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Ireland v New Zealand: Heat's to prove Chicago All Blacks win wasn't a one off

Guinness Series: Ireland v New Zealand - Aviva Stadium, Today, 5.30pm

By Tony Ward

Published 19/11/2016

Getting his kicks: Jonathan Sexton at yesterday’s Captain’s Run at the Aviva Stadium
Getting his kicks: Jonathan Sexton at yesterday’s Captain’s Run at the Aviva Stadium

Let me clear up a couple of myths. No matter what the outcome later this evening, what transpired at Soldier Field in Chicago a fortnight ago can never be erased.

The result, the score, but more than anything the manner of the victory is indelibly etched in Irish folklore.

The memory I will cherish most from my presence in the magnificently appointed NFL ground was in the immediate aftermath - the humility, dignity and magnanimity of the All Black supporters, of the Kiwi players and management and of the New Zealand media.

Of course their take could have been condescending and patronising. It was after all a mere 'friendly' when put in the context of a World Cup.

But for anyone associated with the game at the highest level, Union doesn't do 'friendly' rugby. Every game you play at Test level is your proverbial World Cup eliminator.

So while the New Zealand replacements and fringe players were doing the mandatory post-match workout, Ireland at the same time were on a lap of gratitude. It was suggested to me that the motivation for revenge was right before our eyes. Us gloating in 'friendly' victory, them licking their wounds.

Let me clear that one up. The Irish response was a clear and unambiguous statement as to how people on this island, those present on the day and our diaspora from just about everywhere feel about beating the greatest rugby nation on this planet bar none.

Secondly and perhaps even more relevant is the myth being pedalled in some quarters that somehow the heat is now off the team in green.

Get a grip. There is every bit as much pressure on Ireland to validate what was witnessed in Chicago as there is on the back-to-back World champions making good that loss.

When a New Zealand camp lets loose the words ''nervous edge to training'' you know what's coming in terms of performance. And invariably when the All Blacks perform to their expected level, they win. Therein lies the biggest challenge.

For whatever reason they were out of sorts and we by way of a near perfect tactical performance capitalised to the full.

To a man we worked our socks off, manufactured our luck and most significantly of all came back into the fight when it seemed (Ryan Crotty like) to be drifting away.

If ever there was a call to arms in the final phase it relates to Crotty's try at the death in 2013. That for Joe Schmidt was the biggest plus of everything achieved in Chicago.

The challenge now is in repeating that level of performance on our own patch before our own committed faithful. Was Soldier Field a one-off or are we now ready to challenge the very best wherever, whenever? No more than anyone out there do I have the definitive answer but today's rematch given the unique context will provide a very real marker either way going forward.

Back in the day, the second row was known as the engine room. At Soldier Field the All Blacks lined out minus that engine room plus its main replacement part in Luke Romano. And while the Jerome Kaino experiment backfired, the biggest and perhaps only positive emerged in try-scoring debutant Scott Barrett. Barrett the younger will fill that replacement lock role again.

Mention too of Barrett the elder and as a big fan of World Rugby's most deserving Player of the Year I was very disappointed with the Bucaneers mini academy graduate a fortnight ago. Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton lorded it over Beauden and Aaron Smith albeit on the back of bountiful possession out of touch. You reap what you sow and in blasting the touch line to excess we did.

Expect a much more varied tactical approach today with the New Zealand set-piece, scrum and more particularly line out, in a different place entirely. I would imagine a greater emphasis on the scrum if a little less on the line out although with 6ft 11in Devin Toner to sling in the air, Rory Best will be anything but idle. That said, Dane Coles owes Steve Hansen a big one.

As ever it's all about the mix and Ireland 2016 are in a very different attacking state to Ireland 2015 and the World Cup.

I expect there to be an element of box kicking and I get that it is essential there be no return to the caveman tactics from not that long ago.

We are much better than that and a slavish return to Murray box kicking with Andrew Trimble and Simon Zebo chasing amounts to a white flag of sorts. Rob Kearney is the key piece to the kick and chase jigsaw. In Chicago his re-gathering of ball to which he had no right bordered on heroic.

I expect to see Sexton pull out many different clubs today and therein lies the key. He was the master craftsman and string puller supreme at Soldier Field, and it will require more of the same today - and we haven't even mentioned the breakdown. The Sean O'Brien role needs little elaboration.

With respect to another awesome New Zealand backrow embracing Liam Squire and Sam Cane either side of Kieran Read, the Irish unit makes for a combination potentially every bit as good and given the tight five platform even better again.

O'Brien, CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip will give as good as they get this afternoon. It has all the makings of another corker but on the basis that the best team in the world is back close to full strength, I'm taking Ireland to bring it down to the wire but the All Blacks to make good the loss from two weeks ago.

Belfast Telegraph

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