Peter Jackson column: Ireland look to avoid ‘if only’ against All Blacks

Two rounds of the autumn series gone, two to go and the Six Nations are 3-2 up on the Rugby Championship, the narrowest of leads secured by Wales putting an end to their losing streak against Australia.

Two rounds of the autumn series gone, two to go and the Six Nations are 3-2 up on the Rugby Championship, the narrowest of leads secured by Wales putting an end to their losing streak against Australia.

That advantage, based on Ireland’s home win over Argentina and England edging the Springboks in the opening round, could look very different come Saturday night once the dust has settled on a day when the duel between the hemispheres goes into overdrive.

Italy kick it all off against Australia in Padua followed by Scotland-South Africa at Murrayfield and France-Argentina in Lille. Big games but there can be no disputing the biggest one of all – Ireland v New Zealand at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

Their status at the top of the global pile makes it an occasion unique even by the colourful standards of Irish rugby: No. 2 in the world rankings against No. 1.

As All Blacks’ head coach Steve Hansen readily acknowledges: ‘’Whoever wins will be the best team in the world regardless of rankings. It’ll be a goody.’’

The double World Cup holders are none the worse for the narrowest of squeaks against England at Twickenham last week, emerging largely unscathed from a thriller which left nobody in any doubt that their powers of recovery are as formidable as ever.

To come from 15 points down against super-charged opponents and not concede a single point for almost the last hour of a terrific contest took some doing, even by New Zealand standards. Ireland know all about that, to their considerable cost.

While it is a fact that they have not beaten the All Blacks in a home international, Ireland were never closer than five years ago when Richie McCaw’s team showed incredible discipline and patience to come from a long way behind and change the course of history in stoppage time.

Ireland under Paul O’Connell scored three tries and 21 points in the first 17 minutes, compared to England’s two tries and 15 points in 24 minutes last week. O’Connell and his troops led 21-7 early in the second half and were still ahead at 22-17 when the clock turned red.

Ryan Crotty’s try in the corner, confirmed only after forensic TMO examination to eliminate suspicion of a forward pass, robbed Ireland of a famous win but left them clinging to a draw, however anti-climactic.

Even the most feeble of consolations vanished when Aaron Cruden nailed the conversion at the second attempt after Welsh referee Nigel Owens had penalised Ireland for an early charge.

It leaves Munster still out on their own as the one Irish side to have actually beaten New Zealand on Irish soil, 12-0 at Thomond Park thanks to Christy Cantillon’s try and three goals from Tony Ward, a conversion followed by two drops. And that was 40 years ago.

Crotty’s intervention ensured that the Munster achievement under Donal Canniffe’s astute captaincy has not been matched, let alone surpassed.

As the New Zealander says about his salvage operation at the Aviva: ‘’I’ve pretty much had to apologise to every Irishman I’ve met since then.’’

Thanks to his intervention, the match has gone down as one of the two most talked about ‘if only’ occasions in Irish rugby, if only Johnny Sexton had pushed the game deeper beyond New Zealand’s reach with that second-half penalty.

It probably ranks alongside the earlier ‘if only’ over Rob Saunders missed kick to touch that gave Australia the platform to pick that World Cup quarter-final out of Irish pockets at Lansdowne Road in 1991.   Close encounters of an All Black kind in Dublin – the top three (aggregate losing margin: 3 points)   January 20, 1973 at Lansdowne Road:   Ireland 10, New Zealand 10   Ireland: T Kiernan (Cork Con); T Grace (St Mary’s), M Gibson (North), M Flynn (Wanderers), A McMaster (Ballymena); B McGann (Cork Con), J Moloney (St Mary’s); R McLoughlin (Blackrock), K Kennedy (London Irish), J Lynch (St Mary’s); W J McBride (Ballymena), K Mays (UCD); F Slattery (Blackrock), J Davidson (Dungannon), T Moore (Highfield). Try: Grace. Penalties: McGann 2.   New Zealand: J Karam; B Williams, B Robertson, G Batty, I Hurst; R Burgess, S Going; K Lambert, T Norton, G Whiting; H Macdonald, P Whiting; A Wyllie, I Kirkpatrick, capt., A Sutherland. Tries: Going, Wyllie. Con: Karam.   December 7, 1963 at Lansdowne Road:   Ireland 5, New Zealand 6.   Ireland: T Kiernan (Cork Con); J Fortune (Clontarf), J Walsh (UC Cork), P Casey (UC Dublin), A Duggan (Lansdowne); M English (Lansdowne), J Kelly (UC Dublin, capt); R McLoughlin (Gosforth), R Dawson (Wanderers), P Dwyer (UC Dublin); B Mulcahy (Bective Rangers), W J McBride (Ballymena); N Murphy (Cork Con), P O’Sullivan (Galwegians), E McGuire (UC Galway). Try: Fortune. Conversion: Kiernan.   New Zealand: D Clarke; M Dick, P Little, R Caulton, D Arnold; M Herewini, K Briscoe; W Whineray, capt., D Young, K Gray; A Stewart, C Meads; K Tremain, D Graham, S Meads. Try: Tremain. Penalty: Clarke.   November 24, 2013 at Aviva Stadium:   Ireland 22 New Zealand 24   Ireland: R Kearney; T Bowe, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, D Kearney; J Sexton (I Madigan 76), C Murray; C Healy (J McGrath 69), R Best (S Cronin 14), M Ross (J Fitzpatrick 56); D Toner, P O’Connell, capt; P O.’Mahony (K McLaughlin 56), S O’Brien, J Heaslip. Tries: Murray, Best, R Kearney. Conversions: Sexton 2. Penalty: Sexton.   New Zealand: I Dagg (R Crotty 52); C Jane (B Barrett66), B Smith, M Nonu, J Savea; A Cruden, A Smith; W Crockett (B Franks 60), A Hore (D Coles 42), C Faumuina (O Franks 56); L Romano, L Whitelock; S Luatua (L Messam 56), R McCaw, capt, K Read. Tries: Savea, B Franks, Crotty. Conversions: Cruden 3. Penalty: Cruden.   Greig Laidlaw leads Scotland at Murrayfield eager to put an end to five straight home defeats inflicted by the Springboks since they were last beaten in Edinburgh, eight years ago.

A 21-17 win amounted to a personal triumph for Dan Parks, responsible for every single point from six penalties and a drop.

Of the squad on duty that day, only Laidlaw, then an unused substitute, reappears on Saturday at the head of a team showing six changes from the one that give Fiji a run-around at a packed Murrayfield last week.

The one change behind the scrum sees Huw Jones back in midfield. Gordon Reid and Stuart McInally resume in the front row, Jonny Gray and Ben Toolis in the second and Hamish Watson at openside.

Wales, halfway through what may yet prove to be their first autumn clean sweep, are home to Tonga. England face Japan at Twickenham and Italy’s timely win over Georgia last week will strengthen belief in their ability to give Australia more than a run for their money.