Ireland seeking rare double over the All Blacks
It took the Irish 111 years to beat New Zealand. On Saturday, they'll be seeking a second win over the mighty All Blacks in two weeks.
"We are going into the game as the underdogs," said New Zealand coach Steve Hansen, words that stretch the truth but will still hearten Ireland fans who have suffered a century of heartache at the hands of the world's greatest rugby team.
They aren't alone.
The All Blacks' reaction to a loss can be gauged by the seven years since any one team beat them back to back. That was South Africa. Only two home nations have consecutive wins: Wales in 1935 and 1953, and England in 2002-03. Wales hasn't beaten them since, and England just once.
This is the size of the task facing Ireland, whose 40-29 win in Chicago on Nov. 5 was arguably the country's greatest moment in rugby, certainly in modern times. Driven on by the memory of Anthony Foley, the popular former international who died weeks earlier, the Irish took advantage of a sloppy All Blacks performance to score five tries.
"You'd love to think that we're favorites, wouldn't you?" Ireland coach Joe Schmidt said, reacting to Hansen's earlier remark. "But I wouldn't suggest that Steve Hansen become a bookmaker.
"We're at about 6-1, not that we're allowed to indulge in that. It's a bit better than the 13-1 we were in Chicago. You certainly wouldn't put us as favorites. I think everyone is due a hiccup."
Schmidt has acknowledged Ireland caught the All Blacks at an "opportune moment" in Chicago due to the absences of first-choice locks Sam Whitelock (ankle) and Brodie Retallick (concussion), which forced Hansen to play flanker Jerome Kaino out of position in the second row. Hansen defended Kaino afterward, and blamed hooker Dane Coles.
Without Whitelock and Retallick, Ireland bossed the mauls and disrupted lineouts, where Coles came under pressure on throw-ins. Ireland also competed for kickoff ball, forcing more errors.
Whitelock and Retallick are back, but Kaino is out with a minor calf injury. Otherwise, the All Blacks are at full strength, with Beauden Barrett at flyhalf in his first game since being named world player of the year.
Ireland, whose only change from Chicago has Sean O'Brien replacing the injured Jordi Murphy at openside flanker, is expecting a "Blacklash."
"It wasn't the New Zealand that we had been used to seeing throughout the Rugby Championship," Ireland fullback Rob Kearney said, recalling the game in Chicago.
"Their lineout was poor. Some of their handling was pretty poor. They conceded five tries in the whole (Rugby) Championship and we scored five against them. If we're honest, it wasn't the New Zealand that we've all come to know. It's really important that we recognize and understand that."
That loss ended the All Blacks' record 18-test winning run, and they began a new one by thrashing Italy 68-10 last weekend. Next stop is Dublin, where they scored an injury-time try and conversion to beat the Irish 24-22 on their last visit in 2014.
"They'll be full of confidence and committed to delivering on their home patch," Hansen said. "So we will have to take a massive step up, to get the performance we are looking for.
"It is a challenge that this team needs right now and how we respond will tell us a lot about ourselves."