Sunday’s crunch tie against New Zealand represents a colossal test for Ireland as they look to derail the All Blacks’ 18 game unbeaten run.
Much of the pre-match talk ahead of the Chicago clash points to another win for Steve Hansen’s men, but Ireland are, naturally, relishing the prospect of overcoming the world champions for the first time in history.
After the heartbreaking defeat to the All Blacks in Dublin in 2013, Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, born in the small town of Woodville in New Zealand’s South Island, is extra-motivated to beat a side who are coming off the back of a stellar Rugby Championship campaign.
On that November afternoon three years ago, Ireland – playing some of the most majestic rugby under Schmidt’s reign – marched into an early 19-0 lead but conceded an agonising last minute try to lose 24-22. With many lessons taught in defeat, victory against the All Blacks is driving this Irish side.
Schmidt has never been allowed to forget it, as the game has been constantly referenced in press conferences, no matter the opposition, and is a shadow that hangs over both him and his senior players.
Schmidt’s team selection for tonight is strong and should be enough to threaten their all-conquering opponents, but the question remains whether Ireland can compete for the full 80 minutes. If the Men in Green believe in their game plan and attack on and off the ball, then they have a chance.
The decision to select Rob Kearney at full-back and stick with the centre partnership of Jared Payne and Robbie Henshaw emphasises the level of importance Schmidt has placed on this game because, with the second Test in two weeks, one or two of these key players could have been held back.
Of the new faces, expect Garry Ringrose and Joey Carbery to make an impact; two young players who have been rewarded after their dazzling performances for Leinster in the Pro 12. Ringrose, in particular, has been a revelation, with many considering him a future Irish 13.
Fitness and a solid bench with the ability to make an impact are among the critical factors, and the addition of defence coach Andy Farrell to the ranks has helped improved structures around set-pieces. Farrell was England’s defence coach when they beat the All Blacks in 2012 – the last time a Northern Hemisphere team defeated the world champions.
With Devin Toner and Donnacha Ryan in fine form for Leinster and Munster of late, this is a seminal test for the Irish line-out as Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock – two world class locks – are withdrawn for this game. If Ireland can engineer a platform of dominance at the line-out, then they have enough steel in their back line to unleash the significant qualities of Jonny Sexton and Henshaw in midfield.
The All Blacks’ pace and power will be difficult to stop in the closing stages, with Ardie Savea, Malakai Fekitoa and TJ Perenara to come off the bench. Ireland will have a tough task on their hands to curtail that trio’s impact when they are inevitably introduced and must stay organised and tighten the defensive line.
Ending the season unbeaten is Hansen’s major goal, but, at the very least, if Ireland put on a good showing on US soil, then there is renewed belief that they can beat them in Dublin on November 19.
A competitive performance will undoubtedly please Schmidt but his longing for victory against his home nation is a burning ambition, and one that won’t go away until he achieves it.
The 42-year-old Munster head coach passed away in the early hours of Sunday morning, leaving behind a 13-year professional career at the epicentre of the game.
Foley, a towering 6’ 3” backrower, with 62 international caps, was an inspirational captain for Munster, leading them a famous Heineken Cup win in 2006.
He played with a passion and ferocity that was frightening, and always showed a willingness to be at the heart of the action. He was first at the breakdown and scoured the line to put teammates in better scoring opportunities.
Hailing from Clare, his family was steeped in rugby, with father Brendan part of the famous Munster side that beat the All Blacks in 1978, and sister Rosie a member of the Irish women’s squad. His crowning moment as a player was the 2006 Heineken Cup triumph when he led Munster to victory over Biarritz in the final in Cardiff.
That day, he exemplified everything which both he and Munster rugby are known for: passion, speed and commitment. Both were synonymous with these attributes. He made his Munster debut in 1995 and became captain in 2005, claiming one Celtic League title in addition to European glory. On the pitch, he played a record 202 times – including 71 consecutive games – and underlined his world class ability with a tremendous work-rate and intelligence at the breakdown.
He was a key member of Munster’s golden generation, which included the likes of Keith Wood, David Wallace, Paul O’Connell, John Hayes and Donncha O’Callaghan.
For Ireland, he featured in two World Cups, in 1995 and 2003 – and captained the country on three occasions.
A hugely popular figure, Foley continued to have a significant impact on the province upon his retirement in 2008 as forwards coach, before being appointed head coach in 2014.
He’ll be more remembered for his playing days, such was the magic of his presence on field.
He was unique, a colossal leader and Munster Rugby won’t be the same without him.
Foley was one of Irish rugby’s most prominent figures whose father was also capped for his country.
In a tribute, the president of Ireland, Michael Higgins, dubbed Foley “one of the great figures of Irish sport in the modern era”.
As a robust backrow forward, Foley led Munster to European Cup victory in 2006 with victory over Biarritz in Cardiff and went on to win 62 caps for Ireland, captaining the national side on three occasions, his last appearance coming in 2005 after debuting 10 years earlier.
He played 86 European matches for Munster, including a record 71 consecutive games, and retired in 2008 as the club’s most-capped player with 194 appearances for the provincial side.
Here, we pick out Tweets from stunned former teammates, opponents and admirers of the former Irish backrower.
It is with great sadness that we bid farewell to our coach, former captain, colleague and friend today, rest in peace Anthony Foley.— Munster Rugby (@Munsterrugby) October 16, 2016