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Dublin: 9 °C Wednesday 20 November, 2019
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Ireland aim to upset all the odds against All Blacks in the land of opportunity

The numbers are stacked against Joe Schmidt’s men today.

Sean Farrell reports from Chicago

AMERICAN SPORT, AND particularly baseball, places an enormous amount of stock in numbers. So because we’re in the heart of this fine continent, let’s start there.

It’s 111 years since Ireland played the original All Blacks.

This fair nation on the edge of the Atlantic has met that team from the edge of the Pacific 28 times.

Zero wins.

One draw.

27 defeats.

A view of a line-out

Ireland get their 29th bite at New Zealand in Chicago’s Soldier Field today (eir Sport, kick-off 8pm Irish time).

For Joe Schmidt’s squad, it’s the first Test of a new season. For their opponents, it’s near the end of a campaign in which they’ve put down another incredibly impressive body of work. Holes left by Richie McCaw and Dan Carter after the World Cup have been filled by the power of Ardie Savea, the return of Sam Cane and the sublime talent of Beauden Barrett.

You want more numbers? Steve Hansen has lost only three times since taking charge after the 2011 World Cup victory and his squad are currently on an 18-game winning run dating back to August 2015.

Yet if the Cubs have taught is anything this week, it’s that streaks and billy-goat curses are made to be broken. This is the land of opportunity after all.

The juxtaposition of that famous baseball institution ending a 108-year wait for a World Series and the presence of Ireland shacked up just across the Chicago River from the All Blacks just can’t be ignored. Even Hansen, took note and found a nugget from Cubs manager Joe Maddon after watching a wild Wednesday night Game Seven.

Liam Squire with head coach Steve Hansen Big Liam Squire has a word with Steve Hansen. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

“I listened to Joe, the Chicago coach, saying that curses and such things aren’t what make sport, it’s actually the process of getting across the line that makes it.”

Ireland worship the processes too. And central to any chances of finally getting over the black line will be ensuring they don’t bounce anything cheap New Zealand;s way. Captain Rory Best put it well yesterday:

You’ve got the minimise how many unforced errors you have. They are going to create chances, but you can’t gift them chances on top of that.”

Slip a tackle, delay a pass, shirk a gap, fail to clear out, get up too slowly or kick loosely to their back three and they will punish the error.

Ireland will aim for perfection despite preparations being far from ideal before flying out to Chicago. On the face of it, Joe Schmidt has selected a conservative, tried and tested starting XV, but even before you get to the fresh-faced bench there are interesting calls that will be key to Ireland’s approach.

Joe Schmidt Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

In the front row, Tadhg Furlong begins life as Ireland’s first-choice tighthead with Mike Ross left out of the squad and out of Schmidt-era starting line-up for just the second time. Jordi Murphy adds serious heft to the back row alongside CJ Stander and Jamie Heaslip.  And in the second row (despite protestations to the contrary) Donnacha Ryan and Devin Toner are the experienced heads who will go after the 10-cap Patrick Tuipulotu and Jerome Kaino starting his first Test as a lock.

Spotting weaknesses anywhere else though – from the assured Ben Smith to the powerful wings Waisake Naholo or the return of Aaron Smith – is tough.

Lima Sopoaga and Julian Savea Julian Savea watches on as Lima Sopaga goes to work in the gym this week. Source: Photosport/Andrew Cornaga/INPHO

It’s set to be a baptism of fire if and when 21-year-old Garry Ringrose and Joey Carbery appear off the bench, but long before their planned introduction, Ireland will once again be relying heavily on Jonathan Sexton to take Schmidt’s gameplan off the board and onto the field.

Ireland believe that victory – a first in history – is possible on the south side of Chicago. The anguish of 2013 and what Kiwis call “the great escape” has been a benchmark for this team over the last three years, but in the days approaching this Test, they have shelved the memory.

“Not at all,” came Jack McGrath’s succinct reply, “that’s forgotten about. It’s a new year, it’s a new challenge, we’re playing against the best team in the world and that’s the challenge that faces us.”

A challenge, and an opportunity to take a place in history as the first Ireland team to break the All Blacks.

“We control now what happens on Saturday, every minute from 3pm onwards,” comes Best’s message to his players.

“That’s all we can look at. It’s disappointing Ireland have never beaten New Zealand but we have a chance now on Saturday to change that.”

“We firmly believe in ourselves. We respect them and you’ve to respect what they’re doing and the way they’re play rugby and have been going about it, but we don’t fear them.”

They’re only numbers.

Ireland

15. Rob Kearney
14. Andrew Trimble
13. Jared Payne
12. Robbie Henshaw
11. Simon Zebo
10. Johnny Sexton
9. Conor Murray

1. Jack McGrath
2. Rory Best
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Donnacha Ryan
5. Devin Toner
6. CJ Stander
7. Jordi Murphy
8. Jamie Heaslip

Replacements:

16. Sean Cronin
17. Cian Healy
18. Finlay Bealham
19. Ultan Dillane
20. Josh van der Flier
21. Kieran Marmion
22. Joey Carbery
23. Garry Ringrose

New Zealand

15. Ben Smith
14. Waisake Naholo
13. George Moala
12. Ryan Crotty
11. Julian Savea
10. Beauden Barrett
9. Aaron Smith

1. Joe Moody
2. Dane Coles
3. Owen Franks
4. Patrick Tuipulotu
5. Jerome Kaino
6. Liam Squire
7. Sam Cane
8. Kieran Read (Capt)

Replacements:

16. Codie Taylor
17. Ofa Tu’ungafasi
18. Charlie Faumuina
19. Scott Barrett
20. Ardie Savea
21. TJ Perenara
22. Aaron Cruden
23. Malakai Fekitoa

Referee: Mathieu Raynal (France)

Assistant Referees: Luke Pearce (England), Ben Whitehouse (Wales)

TMO: Rowan Kitt (England)

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About the author:

Sean Farrell

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