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Second test preview - the forecast is for rain outside and the All Blacks to reign inside

Ireland meet the All Blacks in the second test of their New Zealand tour tomorrow morning.

Image: Photosport/Brett Phibbs/INPHO

TEN SECONDS ELAPSED before the first question. The situation was tense yet as soon as Johnny Sexton started talking in his press conference on Thursday evening he looked so relaxed you could have sworn he was on day two of his holidays, not two days shy of a date with history.

Having already discussed the emotive issue of concussion  — he was then asked about tomorrow’s Test (8.05am kick off, Sky Sports).

Compared with the infinitely more important issue of a person’s health, a game of rugby should be of no significance. Yet, sport is more complicated than that. Aside from making young people rich and famous, it also has the power to make multitudes of fans happy or sad.

And for the last couple of decades, Irish rugby fans have never had it so good. From conquering the All Blacks three times, to winning a grand slam in ’09 and ‘18, to beating the Wallabies and Springboks away from home, there are only two boxes left to tick.

One is a win in a World Cup quarter-final, the other a victory against the All Blacks on New Zealand soil and a sense prevails that to jump that first considerable hurdle, they need to learn how to win in the most trying of circumstances.

That’s why they’re here, in the toughest country of all to tour, and why they’re playing five games – including two against the Maori All Blacks – when everyone else in Europe is limiting themselves to three-match tours this summer. “It’ll always be our reference point,” said Andy Farrell, the Irish coach. “We can point back to this tour and say ‘remember how hard that was’.”

As for Sexton, winner of world player of the year award, a grand slam, a triple crown, two further Six Nations titles, you almost sense as though that would all count for nothing in his mind if he was to leave this country without a win in it.

jonathan-sexton-during-the-press-conference

“We’ve had some great performances over the last 12/18 months and we thought we were on an upward trajectory; we wanted to keep that momentum going at Eden Park last week,” he said.

“We did some great things in the first 30 minutes and look, we did some great things in the second half as well.

“Now it’s down to us to make sure we get our best performance out there. If we get everything right, we’ve got a chance. If we don’t get everything up there with our best standards, we won’t have a chance.”

So, they are staring at the abyss. Lose and there won’t be any history to write home about, any pretence about being the world’s No 1 ranked team. Already, even in week two of the tour, everything is on the line. 

The remarkable thing is how confident they all are, from the coaching staff to the players. Bear in mind 23 points separated Ireland and the All Blacks last week; bear in mind the Irish set-piece was in huge difficulty, that the Kiwi finishing was ruthless, that Ireland coughed up more tries in 80 minutes than they did in this year’s Six Nations.

“Doubt creeps in when you don’t know the answers, but they (Ireland’s players) know the answers,” said Farrell.

We’ll soon find out if they do as Dunedin braces itself for its biggest weekend since Covid hit the tourism trade.

The weather turned grim yesterday, forcing the local authorities to cancel a number of the outdoor events they had planned for the middle of town.

One event they don’t need to worry about is the match, the Forsyth Barr stadium being covered by a roof.

As a result, we can expect an even faster tempo than we saw last weekend in Auckland, which ties in with Ian Foster’s selection of Dalton Papalii at blindside flanker, his way of letting Ireland know they can tinker with their selection and tactics depending on the track.

If there is hope for Ireland, it comes from the idea that the All Blacks invested so much energy into last weekend’s test, that they may be emotionally drained by the time they walk into the arena in Dunedin.

“It’s never easy to get up for a test match straight after another one,” Sam Cane, their captain, said.

sam-cane Source: Photosport/Steve McArthur/INPHO

“There’s always that day or two of soreness and a wee bit of mental fatigue I suppose.”

Cane’s mental strength has certainly been put to the test. The flanker is the subject of a national debate out here, many detractors wondering if it is time he was replaced, not just as captain but also in the team, prompting former captain, Kieran Read, to speak in his defence.

“A lot of people probably don’t understand the arts of the breakdown, and being in position on defence, and getting off the line, and forcing them to play behind the advantage line, and hustling a ruck,” said Read.

“And all that stuff, that’s Sam’s game. And I kind of think he’s actually built for test rugby. That’s the type of player you need. Because, we all know, hey, it can be all good on the front foot, you can throw in all these other guys, but when push comes to shove, the likes of Sam, it’s his kind of game that’s really needed.”

Read’s thoughts relate directly to what happened to the All Blacks in Dublin last November, when they were outplayed at the breakdown.

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Since then, a long period of introspection has led to them tinkering with their game-plan. They’ve put a huge emphasis on their props upgrading their skills and contributing more around the park.

As well as that they were noticeably sharper in the tempo they set last week – partly because Aaron Smith was available again, after missing the Dublin test.

Other things went well, especially at the set-piece, but with Sam Whitelock out and Scott Barrett forced to relocate into the second row from the back row, they’re less likely to be as dominant in the lineout this time. If anything, New Zealand are sensing a reprisal.

“This is a series we wanted because there’s a chance for us to test some things against a quality northern hemisphere team,” said Foster, their coach.

“The nice thing is that we know how much they want it. We shouldn’t be surprised that we’re going have to go up [a level] and progress.”

For Ireland to win tomorrow, though, it’s more than one level that they’ll have to ascend. And that’s too much to ask. It isn’t just rain that is forecast for Dunedin tomorrow but a second All Blacks win.

NEW ZEALAND: Jordie Barrett; Sevu Reece, Reiko Ioane, Quinn Tupaea, Leicester Fainga’anuku; Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; George Bower, Codie Taylor, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett, Dalton Papalii, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea

Replacements: Samisoni Taukei’aho, Aidan Ross, Angus Ta’avao, Patrick Tupulotu, Pita Gus Sowakula, Folau Fakatava, Richie Mo’unga, Will Jordan

IRELAND: Hugo Keenan; Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Jamison Gibson Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Tadhg Furlong; James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne; Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.

Replacements: Rob Herring, Finlay Bealham, Cian Healy, Kieran Treadwell, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Joey Carbery, Bundee Aki.

Referee: Jaco Peyper (SARU)

About the author:

Garry Doyle  / reports from Dunedin

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