Billy Stickland/INPHO
back it up

One-off or the start of something big? Ireland have their own points to prove in All Black rematch

A big performance today would go a long way to proving Ireland are capable of mixing it with the best week after week.

BACKING IT UP hasn’t been the strongest suit of Irish rugby in recent years.

There have been insane, momentous days, unbelievably incredible performances and ceiling-breaking results to make history. Yet consistency and the ability to return to the peak a week or fortnight later has scuppered too far many tours and tournaments.

On the back of France in Cardiff, there was Argentina in Cardiff. After Australia in Auckland, there was Wales in Wellington. Following Dan Carter’s drop-goal to save New Zealand from a draw in Christchurch, Ireland were hosed 60 – 0 in Hamilton. And a week on from beating the ‘Boks with 14 men away from home, the altitude sucked Ireland from 10 – 26 to 32 – 26 in 20 crushing minutes.

Craig Gilroy, Jamie Heaslip, Rory Best and Rhys Ruddock dejected Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

This evening’s return fixture against World Champions New Zealand (kick-off 17.30, RTE/ Sky Sports) is another chance to break a bad Irish habit.

In Carton House this week, Johnny Sexton pointed to the occasions when performances were sustained over a series, but it wouldn’t be like the out-half to allow his side blindly drift into another big game without knowing the standard required.

“We’ve shown at times that we have got over that. Last November we beat South Africa and Australia back-to-back and we’ve had other victories back-to-back, but there’s still an element that we’ve spoken about – needing to back it up.

Simon Zebo celebrates scoring their fourth try with Jonathan Sexton Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

“Really, again, that’s performance driven in that regard, turning up on the day, making sure emotionally, physically that we’re ready to go and in the right frame of mind as we were last time and then the result will come after that. But that’s all we can influence at the moment and that’s what we talked about.”

Like Sexton, Simon Zebo wasn’t in South Africa during the summer when the heroic efforts of 14 men to claim a first-ever win away to the Springboks could not be sustained more than an hour into the second Test (albeit at altitude).

“We can’t let these one-off performances limit us,” Zebo said when asked what had been drilled into the wider squad since the June series.

“If we want to grow as a squad and compete with the best teams in the world, you have to do it on a consistent basis.

That means we have to show up for 80 minutes again this week. We have to be there or thereabouts come 75-80 minutes to get the win. We know what we have to do, that’s show consistency at the highest stage against the best teams in the world and prove it’s not a once-off.”

Despite Steve Hansen’s weak attempt at claiming the underdog’s tag late this week, the general assumption is that today will see bring a rejuventated All Blacks back to their old selves. Restoring the best second row partnership in the game to their foundations will certainly be a big help in that regard.

Conor Murray Dan Sheridan / INPHO Dan Sheridan / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland clearly mined a lot of joy from the line-out and maul in the absence of experienced locks in Chicago. The coaching ticket were more than happy to point to that and the unusual amount of Kiwi errors as the attempt to dampen expectation for today’s fixture began immediately post-match.

Errors though, are a product of pressure. And Ireland applied it by the cubic ton in Soldier Field. Joe Schmidt and his backroom team are content to let the All Black off day rhetoric continue because it takes the pressure to repeat the feat off them. Yet it may also increase their chances if they can convince even one All Black to believe just a smidge of that hype again.

Outside of the second row, the mode of victory is repeatable. The same targets are there for Ireland to take aim at. Aaron Smith has been trusted again at scrum-half despite a poor return to the starting line-up Ben Smith remains fullback after being out-jumped over and over again by Rob Kearney.

In Malakai Fekitoa and Anton Lienert-Brown, New Zealand have a of midfielders of immense promise, but Jared Payne and a Robbie Henshaw fresh from an enormous performance in Soldier Field are a centre combination to be feared.

A view of the Irish team scrum training Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

So for 14 Irish starters, the task is backing up one of – if not the – biggest performance of their careers to date. The exception, of course, is the exceptional Sean O’Brien.

The Tullow Tank made his international comeback against Canada. He wasn’t perfect, but he simply has too much ability to not be involved. Jerome Kaino, who is not involved this weekend, labelled O’Brien as a ‘spearhead’ of Ireland’s physicality. He is that rare breed of European rugby player who makes Kiwis sit up, take notice and divert their attention away from other threats.

Sean O'Brien Billy Stickland / INPHO Billy Stickland / INPHO / INPHO

Alone, the Carlow man won’t be enough to amp the intensity back up to Chicago levels. But he’s a catalyst, an easy man to follow and the only starter in green who can’t claim to have beaten the All Blacks.

The world champions are wounded and will angrily battle back to end their season on a string of wins. But Ireland have the template and the tools to go and relentlessly attack the world champions again.


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 (capt)
3. Tadhg Furlong
4. Donnacha Ryan
5. Devin Toner
6. CJ Stander
7. Sean O’Brien
8. Jamie Heaslip


16. Sean Cronin
17. Cian Healy
18. Finlay Bealham
19. Iain Henderson
20. Josh van der Flier
21. Kieran Marmion
22. Paddy Jackson
23. Garry Ringrose

New Zealand:

15. Ben Smith
14. Israel Dagg
13. Malakai Fekitoa
12. Anton Lienert-Brown
11. Julian Savea
10. Beauden Barrett
9. Aaron Smith

1. Joe Moody
2. Dane Coles
3. Owen Franks
4. Brodie Retallick
5. Sam Whitelock
6. Liam Squire
7. Sam Cane
8. Kieran Read (capt)


16. Codie Taylor
17. Wyatt Crockett
18. Charlie Faumuina
19. Scott Barrett
20. Ardie Savea
21. T.J. Perenara
22. Aaron Cruden
23. Waisake Naholo

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