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Letter from Chicago: Schmidt's Ireland arrive as Warriors show world-class quality

Joe Schmidt’s side are back where they famously beat the All Blacks in 2016.

Murray Kinsella reports from Chicago

THE LAST TIME we were in this neck of the woods, one of the beloved local sports teams made it an unforgettable week even before Ireland had beaten the All Blacks for the first time ever.

The Cubs ended their 108-year wait for World Series success this time two years ago, sparking wild scenes of celebration on the streets of Chicago, but there will be no repeat this time around.

The Boston Red Sox wrapped up this year’s World Series on Sunday night, and while the Chicago Bears – the city’s NFL team – have made an encouraging start to their season, the famous Bulls of the NBA are in poor condition.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Chicago Bulls Golden State Warriors' guard Klay Thompson shot 14 three-pointers on Monday night. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Far from the glory days of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, this version of the Bulls are struggling and a visit to the United Centre on Monday evening underlined that a return to those heady days under Phil Jackson is a long way off.

The NBA fixture that kick-started this week in Chicago did, however, allow the Golden State Warriors to underline their sheer supremacy. 

Records were broken. 

Klay Thompson landed 14 three-pointers, overtaking team-mate Steph Curry’s previous benchmark, while the Warriors’ 92 first-half points were the second-highest total by any NBA team in history. 

Watching Curry glide across the court, fizzing no-look passes to team-mates and celebrating scores even before his fellow Warriors had released the ball was a joy, even if he sat out the entire fourth quarter as his side coasted home against Bulls.

Curry, Kevin Durant, the free-scoring Thompson and the rest of the Warriors are a truly impressive sight live in the flesh, clearly one of the best sports teams in the world.

Even if Joe Schmidt’s Ireland would never claim to be in similar territory, there is little doubt that they are among the best on offer in rugby and, even without a host of star names, they should be able to put on a good show against Italy at Soldier Field on Saturday.

While this money-making fixture feels a long way off what was on offer in 2016, there is intrigue nonetheless and the fact that Schmidt included front-liners like Tadhg Furlong, Garry Ringrose and James Ryan in his 26-man squad for this Chicago trip adds more.

The Ireland team and management celebrate winning Ireland made unforgettable memories in 2016. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Ireland’s meeting with Conor O’Shea’s Italians – similarly without several key men – is one of three fixtures on this year’s ‘Rugby Weekend,’ as USA Women kick-off Saturday’s action against the Black Ferns, then Ireland’s game is followed by the US Eagles facing the Māori All Blacks.

So there is a good degree of Kiwi influence on what should be an entertaining day of rugby, even if it is more than a shame that the All Blacks can’t be here this time around.

It will be fascinating to see how some of Italy’s less-experienced youngsters perform, while Schmidt will have an opportunity to get a closer look at the US, who are Ireland’s final November Test opponents this year.

The Americans have been making fine progress under Gary Gold and Greg McWilliams, most notably beating Scotland in June, so a strong performance against the Māori is a must for them.

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Watching Rhys Ruddock board one of Ireland’s flights from Dublin on Monday – they travelled in two parties – the thought occurred that the Leinster flanker, who looks like the probable captain this weekend, wasn’t involved back in 2016.

Looking back at the matchday squad for that momentous win two years ago, Joey Carbery, Devin Toner, Jordi Murphy, Josh van der Flier, Furlong, Finlay Bealham, Jack McGrath and Sean Cronin are the returning All Blacks beaters.

For several of the rest of the travelling party this time around, particularly the uncapped Will Addison and Ross Byrne, this trip will feel like an opportunity to show Schmidt just how valuable they could be against Argentina or New Zealand back in Dublin over the fortnight that follows this clash with the Italians.

Josh van der Flier, Rhys Ruddock and Jack Conan Ireland flew to the US on Monday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

The first batch of the Irish squad arrived in Chicago on Monday evening via a delayed flight from Dublin, with the fate-tempting pilot wishing them well “when they beat Italy on Saturday” just after he had landed the jet at O’Hare International Airport.

It would be an utter shock if Ireland failed to do as much and the favouritism they carry into this Chicago contest simply stresses how different this second incarnation of the trip is.

There won’t be any crazy celebrations for the Cubs this time but at least the Warriors have set a standard for Schmidt’s side to aspire to in Chicago this week.

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Murray Kinsella

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