyed Ire­land’s vic­tory at the Aviva. Some of our friends for life were on the pitch. Si­mone was in con­tact with the wives through­out the game. Mia, Elle, Lucy and Laura loved see­ing Johnny and Rob in ac­tion. There was no con­fu­sion about what side of the fence they were on. That might change in later years, or not.

A warn­ing, though, to the Ir­ish and ev­ery­one else: Steve Hansen is as shrewd as they come. He will go away and hatch a new plan.

Maybe Hansen saw this de­feat in his mind’s eye. He def­i­nitely con­sid­ered it. He was not taken by sur­prise. He’s al­ready con­tem­plated the next move.

Kieran Read only had a poor game by Kieran Read stan­dards. He still made 17 tack­les and 15 car­ries. Same goes for Brodie Re­tal­lick. The pair of them won’t re­peat th­ese per­for­mances in the same game, ever again.

They are hurt­ing now. Ex­pect re­tal­i­a­tion. Wayne Smith could re­turn to the fold. Gil­bert Enoka will evolve the men­tal skills side of things.

The All Blacks will re­main re­lent­lessly ruth­less.

The tele­vi­sion stu­dio was in­ter­est­ing af­ter­wards. The old All Blacks took de­feat gra­ciously, know­ing they had wit­nessed a proper Test match, with gen­uine hu­mil­ity from Mils, Steven and Wy­att. Mu­li­aina of course played along­side Bundee and Kieran at Connacht.

Last­ing re­spect has been achieved by Ire­land beat­ing New Zealand in a game that re­ally mat­tered.

In­ter­na­tional rugby needs this ri­valry.

I tried warn­ing them about Ire­land. I’d tell any­one who was will­ing to lis­ten that a real and sus­tain­able ri­valry is about to re­veal it­self. Not too many peo­ple were happy with my pre­dic­tion.

Joe Sch­midt: “Amer­ica aren’t go­ing to make any­thing easy for us.”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: PA PHOTO AND GETTY IM­AGES

New Zealand play­ers can’t hide their dis­ap­point­ment af­ter last Satur­day’s de­feat to Ire­land in the Au­tumn In­ter­na­tional match at the Aviva Sta­dium, Dublin; (be­low): New Zealand’s Ofa Tu’un­gafasi re­acts to their de­feat on the fi­nal whis­tle.

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