Agnew: Irish believe in miracles

Having hammered the All Blacks 40-29 in Chicago, Ireland will believe they can achieve another miracle in what is shaping as a fascinating return rugby match in Dublin on Sunday.

Win, and the All Blacks will regain the respect their world No 1 status deserves. Lose and the Six Nation teams will believe their so-called invincibility was nothing more than a myth.

That illustrates how different one loss can change perception.

Certainly Six Nations confidence will have been boosted by England’s 37-21 triumph against South Africa and Scotland’s narrow 22-23 loss to Australia.

Ireland’s will have been further boosted by that of a passionate Munster team that beat NZ Maori 27-14 at Limerick without its Irish internationals.

In that game, as in the Chicago test, the fiery Irish hit the breakdowns en masse and tackled like demons.

Having scored a confidence-boosting first win against the All Blacks in 110 years, the brave-hearted Irish will believe they can make it a double on Sunday, especially if dynamic injury-plagued flanker Sean O’Brien returns to the side.

Hopefully Brodie Retallick’s return from concussion and perhaps that of Sam Whitelock should he recover from a bad upper ankle strain, will add power to the All Blacks’ lineout which performed so miserably in Chicago.

But under the guidance of masterly coach Joe Schmidt, Ireland is a tough team that deserve respect, possessing a smart game plan, passion and a vigorous defence.

Writing this column before the announcement of the teams, I felt Steve Hansen and his fellow selectors would start Aaron Cruden at first-five ahead of Beauden Barrett who was only a shadow of his brilliant best in Chicago.

While admittedly faced with much easier opponents in New Zealand 68-10 trouncing of Italy, Cruden combined slick passing with astute tactical kicking and converted seven tries whereas Barrett’s goal-kicking was atrocious against Ireland.

There was also a case for starting the combative PJ Perenara ahead of Aaron Smith at halfback against the excellent Conor Murray although Smith’s confidence and form did return against Italy after his lapses in Chicago.

Firstly, however, the All Black forwards will need to meet fire with fire, especially at the breakdown where they need greater numbers and lower body positions than when last they met.

Meanwhile, find of the year Anton Lienert-Brown continues to delight with his brilliant offloads creating tries for team-mates. At 21, he is playing like a master, equally at home in the No 12 and 13 jerseys.

With the crocked Sonny Bill Williams and Charlie Ngatai eager to challenge Lienert-Brown, Ryan Crotty, Malakai Fekitoa and George Moala for midfield berths next year, competition is going to be fierce.

While fullback Israel Dagg has made a great fist of the right wing in the absence of Nehe Milner-Skudder, he also has the skill set to succeed in the midfield, as indeed do Barrett and fellow first-five Lima Sopoago.

Hence with so many options, it’s more of a problem of who to leave out rather than who to put in for selectors Steve Hansen, Ian Foster and Grant Fox.

Meanwhile Aussie maestro Andrew Johns’ strong criticism of Shaun Johnson’s option-taking following the Kiwis shocking Four Nations 18-18 rugby league draw against brave Scotland in Workington, England, was fully deserved.

Ivan Agnew is an  award-winning sports writer and author