Ireland face the All Blacks in Soldiers Field, evoking memories of the 2013 classic
By Phil Rice
Anyone who attended the last encounter between Ireland and New Zealand will recall one of the greatest days in Irish rugby history.
The fact that Ireland ultimately failed to win was disappointing but the manner in which they played and captured the imagination of a capacity crowd will live in the memory of Irish supporters for years to come.
All Black captain Richie McCaw admitted after the game that Ireland deserved to win and certainly would have done had Johnny Sexton converted a relatively simple penalty with 3 minutes left on the clock. Instead he pushed it wide and the All Blacks in typically ruthless fashion, saw their opportunity and scored in the final minute and converted a twice taken kick to steal victory.
Ironically that defeat spurred Ireland on to a Six Nations victory that season and a real self belief under new coach Joe Schmidt. For New Zealand it was a record number of consecutive victories and culmination of an undefeated 12-month period.
This week the All Blacks face Ireland with a new world record of consecutive victories, 18 in all, and an air of invincibility that has frightened all-comers since their World Cup victory last season. Not only have they won all their matches during the past 18 months, they destroyed their Southern Hemisphere opponents in the recent Championship, gaining bonus point victories in every match in the series.
Ireland’s recent record has been modest by comparison. A narrow 2-1 loss in the three match series in South Africa, with a weakened team, was somewhat encouraging until the Springboks fared so badly in The Championship and now Ireland’s performance has been viewed in a different light.
That series should have been won by Ireland and they will need a significantly improved performance to cause the All Blacks any concerns. Remember New Zealand approached their post World Cup period with some trepidation after the loss of Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, all four would have made everyone’s World XV. They needn’t have worried as their results have improved during this calendar year, and the intensity of their play has made many talk of this latest team as one of the best to have played the game.
Why, you may ask, is this match being played in Chicago?
Well the sports marketing agency, Legacy Worldwide, is run by a Kiwi. They have the rights to bring Test rugby to the US and the IRFU put Ireland in the frame. In a city that is home to the All Blacks sponsors AIG, and home to a large proportion of the Irish diaspora in the US, a perfect fit.
The result is a sell-out crowd and a €1m profit for the IRFU. How informed the crowd will be regarding the finer points of the game is open to debate.
The Soldier Field website billed Ireland as Six Nations champions! The two teams will meet again in two weeks time in the more familiar setting of the Aviva.
A heavy defeat for Ireland this week may have some of the sold-out crowd for the re-match, reconsidering their attendance. Traditionally Ireland’s best chance of a surprise result has been in the first match of series and the sponsors will certainly hope for a close affair in Chicago.
Sean O’Brien gave Joe Schmidt some good news last weekend when he came through a tough match against Pro12 champions Connacht, unscathed. After a shaky start Leinster showed the quality of their reserves with a back division, (excluding Nacewa) of less than 25 appearances in total, showing real pace and class to win easily and move to the top of the league.
The previous evening Munster overcame an early 14-point deficit to win 15-14 at the Kingspan. Ulster without Iain Henderson are a much less effective team. The same may be said of Ireland this week as the talented second row will be missing in Chicago. Joe Schmidt will be hoping to have the Ulsterman back for the second match at the Aviva. It is difficult to imagine how Ireland can spring a surprise this week.
Ireland are often at their best with their backs to the wall and expectations were not high before their memorable performance in 2013.
The All Blacks are sure to be reminded of that day before they take the field this week and an extension to their world record sequence of wins seems inevitable.
The match airs at 8pm on Saturday 5th November.