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'There's a lot of nervousness, everyone is very wary of this Irish team'

Former All Black Tana Umaga says Saturday’s game against Ireland is seen as the perfect litmus test for Steven Hansen’s side.

FIRST VERSUS SECOND, Rugby Championship winners versus the Grand Slam champions. Saturday’s showdown at the Aviva Stadium has all the ingredients to be the Test match of the year, and former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga says it’s not just a big acid test for Ireland. 

Less than 12 months out from the World Cup, the meeting of the top two ranked sides in the world has so many fascinating subplots, with much of the conversation in the build-up revolving around whether Ireland can record a first home win over the All Blacks, and just their second in 32 meetings.

TJ Perenara 19/11//2016 TJ Perenara makes a break in 2016. Source: Inpho

But for Steve Hansen’s side, who arrive in Dublin on the back of a narrow win over England, this fixture comes at the end of a season which has exposed some of their vulnerabilities in defeat. 

It is, of course, a chance for the back-to-back world champions to reinforce their position as the standard-bearers against their closest challengers in the rankings, but Umaga admits there is a lot of nervousness among Kiwis ahead of the clash at the Aviva Stadium.

“Everyone is very wary of this Irish team,” he said. “There is a lot of excitement because of the last few meetings between the two teams and from a New Zealand perspective it hasn’t been the most successful season on the field as we would expect.

“There’s high expectation obviously and this is another Test they’re really going to be challenged and right the wrongs from our perspective from the past.

“There’s a lot of nervousness around it, I think, because of that. There is anticipation, excitement and everyone is looking forward to it but there is some vulnerabilities there from our point of view.

We’re a tough public, if it’s not winning than we’re not happy. We’ve already had some losses this year and they don’t like that. With our coaching group, they know they need to perform and I’m sure that’s not lost on the players as well. There’s a lot of excitement no doubt about it.

The former centre, who was in Dublin last week, added: “There has been a lot of talk [back home] about the Irish game. The New Zealand public are watching these two games [v England and Ireland] with great interest because I think at this stage, things have shifted from we need to see Australia and South Africa play the All Blacks all the time, because we know we get the results against them. But these games we don’t have often, this is what everyone looks at to see where we’re really at.

“I don’t think there was ever a lack of respect for the Irish, I’ve been part of sides that nearly lost. We had the utmost respect because of what possibly could happen. Now that the seal has been broken, I don’t think there is embarrassment around it, but we don’t want that to happen again. What did we learn from it and how can we make sure this doesn’t happen again is the attitude.”

Even if there is a sense Hansen’s side could be slightly vulnerable, Joe Schmidt’s side know they’ll need to produce their best performance of the year to inflict a first defeat in Europe for six years on the All Blacks. 

Before last weekend’s game at Twickenham, New Zealand averaged just under 42 points per game in this calendar year, scoring at a rate of more than five tries per game in the Rugby Championship. 

The New Zealand team perform the haka before the game Ireland will face the Haka on Saturday. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

But after the heartbreak of 2013 and a succession of near-misses, there has never been a better chance for Ireland to topple the All Blacks in Dublin, and Brian O’Driscoll says Chicago will have shown Schmidt and his players the way this week. 

“Talking to Brad Thorn a couple of years ago when he played with us at Leinster, he kind of talked to us about how there was a mentality with the All Blacks that they would still get it done, even when they weren’t at their best,” O’Driscoll said.

“They have such a focus on themselves rather than the opposition, we kind of look outwards at opposition rather than internally. I think the All Blacks’ mentality is very much ‘if we can implement our game plan and do it very effectively then other sides can’t live with us.’

Brad Thorn suggested even when they weren’t at their best, they would still get it done but that all ends when you win once and that does change perception. I remember playing countless games…under Declan Kidney we played the three Test series in 2012 and we lost narrowly in Christchurch to a drop goal and he said ‘an Irish team is going to beat New Zealand, is it going to be you?’

“In sport, in particular, the first one is often the most difficult. It lifts the pressure, they aren’t infallible and the template was shown in Chicago, shut down space and force them into one of their less effective games. And that’s by concerted pressure.

“They know what they have to do, but it’s one thing knowing what to do, you still have to implement it. If Ireland are to win at the weekend they have to get an awful lot right and they have to force New Zealand to be off colour because the quality is still in New Zealand’s favour.

“That Chicago win has been used as a stepping stone. There is no one they haven’t beaten now.” 

Originally published at 07.00

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Ryan Bailey

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