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The eagerly-anticipated Test match between Ireland and New Zealand is just around the corner.
Since 2013, when Ryan Crotty crossed the line with the clock in the red to break Irish hearts, an intense rivalry has developed between these two teams.
In 2016, Ireland finally secured their first victory over New Zealand with that famous victory in Soldier Field but then two weeks later, Steve Hansen’s side came out like a wounded animal to produce a performance at the Aviva Stadium which was grounded on pure physicality to emerge victorious.
Since then, the sides haven’t met but many of the Irish squad would have gone toe-to-toe with New Zealand during the British and Irish Lions tour last year.
Number one versus number two in the world, gaining a mental edge before next year’s World Cup – there is no shortage of intriguing subplots to the highlight game of this year’s November internationals.
Ahead of this monumental fixture, we take a look at some of the key battles which will determine the outcome.
1. Jonathan Sexton v Beauden Barrett
It may seem like an obvious one but the performances of these two players will prove crucial the each side’s chance of success on Saturday.
Sexton will likely have been a little bit frustrated with his performance against Argentina. His missed both a penalty and a conversion throughout his performance and with this weekend’s match likely to go to the wire – every opportunity to score points will be absolutely crucial. His kicking out of hand also wasn’t up to the high standards which we have come to expect but he will likely be working hard this week to rectify that on Saturday.
With regards to Beauden Barrett, who like Sexton is also nominated for the World Rugby Player Of The Year, he also had a difficult afternoon at a rain-sodden Twickenham on Saturday. His kicking out of hand was particularly below par, especially in the first half as he desperately attempted to get his side some much-needed territory as England were laying siege.
Barrett has much been criticised for his goal kicking but he was assured in this department in dreadful conditions and he also landed a difficult drop goal in the second half to bring his side to within two points after finding themselves 15-0 down at one stage – seemingly learning the lesson from their loss to South Africa in the Rugby Championship.
Dry but cool conditions are expected on Saturday which will suit both players but Sexton’s territorial kicking has a higher ceiling that Barrett’s so if the 33-year-old can improve on last week, he can put Ireland into good areas of the pitch where they will hope to rely on their excellent setpiece as a source of points.
2. Brodie Retallick & Sam Whitelock v Irish Lineout
This area of the game will be pivotal in Ireland’s chances of coming out with a famous victory. Ireland, perhaps more than other Tier 1 nations, rely on their lineout a little bit more as a source of scores either from their rolling maul or launching pre-designed set plays.
Ireland, at times, struggled with their lineout against Argentina, losing three on their own throw. Captain Rory Best and Iain Henderson, who was calling the lineouts that night, will need to improve in this regard.
However, Ireland also struggled when receiving restarts so it is likely that Devin Toner will come in for Henderson for the New Zealand clash. Toner, due to his experience and his height, will offer a more secure platform on Ireland’s lineout in both defensive and attacking scenarios.
This will be crucial when coming up against the world-class lock pairing of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. The duo are set to start their 50th Test match together which underlines their effectiveness.
Retallick and Whitelock caused some damage to England’s lineout at Twickenham on Saturday and they will be confident of doing that again against Ireland.
This will have a huge bearing on the game and if Ireland can get the upper hand in this regard, it will give them the opportunity of pulling off a famous win.
3. Ireland’s Defence v New Zealand Line Breaks
England missed 46 tackles against New Zealand at Twickenham yet they only conceded one try in that match. This can be put down to two factors – the extremely wet conditions which hampered New Zealand’s final pass and the excellent scramble defence from Eddie Jones’ side.
Although Ireland will set their stall out to limit the number of line breaks from New Zealand, it’s almost inevitable that they are going to happen anyway, so how Ireland’s defence responds in those crucial seconds afterwards will be very important.
Generally, Ireland scramble very well but with a dry track expected at the Aviva Stadium, they won’t be able to rely on any handling errors from Steve Hansen’s side.
There is no doubt that this will be a big focus for Ireland defence coach Andy Farrell this week – getting the defence reset when they are under tremendous pressure.
The superb break from Matias Orlando which saw Ramiro Moyano hauled down just metres from the Irish line led to a Bautista Delguy try as they spread the ball wide from the next phase where Ireland were found backtracking and too narrow.
In this instance, they failed to reset their defence and width after Argentina made the initial break. You can be sure Hansen will have acknowledged during his analysis of the game and it will be an area which New Zealand will target.
Ireland will need to improve in this area if they want to have a chance of beating the best side in the world.
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