By Brendan Cole
Remember the buoyant optimism of the first week of November? International rugby has all of a sudden looks a very inhospitable environment for Ireland.
Ireland are the final obstacle between a New Zealand side with a perfect calendar year of rugby in its sights. Dismissed last week by Australia, Ireland will know in their hearts that if they are out-thought and out-fought in the same manner, they will be nothing more than a speed bump on the All Blacks’ road to history.
Ireland must also address their dreadful overall record of one draw and 26 defeats in the 108-year history of this fixture. New Zealand have been several steps ahead of Ireland for a long time.
Adding to the difficulty of Ireland’s task is that these All Blacks are among the best ever to travel north – some are already calling them the best ever, though that will not be settled until Rugby World Cup 2015 at the earliest.
But they have won 13 Tests from 13 this year. The reality behind that number is even more impressive than the bare statistic: ten of those victories have been against South Africa, Australia, England and France, who are the four next best teams in the world.
It is achievements like that which lead the All Blacks to place placards proclaiming that they are “the most dominant team in the history of the world” on the wall of their team room.
And yet...Ireland know that they are not as bad as last week’s second-half performance against Australia suggests. They had clawed themselves back into the game at half-time but lost Jonathan Sexton , the player most likely to producing when the going gets tough, at the crucial stage.
They were also badly hindered by an unexpected scrum collapse and a major miscalculation in the defensive strategy that saw Australia take full advantage of additional leeway out wide. A different concept will be employed against New Zealand, who allow their brilliant number eight Kieran Read free reign to roam the tramlines.
And while the history of playing against New Zealand is mostly grim, Ireland have performed well on tour in New Zealand on more than a few occasions in the last decade or so and were only denied a famous draw when a mis-hit Dan Carter drop goal beat them in the final minute of the second Test in 2012.
There have been near misses at home as well – a one point defeat in 1963, that draw in ‘73 and a final quarter collapse in 2002. Could 2013 be the year?
It is also worth taking into account that on this November tour, New Zealand only beat France by seven points and England by eight, while the majority of matches in their Rugby Championship clean sweep were at least competitive. With one or two exceptions, they have not been registering blowout wins.
Ireland could, of course, be the team to suffer a proper hammering. They will need to get absolutely everything right to even give themselves a chance.
To that end, there is a ruthless tinge to the selection. The two players who made the biggest individual tackling mistakes – Eoin Reddan and Luke Marshall – have been unceremoniously shipped out of the squad and back to the RaboDirect PRO12.
In that light, it seems unjust that the entire pack that got out-scrummaged and mauled over its own line gets a second chance. The hope is that the scrum brains-trust can engineer a similar about face to the one which turned Leinster’s Heineken Cup final clash with Northampton on its head two years ago.
The scrum is arguably the key factor that will dictate the scoreline, if not the result.
It is a positive for Ireland that Tony Woodcock is absent from the New Zealand starting XV but while Charlie Faumuina and Wyatt Crocket are not household name prop-forwards, it is worth noting that Faumuina locked the scrum during New Zealand’s epic victory over South Africa at Ellis Park earlier this year, while Crockett has played in 12 of their 13 matches this season, starting five.
Ireland’s backline changes, which sees the midfield trio of Sexton, Gordon D’Arcy and Brian O’Driscoll restored to the starting XV, should yield more cohesion. But the key to the backline having a chance is good quality ball. The athletic Australian backline was able to smash into Ireland’s complicated attacking structures at will last week.
New Zealand will no doubt seek to do the same, not allowing the loops, switches and inside pops time to develop. They must be given something to think about around the ruck.
What else can Ireland do? New Zealand have a formidable combination of size, power, speed and height in the backline. The likes of Ma’a Nonu and Israel Dagg are familiar foes, but the reality is that every single backline player is a threat athletically. This is a New Zealand team that backs its speed in both attack and defence.
Alongside that, their ability to get decisions right time after time is hugely impressive. Aaron Cruden is not far off Dan Carter’s standard in this vital area.
The final, crucial ingredient is Kieran Read’s ability to ride shotgun to the backline patterns and collect the killer pass. This New Zealand team is by no means the first to use a back-rower to change the balance of the game. A previous All Black, the Samoan-born Michael Jones, is arguably the greatest exponent of the art in the game’s history.
But this side has adapted it to the modern game with incredible success, becoming the platform for a record-breaking run of try-scoring for the number eight.
Ireland will be aware that New Zealand’s overloading of the wide channels can lead to opportunities at the ruck, and England’s successful strategy two weeks’ ago will have been of particular interest.
Ireland must also kick better, much better, than they have in recent seasons, doing so less as a last resort. A repeat of last week’s spoon-feeding of Israel Folau will lead to disaster.
Kicking to touch will also be a tempting option though in Luke Romano, Steven Luatua and Sam Whitelock, New Zealand have a trio of athletic jumpers. Ireland have a high-quality corps of lineout players themselves. Devin Toner has the height to be rock solid on Irish ball, while Paul O’Connell is as good as any lock in the world at contesting on his day. Peter O'Mahony and Jamie Heaslip are also highly effective in the air. Here’s hoping the video analysis went well this week.
But it is on the ground where Ireland will hope to make real hay. With Liam Messam out and Brodie Retallick on the bench, this New Zealand pack is a shade less gritty than it might have been and if Ireland can get to the required emotional pitch, they may just expose a slightly soft underbelly.
Overall, it is Ireland’s ability to bring and sustain that emotion will determine how the day goes.
Last week, they seemed to struggle to combine the concentration level and accuracy demanded by the coaching style with the emotion they need to bring to compete as underdogs.
If they can get the mind and the gut working in tandem, they will become that bit more dangerous.
The reality is that even if Ireland can improve across the park and get a few breaks, this New Zealand team has shown it has the character, athleticism and skill to respond to everything the very best in the world can throw at them. It hardly bears thinking about what might happen if things go against Ireland, with something like an injury to Sexton, or another rout at the scrum likely to lead to disaster.
A couple of games into Schmidt’s reign, a smarter, more committed performance is the most that can be expected.
Guinness International Prediction:
Ireland 12-25 New Zealand
Ireland: R. Kearney, T Bowe, Brian O'Driscoll, G D'Arcy, D Kearney, J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Ross, P O'Connell (c), D Toner, P O'Mahony, S O'Brien, J Heaslip.
Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, D Fitzpatrick, K McLaughlin, M McCarthy, I Boss, I Madigan, L Fitzgerald.
New Zealand: Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Ben Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (c), Steven Luatua, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, Charlie Faumuina, Andrew Hore, Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: Dane Coles, Ben Franks, Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Ryan Crotty.
Live television coverage of Ireland v New Zealand from 13:00 on Sunday 24 November on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie (Ireland only). Live radio coverage on Sunday Sport from 14:00 on RTÉ Radio 1 and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide).