The shift in subject matter is as subtle as the lurch from summer to autumn, if a little more condensed. Just a week ago, the European focus was on reviewing the opening two weekends of Heineken Cup drama, but now we find ourselves anticipating the November internationals with excitement. The visits of Southern Hemisphere powers New Zealand, Samoa and Australia will be as fascinating as ever.
The All Blacks have been exceptional in 2013. They head on tour to Tokyo and Europe with the confidence required to extend their 10-game winning streak and become the first nation ever to have a 100% perfect Test season. Japan, France, England and Ireland lie in wait, hoping to ruin Steve Hansen’s dreams of a clean sweep.
Ireland sold out the 50,000-capacity Aviva Stadium in Dublin as early as last week for a game that takes place on November the 25th and it is likely that the world’s best team will be greeted with similar fervour everywhere else they travel. Their basic skills are on a different level to anyone else in the game at the moment, but surely there will be a slip-up somewhere along the way.
One of the four teams in opposition will need to be at their own peak to take advantage of any potential All Blacks’ off days. Hansen will be tempted to experiment with some of his less experienced squad members, but even still the atmosphere, standards and spirit in their camp means changes have been seamless so far.
My own hope is that the All Blacks arrive in Ireland unbeaten, pick their best available XV and play to the limit of their ability. If Joe Schmidt’s men were to pull off a shock in those circumstances, I would happily retire from attending rugby games and live off the memory of that occasion. Of course idolising the All Blacks is something the Irish players won’t be doing, particularly with the fresh positivity in their own camp.
Schmidt is fully settled into his new position, and despite him naming a squad that might have seen previous coaches come under criticism, the Irish rugby community is optimistic about what Schmidt’s philosophy will bring to the international front. The Kiwi backs his players to play what they see, stresses the effectiveness of accurate handling skills and inspires through positivity and high standards.
The national team in Ireland has gone stale in recent years, very much reflected in the declining levels of passionate support at the stadium on Lansdowne Road. The only thing that will reinvigorate Ireland’s rugby public is energy and imagination on the pitch. Energy creates energy. Clearly winning games is an immediate priority for Schmidt, but the performances are of equal importance.
In the wake of the series defeat to the Lions and the headless nature of their displays in the opening rounds of the Rugby Championship, it had been anticipated that the Wallabies would prove a soft touch for Ireland in November. However, Ewen McKenzie’s men have improved of late and their performance in the recent 41-33 loss to New Zealand shows that they will be no pushovers.
With Quade Cooper at his best, Australia finally showed signs of understanding what the former Reds coach wants from them in attack. The out-half’s passing game was razor sharp and there is no one in world rugby who can rival the 25-year-old’s range in that regard. While their defence remains a disjointed work in progress, the Wallabies will feel that their position four places ahead of Ireland in the IRB world rankings can be justified on the pitch.
McKenzie’s men are heading into a five-game schedule, beginning in England on Saturday. Despite having lost their most recent fixture, there will be a sense of momentum for the Wallabies and if they can win at Twickenham, that effect would grow. After a visit to Italy comes the clash against Ireland and it could be a truly memorable game if both teams play to their strengths.
First up for Ireland are Samoa on the 8th of November. This has been perceived as the ‘easiest’ of the games. For Schmidt, it would be tempting to give younger players exposure in that game, but the reality is likely to be that he fields his first-choice selection in order to begin with a win. Samoa have picked a strong squad, with their front row in particular an embarrassment of riches. However, Schmidt should feel that his men have an edge in the back row and midfield.
It is an intriguing schedule for Ireland, against three sides who the IRB rate higher and who each have unique strengths. The key to success for Ireland is an internal focus. For too long the Irish national side has failed to be the sum of its talented parts. Schmidt is seen as the man to solve the formula, with the hope that a greater stress on the process leads to a more positive solution.
How do you see Ireland’s November series going? Can they beat the All Blacks for the first time in history or are Steven Hansen’s men unbeatable? Are Australia on the rise, or was the most recent Bledisloe Cup game a flash in the pan? Predictions are welcome…