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Dublin: 4°C Wednesday 3 March 2021

'We've poked the bear' - Schmidt's Ireland eye more history against All Blacks

The Ireland head coach has some big selection decisions to make this week.

LAST TUESDAY, ONE of the Ireland squad slept past a scheduled meeting time.

A genuinely nightmarish situation in Joe Schmidt’s environment.

Time-keeping and all those organisational details are paramount in the Kiwi head coach’s philosophy, so we can only imagine how it went down.

There was an understanding of the struggle of jet lag after Chicago, of course, but the feeling of dread at awakening and glancing at the clock must have been deep.

Rob Kearney and Jamie Heaslip celebrate winning Ireland are out to repeat the feat of Chicago. Source: INPHO/Billy Stickland

We don’t know who the player was, but we can be certain a lesson was learned.

“We had other guys then who couldn’t sleep at all and were flat at training because they had no fuel in the tank and so it affected selections this week to a degree,” said Schmidt after his second-string team ran eight tries past Canada on Saturday evening.

There will be no acceptance of standards dropping within the Ireland squad, even if the difficulty of converting to Chicago time and then back again within the space of eight days was taken on board.

Simply put, Schmidt feels that Ireland will have to exceed their benchmark if they are to beat the All Blacks for a second time in Dublin on Saturday.

“I think you’ve always got to be better,” said Schmidt of the upcoming challenge. “I don’t think the All Blacks were as good as they had been. Watching them in the Rugby Championship, it was a daunting enough task. They were phenomenal.

And even our game, at one stage they got 14 points in four minutes. You switch off for incredibly small windows and they put a hole in you so quickly. They are multi-faceted players across the board and they have got some great power and pace.

“So, you combine that and you know that it’s a really tough battle any time you are going to be playing them. To be honest, we’ve only matched up to them twice in my three years and we’d hate to drop our standard of being really competitive with them in those two fixtures.”

A 24-22 defeat in Dublin in 2013 and an incredible 40-29 victory over the Kiwis two weekends ago in Chicago; Schmidt’s record against the best team in the world makes for relatively impressive reading, even with a small sample base.

Joe Schmidt and Mick Kearney celebrate winning Schmidt with Mick Kearney at Soldier Field. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

He thinks Ireland need to be better than last time against Steve Hansen’s side, but what can they actually do better?

“It’s a good point,” said Schmidt before a short pause. “There’s a couple of times we lost a few lineouts in the first half, there’s a couple of times that we probably missed a few things defensively.”

He cites the example of Waisake Naholo cutting Ireland’s midfield open on kick return in the fifth minute, leading to George Moala’s try, and suggests his team “can maybe tidy a few things up from that perspective.”

But better than scoring 40 points against the Kiwis? Chicago was only the fifth time in history a team scored 40 points against the All Blacks. Bettering that is an almighty challenge for Ireland.

“To put five tries on the All Blacks, what can you do better offensively?” said Schmidt.

It’s quite hard, because I think they’d had five or six tries scored against them in the whole Rugby Championship by South Africa, Australia and Argentina – three teams that are recognisable as having real threats across the board.

“So we’re just going to have to try to make sure that what we do is as accurate as it can be, because you’ve got to get as close to the perfect performance as you can to compete with them.”

Schmidt is convinced that the All Blacks will deliver a much-improved performance in Dublin, particularly with the likes of Brodie Retallick, Anton Lienert-Brown and Israel Dagg looking likely to be selected in their starting XV.

On top of that, Schmidt feels that Ireland’s achievement will have awoken the beast. The All Blacks scored 10 tries in a 68-10 win over Italy on Saturday, resting key players, and there is more to come in Dublin.

“I’ve got massive respect for Kieran Read, I spoke to him briefly after the game,” said Schmidt when asked how he thinks the All Blacks will respond mentally. “I’m not sure that he’s captained a losing All Blacks side, and I know that it hurt.

Brodie Retallick Brodie Retallick made his return against Italy. Source: Crispin Rodwell/INPHO

“To a degree I think we’ve poked the bear. I’ve no doubt that they will come out mentally.

“I don’t think they will be any more aggressive than they normally are but I just think they’ll be sharper and, to be honest, there were probably a couple of times at 33-29 where they put balls down or we were in trouble.

“Games swing on those and so while we got our nose in front the scoreline was a lot closer and I think anyone there would have known that.”

Schmidt can, of course, make tweaks to his own first-choice team and replacements bench for this weekend.

The returns of Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, Paddy Jackson and Keith Earls against Canada mean a number of interesting selection calls lie ahead for the Kiwi head coach and his backroom staff.

Schmidt felt O’Brien “carried really strongly” against the Canadians and should have had an early turnover penalty that wasn’t given, while he said O’Mahony “grew into the game and got better and better as the game went on.”

With Josh van der Flier having impressed in Chicago, the back row call will be incredibly tight.

“We’ve lost Jordi Murphy obviously and I know he may have been a bit of a surprise selection but Jordi was super for us in the first 24 minutes and, gee, you can’t fault 13 tackles from Josh to be the top tackler and he didn’t play the first 24 minutes of the game.

“He added great value as well, so they are some of the headaches that we’ll have.”

Jonathan Sexton celebrates winning Johnny Sexton will be a key man again in Dublin. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

With Earls back in the mix, there may be temptation to make a change on the wing, or at least in the number 23 jersey, while Paddy Jackson could come into the matchday squad as out-half back-up to Johnny Sexton.

“It won’t be something that will allow me a lot of sleep over the next 24 hours but that’s what you commit to when you’re part of the coaching team we’ve got,” said Schmidt on Saturday night.

We’ll try to make sure that any decisions we make are based on as much of the evidence as we see and then inevitably there are tight calls and we may go for a certain combination or certain strengths we feel we’re going to need.

“One guy’s a better lineout player and one guy who’s better on the floor; one guy who’s really strong in the scrum or one guy who’s a super tackler. It just depends on what we think we’re going to need.”

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Murray Kinsella

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