The Key Decisions Joe Schmidt Has To Make Ahead Of The All Blacks Test

Ultimate Test.

Ireland and the All Blacks will clash this weekend in a mouth-watering affair at the Aviva Stadium in what is arguably the biggest game of Joe Schmidt’s reign to date as head coach.

New Zealand are currently the undisputed number one team in the world with Ireland not far behind in second place. And while Ireland cannot overtake them with a win, and there’s no trophy or anything like that on the line – the game carries huge weight.

A lot has been said about this current Ireland team after an incredibly successfully year. It’s being heralded as the greatest squad ever assembled, with many feeling they are the biggest threat to the All Blacks at next year’s Rugby World Cup, despite having never gotten further than the quarter final stages. With that being said, this weekend’s game is a must win no matter what way you look at it.

If Ireland are serious about making that next step, they must win on Saturday. It doesn’t matter who the opposition is. If Ireland want to be considered as contenders they need to be winning their home games. They need to be able to defeat New Zealand at the Aviva. If they can’t do it in Dublin, how can they be expected to do it in Japan? A win this weekend would send a huge message to the rest of the world – Ireland are the real deal.

But in order to give themselves the best chance of winning, Joe Schmidt has some pretty big decisions to make in terms of the game plan and his selection on the day…

Game plan.
Ireland are at home on Saturday, so you’d expect a certain level of confidence heading into the game, even though it’s the All Blacks. They are on an unprecedented 10-game winning streak at home, defeating the likes of Australia, South Africa, Argentina, England, Wales, Fiji and Scotland on the way to setting that record. They are formidable at home, there’s no other way at looking at it.

That being said they should look to play the game on their own terms, but does that mean all-out attack on the All Blacks? A lot of teams reckon that’s the only way to defeat the world champions because of their incredible ability to score points. It worked in Chicago, would it work at the Aviva? Maybe, but I don’t think it’s the right way to approach the game.

Ireland are one of the best in the world at two things – discipline in defence and attrition in attack. If you can keep your discipline and defend well against the All Blacks, you’ve got a chance. Holes will open up in their defence and they will concede points. If Ireland can frustrate the All Blacks by keeping their discipline and shut them down in defence to their best of their ability, patience and attrition will get them on the board at the other end. Play smart and stick to what you’re good at.

Second-row partnership.
Two things we learned from the weekend – The All Blacks have an excellent defensive lineout and when Ireland are put under pressure on their own lineout they’re in trouble. Put the two of them together and the men in green are in trouble. But the good news for Schmidt is he’s got the perfect man to combat the All Blacks second-row partnership of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock and that comes in the shape of 6ft 10in Leinster lock Devin Toner.

The 32-year-old made a huge difference on Saturday against Argentina when he came on and looks primed to start against the All Blacks. He may not be as dynamic as Iain Henderson around the pitch, but at the same time he’s hugely underrated when it comes to what he actually brings to open play. He makes a lot of important carries and is arguably Ireland’s best ‘lathcher’ – a tool which could prove very useful against the All Blacks.

That brings us to the bench. It might seem a little unfair on Iain Henderson, but for me – he doesn’t make the squad on Saturday. James Ryan is one of the first names on the team sheet and Tadhg Beirne is a better weapon off the bench. He can cover six and eight, allowing Josh van der Flier to be a specialist seven on the bench, and can come on and get Ireland the ball and help close/chase the game. His ability to poach at the breakdown is unrivalled. He’s also a pretty mobile lock, that offers arguably as much as Henderson does in open-field, with added breakdown nous.

Scrumhalf.
Conor Murray is out. That much we know. But who starts in his place? Kieran Marmion did a good job on Saturday, before he was forced off after rolling his ankle. But he should be ready to go by this weekend and if so will likely get the nod. Why you ask? It’s pretty close between him and Luke McGrath, so close I even had the Leinster man in my proposed team over the weekend for the All Blacks game. But the more I think about it, Marmion’s game suits the game plan above better. Yes McGrath is a more attack-minded nine, but as I said – that’s not what you’re looking for when you’re playing at home. Marmion will slot nicely into the system and will put his trust in the players outside him to do their job. McGrath can make an impact of the bench.

Number 23.
This is another big one. The bench pretty much fills itself. McGrath will be the sub loosehead, Porter tighthead, Cronin hooker (although Schmidt could very well go with Niall Scannell for his scrummaging) and Carbery outhalf. But who will wear the number 23 jersey? The three contenders are Jordan Larmour, Andrew Conway and Will Addison. All three can play two positions or more, and all three offer something different.

Do you go with the electric Larmour? He’d showed against Italy he can create a try out of nothing, but struggled against tougher opposition in Argentina. If you ask me, he’s not quite ready to be a fullback against tier one opposition just yet, but he’s can do some real damage on the wing. He’s still only 21, so maybe a game against the All Blacks might be too big an ask this early in his career.

Then there’s Andrew Conway. Probably you’re safest option and fullback and a good man to be able to call on if Kearney starts and isn’t 100%. He’s also an excellent winger and one of the best natural finishers Ireland have.

Finally you’ve got Will Addison. The Ulsterman can cover fullback and the centre, and could probably do a job on the wing too, giving him an advantage over the other two. If Ringrose isn’t 100% maybe he’s a better option? He can also cover Kearney. It’s a tough one, but I’m sure Schmidt will make the right decision. Only he will know what exactly he needs.