By Sam Peters | @Sam_sportsnews
This time last year it was inconceivable England’s encounter with New Zealand this November would be anything but the biggest show in town.
But so great has been Ireland’s rise in 2018, and by contrast England’s decline, that it’s Saturday’s clash in Dublin which is the most eagerly anticipated Test of this autumn by a distance.
The team which first removed England’s cloak of invincibility in March last year, when Ireland ended Eddie Jones’s record-equalling 18-match winning run, are the coming men of world rugby.
New Zealand, fresh from the narrowest of wins at Twickenham last weekend, will be taking nothing for granted in the Irish capital.
First plays second in the world. The Rugby Championship winners against the Six Nations champions. The current world champions against the European nation with the most serious shot at winning the Webb Ellis Trophy in Japan next year. What’s not to like about it?
With just a solitary win in 30 Tests against the All Blacks, coming at Soldier Field in Chicago in November 2016, it was perhaps a little surprising to hear former Ireland winger Tommy Bowe talk of his countrymen “kind of fancying themselves” this week. relishing Ireland vs All Blacks clash that’ll prove who’s best. But there’s a rare mood of confidence surrounding Joe Schmidt’s squad these days, built on the back of years of steady improvement which last season delivered a Grand Slam, an away series win over Australia and the undisputed position as challengers-in-chief to New Zealand’s.
Ireland have it in them to win on Saturday, no doubt. Everything points to the tightest of games with the recent form guide making it too close to call.
New Zealand’s win over England showed enough cracks in the world champion’s armour for Ireland to take confidence they at least gain parity.
It’s not just results on the field where Ireland and New Zealand are beginning to see open water between themselves and the rest of the world.
Figures revealed to The Independent this week by Wasserman Rugby International, a sports management company representing almost half the players who will be on show in Dublin Saturday, shows it is no longer England’s players who command the greatest salaries.
Ireland’s Starting XV from last weekend’s win over Argentina earned an average annual salary of £297,500, not far off New Zealand’s (£306,800) and nearly £3,000 a man more than England’s (£294,700). Ireland’s success on the field is beginning to be reflected off it.
Everywhere you look on Saturday the matchups are mouth-watering. At fly-half, Johnny Sexton will be looking to get one over Beauden Barrett following their battle on last year’s British and Irish Lions tour.
The best No 10 in the northern hemisphere against the best stand-off in the world will be worth the ticket money alone.
Rob Kearney returns at full back for Ireland and the veteran No 15, such a composed figure under the high ball and with wonderful footballing skills, will have his work cut out against New Zealand’s fleet-footed man at the back, Damian McKenzie.
Statistics supplied by Wasserman Rugby International
Schmidt has drafted in giant lock Devin Toner in place of Iain Henderson to shore up Ireland’s line out after an unconvincing display against Argentina and his partnership with Leinster team-mate James Ryan will need to perform to avert the sort of set-piece dismantling England suffered at New Zealand’s hands.
Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock will become the first All Black lock pairing to reach 50 appearances together. As a combination, there has perhaps never been a better second-row pairing.
“When they are both on form, they are pretty special players,” said All Black coach Steve Hansen this week.
“Retallick is one from outer space and Sammy is not far behind him. I think they are probably the best one (lock combination) we have had.”
Neither Retallick nor Whitelock played at Soldier Field in 2016. They returned two weeks later when New Zealand exacted revenge in an ugly game in Dublin which still holds bitter memories for Ireland.
Ireland No9 Kieran Marmion, playing in place of injured Conor Murray, faces a fascinating battle with the similarly impish Aaron Smith, who surpasses Justin Marshall’s New Zealand record of 81 caps for a scrum-half.
New Zealand start the game as favourites but Ireland are dangerous underdogs with good reason to be confident.
First against second in the world. There’s no doubt where the game of the weekend is.