By DUNCAN JOHNSTONE in Dublin, Fairfax Media
Thursday, 13 November 2008
Thursday, 13 November 2008
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw believes Ireland have enough world class players to present a significantly bigger challenge than Scotland could muster last week and he is calling on his team to significantly lift their levels of passion and intensity as the Grand Slam quest goes up a level.
Having comfortably accounted for the Scots 32-6 with a new-look team, the All Blacks have signalled their seriousness for the challenge in front of them by naming their top side to face Ireland this week.
And McCaw believes they will need everything they have got to maintain their unbeaten record against the men in green. Asked what dangers Ireland might present that Scotland couldn't, McCaw had no hesitation in singling out three key figures in captain Brian O'Driscoll, first five Ronan O'Gara and lock Paul O'Connell.
"When you have fellows like Brian O'Driscoll and Ronan O'Gara who have played a lot of tests, they are smart players. If you give them good ball to operate with they have the ability to use it," said McCaw."Maybe the Scottish haven't got a player of world class like O'Driscoll. A guy like that can make a difference. O'Connell in the second row is another one of those characters. With those guys scattered through a team they lift the players around them. If you give them a bit of an opportunity you are in trouble."
The classy Irish trio are under pressure to deliver. McCaw's right – they hold the key to any hopes of an upset.
O'Connell, the highly reputed second rower who has experienced nothing but disappointment against the All Blacks with Ireland and the British & Irish Lions in seven tests, will be a major source of ball supply. O'Gara's boot will direct the Irish around the paddock and O'Driscoll will be the danger man in setting up the attacks from the midfield.
Cutting down their opportunities will be crucial to the All Blacks' chances of continuing a dominance that has lasted 21 tests over 105 years.
McCaw believes people read too much into skills and the technical side of things at the top of the test arena. He maintains it's quite and even playing field and much of it comes down to simple things like heart, passion and desire.
"The Irish definitely have the skill-set," he warns."But there is very little between top international teams. You look across them all in terms of the skills they have and it's pretty hard to say there's too much difference. It comes down to how you turn up and the passion that is involved with it."
McCaw says his side only needs to look back a couple of weeks to their outing against Australia in Hong Kong where they eventually managed a rusty win. Most of the players who will line out for the All Blacks this weekend (kick-off 6.15am Sunday, NZ time) were involved in that match and need to take a lesson on board.
"For the first 40 minutes we were out-passioned. There was nothing to do with skill – Australia just had a little bit more about them than us, a little bit more energy at the breakdown, they were hitting it a little bit harder. Because they got on top we came out after halftime and actually managed to turn that around. This week will be no different. If we let the Irish get on top anything can happen. That's the way we are approaching the game - we have to start well with that intensity."
Adding to that challenge is the Croke Park factor with its massive capacity and emotion-filled history. It will be a motivator for the Irish – they have never played the All Blacks there so they don't carry the baggage of 11 losses at Lansdowne Road, their traditional headquarters that is being rebuilt.
It's a new venue for both teams this weekend but it's certainly not neutral. It will be a sea of green and the air will resound with local chants.
"Anywhere that has 80,000 people is going to be pretty daunting I suppose, especially with an Irish crowd," McCaw said."I had a bit of a look there last year and it's a hell of a stadium. But I think the guys are really looking forward to that. We are lucky this tour in that all the tests we play are in pretty cool stadiums. From my experience when you get behind, the noise starts and you can get a bit lonely. But for me, even in an away crowd, the atmosphere gets me excited about playing. These awesome stadiums are one of the reasons why you love playing international rugby. We have to use that."
McCaw said his side couldn't afford to get bogged down by history and the record books.
"I think everyone is aware of it," he said of the remarkable unbeaten run against Ireland. But thinking about that isn't going to help you really. It's about what you do preparing this week and how we play on Saturday that will take care of that and hopefully it's good enough. But if we start thinking 'oh, we don't want to be the first to lose', that won't help us."