New Zealand swept Australia aside on Saturday to break the record for the number of consecutive test wins in rugby union. Next up is Ireland in Chicago, with few giving Joe Schmidt’s side any real chance of upsetting the odds.
During his tenure with Ireland, the Kiwi coach has been renowned for tailoring the game plan to challenge the opposition. With months to plan for these two ties against the All Blacks, he likely has something up his sleeve.
New Zealand were stretched by Australia at times, and that is something from which Ireland must learn. A playmaker at 12 is a must, and having the weapons out wide to push home a front-foot advantage would go a long way.
Equally, playing a possession game is essential. The All Blacks can hurt you from anywhere with ball in hand. To dumb it down, you simply limit the amount of time they have on the ball.
Here, we compile a somewhat radical Irish XV that could trouble the World Cup champions.
15. Simon Zebo
Rob Kearney is past his best. His influence in the blue of Leinster and the green of Ireland has waned, and defensive mistakes – such as his failure to take down Nemani Nadolo on Sunday – leave doubts surrounding his international future.
Over the past year, the defensive side of Zebo’s game has immensely improved, while his positioning has grown to a standard of an international fullback. His showing at Thomond Park on Saturday suggests he could be the man to wear the number 15 jersey for Ireland.
11. Tommy Bowe
There would most definitely a temptation to pick Matt Healy, were the Connacht flyer fully fit. The other form wingers in Ireland at present are Darren Sweetnam, Cian Kelleher and Niyi Adeolokun.
However, marking Julian Savea is no place for a debut winger, so we’re going with the tried and tested here.
13. Garry Ringrose
Ringrose has shown hunger, determination and skill so far this season, as his stock continues to rise. Being thrown in at the deep end in Chicago would be a big ask, but there is little reason to suggest that he cannot thrive there.
12. Robbie Henshaw
Australia’s Reece Hodge at 12 hurt New Zealand on Saturday. This shows a creative footballer at first centre can cause the All Blacks problems. Henshaw will start, the only question is whether that is at 12 or 13. There is a role to be carried out, and Henshaw is the man to do it.
11. Craig Gilroy
Schmidt tends to go for a bigger winger who is strong in the air. Dave Kearney and Andrew Trimble often get preferential treatment to that end. While the pair in question are best suited to chase Conor Murray’s box kicks, this may not prove the best tactic against the All Blacks.
If there is only one take away from the Rugby Championship, it is that a territorial game will not work against New Zealand. If they have the ball, they will hurt you.
Gilroy is arguably the form winger in the country at present and deserves a shot.
10. Jonathan Sexton
Paddy Jackson ably deputised in South Africa, and Joey Carberry is setting the world alight at Leinster. However, when fully fit, Sexton is untouchable.
9. Conor Murray
Luke McGrath is improving rapidly and is beginning to look like a top class scrum-half. He can move the ball quickly, and Ireland will need to stretch the All Blacks with speed. However, an experienced head will be needed to deal with TJ Perenara, so Murray gets the nod, but will need to hasten his distribution.
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8. Jamie Heaslip
The Leinster captain’s career was on a downward trajectory for a number of seasons, but the emergence of CJ Stander for Ireland has forced him to up his game. Heaslip’s form has been a revelation for Leinster this season and he will offer leadership from the back row.
7. Josh van der Flier
Whether Steve Hansen goes with Ardie Savea or Sam Cane, New Zealand will have one of the world’s best opensides on the field. Ireland need a specialist seven, and Van der Flier has been immense for Leinster. A traditional ball-fetcher is what is needed, and the 23 year-old is the best option available.
6. Peter O’Mahony
Blindside flanker will be one of the toughest positions for Schmidt to call. Arguably, it is being contested by CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony. The Munster captain gets it for us. Judging by his display on Saturday, he is back to his very best.
5. Iain Henderson
It is a tough call to leave out Ultan Dillane, but Henderson will be eager to make up for lost time and could make a very strong case to start for the Lions this year. The 24-year-old offers so much more than your traditional lock, and Ireland will need him at the top of his game to live with this Kiwi pack.
4. Devin Toner
Mr. Reliable for Leinster and Ireland, Toner is the go-to jumper at the line-out. He has maintained his high work-rate around the field recently, and Ireland will need a strong presence up against Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick.
3. John Ryan
Joe, we need to talk about John Ryan.
While all the hype for the Ireland tighthead position has focused on Mike Ross and the future of Tadhg Furlong, Ryan has been making waves with Munster. The 28-year-old was not as effective at loose-head, but his switch to the other side of the scrum has worked wonders. Munster bullied Glasgow at the scrum on Saturday, and this was down to Ryan.
Dominance at scrum time would go a long way to unsettling the All Blacks.
2. Rory Best
Captain and hooker Rory Best will bring experience, and his starting position is not under threat.
1. Jack McGrath
The headache of Leo Cullen is shared with Joe Schmidt, as McGrath’s personal duel with Cian Healy makes for a difficult decision. We’re giving McGrath the nod.
Brian Barry, Pundit Arena.
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