This Saturday at 3.15pm, Ireland will face New Zealand in the Autumn Nations Series.
The teams have been named, the time and place have been decided, so all that remains is getting your hopes up. The general feeling is that this will be a close one, and there are some reasons why.
Although the All-Blacks finished on top of the Rugby Championship this year, they did prove beatable, in a tight game against South Africa in the final round. They are at the end of a long season, and some international fatigue may be starting to show.
Last week, with what was pretty much a second-string team, they beat Italy by nearly 40 points. The performance was disjointed, and despite how the scoreboard looked, the All-Blacks failed to meet their own extremely high expectations. For a team based around broken field play and running brilliance, they made only three-line breaks against a tenacious Italian defence.
Ireland, however, will be facing an almost entirely different team than Italy – Sevu Reece is the only player retained in New Zealand’s starting fifteen. There will be a new midfield combination of Anton Lienert–Brown and Rieko Ioane, which appeared in the last 20 minutes of the All-Blacks match against Wales, but is relatively untested, so there is the opportunity for further disjointedness.
What else can be said against New Zealand? They are still the most skillful team in the world, and if given the chance, they can win comfortably against Ireland.
The key is to not give them that chance, for 80 minutes. Ireland can be absolutely stifling in defence, in a way that makes teams look like they are playing badly, rather than Ireland defending well.
Contrary to New Zealand, Ireland are at the beginning of their international season. Against Japan, we saw for the first time some real development, and an example of the style of play that Andy Farrell wants to implement. We saw width, possession retention over kicking, and 15 line breaks against the Japanese last week.
It sounds overly simplistic, but to beat New Zealand, Ireland will have to keep the ball as much as possible and stifle them when they have it. This is something Ireland are good at – even the most pessimistic fans may be surprised. It’s somewhat unusual to see Tadhg Beirne on the bench – he is a turnover and hold-up tackle master, but Ireland have opted for the bulkier Henderson and Ryan pairing.
This fixture promises to show us a benchmark – both for how far Andy Farrell’s Ireland have come since the Six Nations earlier in the year, and for showing us the gap between Northern and Southern Hemisphere rugby if one still exists. For the first time in the Autumn Nations so far, two full strength teams from each hemisphere will face each other – it’s bound to be entertaining. Kickoff is at 3.15pm, watch it televised on RTÉ 2 and Channel 4.
Worth keeping an eye on:
James Lowe & Jamison Gibson-Park
Both former Maori All-Blacks turned green, and both with significant question marks above their heads, we’ll be looking forward to seeing these two play against their native New Zealand.
Against Japan, it felt as though for the first time we saw the point of selecting Gibson-Park over Conor Murray. He brought an intensity to the game, and a speed of delivery that we don’t usually get from the Limerick man. Gibson-Park is a huge indicator of how Farrell wants this Ireland team to play – reacting to what is in front of them, rather than sticking to a rigid game plan.
James Lowe’s defense was shown to be sub standard during the Six Nations earlier this year – and against Japan he didn’t have the opportunity to show any improvements. This Saturday, he’ll be staring down the wing at Will Jordan, who is perhaps more capable of individual brilliance than anyone on the New Zealand team. The fringes of the pitch will be an important place on Saturday, so keep an eye on him.
Ireland: 15. Hugo Keenan 14. Andrew Conway 13. Garry Ringrose 12. Bundee Aki 11. James Lowe
10. Johnny Sexton (C) 9. Jamison Gibson-Park
1. Andrew Porter 2. Rónan Kelleher 3. Tadhg Furlong 4. Iain Henderson 5. James Ryan 6. Caelan Doris 7. Josh van der Flier 8. Jack Conan
Replacements: Rob Herring, Cian Healy, Finlay Bealham, Tadhg Beirne, Peter O’Mahony, Conor Murray, Joey Carbery, Keith Earls.
New Zealand: 15. Jordie Barrett 14. Will Jordan 13. Rieko Ioane 12. Anton Lienert-Brown 11. Sevu Reece 10. Beauden Barrett 9. TJ Perenara
1. Joe Moody 2. Codie Taylor 3. Nepo Laulala 4. Sam Whitelock (C) 5. Brodie Retallick 6. Ethan Blackadder 7. Dalton Papali’i 8. Ardie Savea.
Replacements: Dane Coles, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Tyrel Lomax, Tupou Vaa’i, Akira Ioane, Finlay Christie, Richie Mo’unga, David Havili.