Ireland look to lock it down for the All Blacks

New Zealand have long been the standard setters in world rugby.

New Zealand have long been the standard setters in world rugby.

And it is Ireland’s clashes with the All Blacks that mark both the high and low point of the impressive Joe Schmidt reign.

There was the heartbreak of 2013 and THAT last-gasp Ryan Crotty try before Chicago in 2016 and the end of 111 years of hurt.

And since that famous day at Soldier Field, Ireland’s growth has continued unabated.

They sit second in the world rankings, are the reigning Six Nations and Grand Slam winners, have downed the Wallabies in Australia and are on a record ten-match winning streak at home.

But on top of the results, one of the most noticeable achievements of the Schmidt reign has been the deepening of the squad.

The player pool is so strong now – and nowhere is that more true than in the second row – that Ireland welcome the All Blacks on Saturday in expectation rather than hope.   JAMES’ GIANT REACH   It seems ridiculous to think that a year ago, James Ryan was still awaiting his first Test start for his country.

Such has been the young Leinster lock’s development that he is now one of the first name on Schmidt’s teamsheet.

A European and Guinness PRO14 champion and a Grand Slam winner, Ryan’s winning run finally came to an end this summer in Australia.

But he shrugged off that first Test loss in Brisbane to anchor a 2-1 Test series win and was at it again in his autumn opener against Argentina.

The second row was absolutely everywhere in another man of the match performance that included 13 tackles, with no misses, and 17 carries.

His defensive work at the lineout has also caught the eye, showing experience and expertise beyond his years to sack opponents’ mauls time after time.

Ryan is only nine starts into his Test career, but if he’s fit – you can bet he will start against the All Blacks this weekend and his match-up with Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock will be worth the price of admission alone.

The question is – who to pair him with? Go for the experience of Devin Toner, the explosiveness of Iain Henderson or the breakthrough brilliance of Tadhg Beirne? And that’s without mentioning Quinn Roux who has impressed for his country whenever called upon.   DEVIN SETS THE TONE   The smart money would appear to be on Toner to get the nod this weekend.

The set-piece specialist could be absolutely vital if Ireland are to match the Retallick-Whitelock duo that has dominated the rugby landscape since the last World Cup cycle.

Toner is the only surviving Irish second row from that famous win in Chicago two years ago – Donnacha Ryan has moved abroad and Ultan Dillane out of favour.

And the building blocks of that victory over the world champions were laid at the lineout as time and again, Ireland picked off All Black ball from the Chicago skies.

Now, it must be noted that New Zealand were without both Whitelock and Retallick that day in the Windy City.   KEEP IT TIGHT   But Toner’s brilliance in the tight is of little doubt – you only had to watch Ireland’s display against Argentina last weekend to get a feel for that.

Henderson and Ryan got the nod to start in the second row against the Pumas but both the lineout and restarts both struggled until Toner entered the fray.

This summer also saw Toner come back into the starting XV for the second and third Tests against the Wallabies – and it was those two Tests that Ireland won to turn the tide and claim a first-ever series win on Australian soil.

If you want to beat the All Blacks, you have to do the basics right first of all.

For all the talk of England’s display last Saturday and Courtney Lawes’ chargedown – the truth is that in the second half the All Blacks got to grips with the English lineout and momentum was lost time and again.

So expect Toner to come in and lay down a platform from which the men in green can hope to build – much like in Chicago two years ago.   HENDERSON’S HOPES ARE HIGH   Injury robbed Iain Henderson of his chance to take on the All Blacks in Chicago – and you can bet that the Ulster man will not want to miss out a second time.

And of Ryan’s nine starts for his country so far, Henderson has been alongside him for more than half of them. A more versatile option who can cover the back row – Henderson certainly offers more in the loose than Toner.

Also the only lock in this Irish squad to tour with the British & Irish Lions last summer when they discovered the All Blacks were human – Henderson has 40 caps and is still only 26.

He also has five tries to his name, Toner has just two from 62 caps, but perversely might be viewed as a bench option because of the many strings to his bow.

Toner’s value as a reliable worker in the boiler room is from the start rather than off the bench – 49 of his 62 caps for his country have been from the start.   BEIRNE BABY BEIRNE   The only spanner in the works as far as Henderson is concerned is the all-round excellence of Tadhg Beirne.

The Munster lock had been a star in the Guinness PRO14 for Scarlets for the last two seasons – leading the league in turnovers as the region made the last two finals and a first European semi-final in over a decade.

Now back in his native Ireland, Beirne has gone from a potential Test star to an actual one.

He came off the bench for his debut in Australia and then, on his first start for his country against Italy a fortnight ago, the lock scored two tries and proved he belongs at this level.

And considering he has started games in the last year at lock, blindside flanker and even No.8 – his versatility is a match even for Henderson.

While with only three caps to his name, he might seem a bit fresh-faced for the visit of the All Blacks – Schmidt has proven he is not afraid to make the big calls.

So don’t be surprised if it is he who gets the bench spot – particularly with his back-row abilities since the injury to Sean O’Brien – ahead of Henderson while James Ryan and Devin Toner get the nod to start.