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All Blacks ramp up pressure ahead of test against Ireland

November 16, 2018
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New Zealand's Damian McKenzie skips past the challenge of England's Sam Underhill during the rugby union international match between England and New Zealand at Twickenham stadium in London, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has wound up pressure on his New Zealand-born Ireland counterpart Joe Schmidt ahead of Saturday’s test in Dublin between rugby’s top-ranked teams, arguing the winner will be indisputably the best in the world.

The All Blacks have enjoyed an almost unbroken reign at No. 1 since rankings began and Ireland has climbed steadily to No. 2 under Schmidt, beating the All Blacks for the first time in 115 years with a victory in Chicago in 2016. A year out from the ninth Rugby World Cup, the test in Dublin offers rugby fans a sample of what a 2019 final could potentially look like.

Ireland won’t overtake New Zealand for the No. 1 ranking even with a win on Saturday, but Hansen had a reason for suggesting they might take some favoritism into the World Cup from such a victory.

Pressure. The two-time defending World Cup champion All Blacks are used to bearing the pressure of being the No. 1 team, of being the benchmark in world rugby and the team every other nation wants to beat to prove itself.

Ireland, more content in the role of underdog, has never had to bear that pressure and Hansen would like Schmidt’s squad to carry a share of it into this match and perhaps beyond.

Hansen is also, calculatedly, increasing the pressure on his own team. In portraying this as a winner-takes-all match, he is giving his players an early taste of the pressure they will face at the World Cup in Japan next year.

The All Blacks coach concedes his team has not played at its best this season, though it has lost only once: to South Africa by two points during the Rugby Championship. Hansen said the All Blacks have been trying to incorporate new tactics into their game and that means they haven’t achieved their usual crispness or fluency.

“We are not holding too much back at the moment,” Hansen said. “We are probably introducing new stuff which is making us a bit scrappy, and it takes a while to get that.

“We had a year that everyone said wasn’t great, but we still managed to win a lot of games and we are doing the same thing this year. We are finding out a lot about ourselves, our selections, how we want to play the game. From a Rugby World Cup point of view, we are on track.”

Ireland may head into the test with grudges to settle. Coach Schmidt admitted he is still smarting from their 24-22 loss to New Zealand in Dublin in 2013, when the All Blacks rallied from a 22-7 deficit and scored the winning try in injury time.

Ireland went on to achieve an historic 40-29 win in Chicago two years ago, but lost 21-9 in a contentious return match in Dublin two weeks later.

“I’d be delighted if we can be as competitive as the last three times we’ve played them,” Schmidt said. “The fact that the points differential between us is so narrow ... the game in 2013: I’m still bleeding from that.

“Chicago was a great band aid, but two weeks later we were very, very much in the game, and it was very tough, very, very tough.”

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