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Ireland v New Zealand: Irish can rise to the occasion: Humphreys

By Hugh Farrelly

Revert back to 2001 to a heaving Lansdowne Road. The scoreboard shows Ireland are leading the All Blacks 21-7 shortly after half-time. Out-half on the day David Humphreys remembers thinking they could finally break their duck.

“We were well up just after half-time,” he recalls. “I thought this was going to be the first time that Ireland ever beat New Zealand.”

We're in the week before the All Blacks so tales of near misses are what Ireland trade on. From the team Warren Gatland started that day, only Brian O'Driscoll, Peter Stringer, John Hayes and David Wallace are still in the picture. For New Zealand, Ireland's newly-appointed scrum coach Greg Feek was in action against a front row of Peter Clohessy, Keith Wood and Hayes while a flanker called Richie McCaw made his debut that day and he's the only All Black still active. In last week's demolition of Scotland, he joined Sean Fitzpatrick on 92 caps.

The 2001 encounter was much more eagerly anticipated than Saturday's fixture. Ireland had just beaten England 20-14 and they carried that form into the opening half of the All Black game despite it being their fifth outing in eight weeks.

But New Zealand scored 33 points in 30 second half minutes to maintain their flawless record. John Mitchell, in his first test as All Black coach offered consolation: “That was one of the best Irish sides I've seen,” he said. Near misses and what might have been.

There is no similar line of form this time around and Humphreys sees an Irish side shorn of belief.

“Sport is about confidence. At the minute, some of the Irish players aren't playing with the same confidence they were 12 months ago. But because of the quality of player that is there, it doesn't take a huge amount to turn that around,” he said, as Heineken take the Webb Ellis trophy on a tour of Ireland for November.

“It only takes a lucky bounce or an intercept to score under the posts and players feel like they are on top of their game again. Ireland are making unforced errors from players you wouldn't expect but everyone goes through a phase in their career where it is up and down and that's why you are always trying to peak for the big games.”

There are plenty of interesting subplots to the 24th meeting of the sides. Jamie Heaslip will need little motivation after the Summer Tour. If Sonny Bill Williams features, we'll know if he is the real deal by Saturday evening. He has played like a Harlem Globetrotter so far though Graham Henry might decide that a duel with Brian O'Driscoll and comes too soon even for a player of his obvious abilities.

Humphreys sees Kidney's choice at ten as key. Whether Ronan O'Gara or Jonathan Sexton starts will tell a lot about Ireland's game plan.

“Both players bring very different things to the team. Rog has been there for so long and his leadership is huge,” he added.

“Jonny has burst on to the scene in the last 18 months or so and has made a huge impact. They are players who have proven at Leinster and Munster and for Ireland that they can win games for you.

“It is a case of picking players on form and a lot has to with as well whether Declan is looking purely and simply to win this game or taking a 12 month view as to who will start at the World Cup. There are a huge number of factors. You're never going to keep everyone happy.

“You see the way the All Blacks played last Saturday against Scotland. It was absolutely incredible. But at the same time this is a game that Ireland know there's a huge amount at stake for their credibility.”

Meanwhile, prop Cian Healy is likely to start for Ireland once he makes a full recovery from a dead leg, while Rob Kearney is winning his fitness race as he attempts to stave off fierce competition for the full-back slot.

“The old ice pack is gone now. I have this new ice and pressure machine to get me fixed up!! Making great progress,” Healy said on his Twitter account.

“The most important thing with Cian is, not that we've made selections yet, the 80 minutes at the weekend,” said defence coach Les Kiss yesterday. “We have got to make sure we manage it right so he is there for the whole 80 minutes.” Donnacha Ryan may miss out after being cited for stamping in Saturday's victory over Samoa, though the video evidence would appear to find him guilty of nothing more than vigorous rucking.

Ryan will attend a hearing in London today before an independent Six Nations disciplinary committee, chaired by Roger Morris (Wales) and assisted by Simon Thomas (Wales) and Achille Reali (Italy).

Ireland have no other injury worries and although Keith Earls starts for Munster against Australia this evening, he is purportedly still available to start.

Belfast Telegraph

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