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A year on from Chicago, Ireland's November goals appear much more straightforward

Anything less than three from three would cause some soul-searching through the winter.

Rory Best celebrates winning Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

ONE YEAR ON Soldier Field remains a high plane of Irish rugby achievement.

5 November 2016 was a victory as exhilarating as it was historic and as surprising as it was expertly accomplished.

Ireland proved themselves able to adapt – after early injury to Jordi Murphy and a much earlier than expected debut for Joey Carbery – and, crucially, to back themselves as New Zealand mounted a nail-biting comeback to whittle a 8 – 30 lead down to 29 – 33 before Robbie Henshaw burst over when most advised Ireland to keep the ball tied up in a scrum.

Conor Murray kicks a penalty Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

We looked ahead to the 2016 November internationals thinking one win will do, so long as it was the right one.

Ireland delivered. Not only was victory achieved against the All Blacks, it was achieved on a neutral venue and with a style befitting the unseasonable sunshine on the shore of Lake Michigan.

To underline the achievement, Joe Schmidt’s side dragged the world’s best team into a gritty battle full of high shots and shoulda-been-red-cards to make it perfectly clear that New Zealand now viewed our little island as a team worth blurring the lines of legality for.

That, after years of just bare recognition, was a serious compliment. As the sore and injured bodies piled up following the all-hands-on-deck-lets-try-Joey-Carbery-at-fullback win over Australia, the slap on the back kept heads high.

On the face of things, the three-Test series ahead of Ireland this month can’t match up to the fare offered by the glamour of Chicago and the All Blacks a year ago, but it does offer Schmidt the chance to rubber stamp Ireland as one of the game’s contenders.

The 2017 Six Nations hopes went up in exhaust smoke as Ireland were slow to find their way out of a jam in Edinburgh, yet since defeat in Murrayfield and a tough Friday night in Cardiff, signs have been veering towards the positive again.

Jack Conan breaks free to score the fifth try of the game Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

The Lions-free tour to USA and Japan will live long in the highlight reel of Keith Earls and Jack Conan, but the three wins are an important momentum-gatherer into the wholly more serious business of the Autumn Tests.

“For us, a really positive Guinness Series is to continue from Japan a little bit,” says Schmidt.

The Kiwi doesn’t need to add the pressure of demanding three wins, he has invited enough on himself by the early non-call for Simon Zebo. So he points to the development of men like Jacob Stockdale and Adam Byrne in the back three as key factors, as is the combination building in midfield where the physicality ante is upped by new caps for Chris Farrell and Bundee Aki while Stuart McCloskey finally looks set to get a second cap after debuting in Twickenham 20 months ago.

 Training today, it’s funny to see Robbie Henshaw being the ‘small centre’ with Stu McCloskey and Chris Farrell there. We used to have Darce and Drico there, it’s a novelty.

“There are some exciting new guys involved and we’re excited about seeing how they go. If they go well I think that’s a successful Guinness Series for us, because it’s an investment for us, that we want an immediate return on but that we’re prepared to also take a longer-term view with.”

With sell-outs against South Africa and Argentina either side of a rare meeting with Fiji, there is no match among the three Tests ahead which Ireland ought to fear. From a players’ perspective, performance concerns are secondary and tangible wins are in their sights.

“I think three wins from three looks successful for Ireland, I think anything less than that we’d have to go away and look at reasons why it went wrong,” Iain Henderson said last week.

Robbie Henshaw and Jared Payne chase down Willie le Roux Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw combined to brilliant effect against the 'Boks in 2014, but the Ulster star continues to be troubled by headaches. Source: Colm O'Neill/INPHO

“(The Springboks) might be feeling media pressure for under performing it’s probably like a wounded animal who can lash out in a Test fixture with no silverware on the line. I think from that aspect South Africa first up could be a dangerous opposition and potentially could cause us problems.

“However, we’ve got two weeks prep to make sure we’ve got two weeks prep’ to make sure we’re as well-prepared as possible, not only the starting 23 but everyone under that preparing the team as best possible leading into this game to make sure we can get what we can out of it.”

So three wins would leave Ireland on a run of seven straight approaching a Six Nations opener in Paris, while anything less would bring about some serious soul searching.

Nothing new there then; when it comes to fixtures like South Africa and Argentina, Ireland are on that beautiful knife edge of facing fellow imperfect teams who view one another as perfectly beatable.

The recent decade and a half might make home wins over the Springboks seem almost routine. Some added spice might be sniffed by the off-field rancour around Ireland’s apparently-spoiled RWC 2023 bid and SARU’s recall of Rassie Erasmus at almost the earliest possible opportunity.  Players though, are normally immune to such musty old boardroom antics. This fixture has never wanted for intensity or physicality and the Springboks’ ability to whitewash France in June and push the All Blacks close last month will be closer to the front of their minds.

Nicolas Sanchez celebrates winning Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

If there is an arena for past grievances to be aired, the closing Test against Argentina on 25 November may well be it.

The Pumas have not met Ireland since their immense all-action performance to dump Schmidt’s side out of the 2015 World Cup at the quarter-final stage (again). Yet, in the November of a long southern hemisphere season a match in Dublin – where Argentina have not won in seven attempts – Ireland will use the second Test against Fiji to make sure they are primed for a battle with their World Cup tormentors.

Though Daniel Hourcade has built a reputation of a fluid attacking team, their season to date has borne little fruit from and the Pumas have suffered through summer Tests against a weakened England side and lost all six of their Rugby Championship matches.

In 2016, one would’ve done. In 2017 three is a minimum return.

2017 Guinness Series (Aviva Stadium, all kick-offs 17.30)

11 November: Ireland v South Africa

18 November: Ireland v Fiji

25 November Ireland v Argentina

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