The fearsome All-Blacks visit our shores this Saturday for an eagerly awaited clash between the sides ranked no.1 and no.2 in the world. We have never beaten the All-Black on home soil. The historic 40-29 victory over them in Solider Field, Chicago in November of 2016 is our only triumph over the best side in the game. On Irish soil or record is bleak, Since 1905 we’ve played 16 home games against the All-Blacks and a 10-10 draw in 1973 is the only occasion on which we have avoided defeat. So what are our chances this weekend?
The current world champions come into this game on the back of a narrow 15-16 win over England in Twickenham last Saturday. They struggled with the conditions and the English style of play especially in the first half of that game. They were on the back foot from the off after conceding an early try, when Chris Ashton got over in the corner in the second minute. They found themselves 15-0 behind by the 24th minute, but dug in deep to claw their way back into the game. A converted Damian McKenzie try and a Beauden Barrett penalty cut the gap at halftime to 15-10. A Barrett drop-goal and another penalty saw them in front for the first time just before the hour mark. It was to be the last score of the game. They did have a large slice of luck when Jerome Garces initially awarded a late Sam Underhill try for England, only for the TMO to rule it out as Courtney Lawes was marginally offside when charging down TJ Perenara’s kick.
Steve Hansen will be looking for a much better performance from his side this Saturday, especially in the opening quarter. But questions remain about the number of games this All-Blacks side has played over the last few months. Since August the Kiwi’s have played eight times. Most of the squad went straight from the Super 15 season into the six game Investec Rugby Championship (Tri-Nations) series. For the Crusaders players, of which there is nine in the squad to face Ireland, there was only a two-week rest between their Super 15 final win over the Lions on the 4th of August and their first game of the Rugby Championship against Australia in Sydney on 18th August.
The positives from a New Zealand perspective is this group of players are now like a club side on an old-style extended tour. They have been together for the best part of three months and Steve Hansen and his coaching staff have had a far superior amount of time to work with his squad when compared to what Joe Schmidt has had with his squad of Irish players. The flip side of the same coin is that the All-Blacks looked tired against England and there is only so many time they can keep going back to the well.
This years’ All-Blacks side are certainly beatable, as anyone who watched their two recent games against South Africa will attest to. Over the two games the sides were level on an aggregate scoreline of 66-66. The All-Blacks’ defence leaked 8 tries in those two encounters, however, they scored 10 tries themselves. So while there are weaknesses in defence, they can be lethal with ball in hand. It will be Ireland’s task to close them down quickly and deny them space to run at our defence.
New Zealand’s 34-36 defeat to South Africa in Wellington in September was the All-Blacks first home defeat to any side since they lost to the Springboks in Hamilton in 2009. Beauden Barrett had an off day from the tee, missing four of his six kicks at goal in that game. While he is a phenomenal player when on song, he is prone to occasional off-days from the tee.
In the return meeting between the sides in Pretoria in October South Africa led by 30 -13 with twenty minutes remaining. What happened next surely sent shudders down the spine of any Irish fans watching. In a game reminiscent of Ireland’s heartbreaking 22-24 defeat in Dublin in November 2013, when we lost it at the death, the All-Blacks scored three tries in the last twenty minutes. This included a late late Ardie Savea try as the clock was almost up to tie the game at 30-30 and Richie Mo’unga’s conversion handed the All Blacks a scarcely deserved 30-32 win.
So while the All-Blacks might be more vulnerable than at any stage in the last few years, they are still a side to be feared. Ireland will have to rediscover the form that they showed during the latter part of this years Six Nations campaign to stand any chance of writing their own bit of history on Saturday night.