Ireland, entertainment factor, make Chicago true test for All Blacks


It is a fine line New Zealand Rugby is treading by taking their first spring tour Test with Ireland to Chicago - it is a test in more ways than one.

While I applaud the initiative -- Chicago is really good business -- from New Zealand Rugby, there is also a need for some caution.

Chicago is heart and soul of the USA Irish community. There are a lot of Irish people there and Ireland is the perfect team, especially in the form they have been in in recent years to go there and play against the All Blacks.

Eighty percent of the people going to the game will be passionate Irish fans and they will be looking for Ireland to win. It will be a home game for Ireland and they will treat it like a home game because the fans will be right behind them.

It is great the game will be played in front of a new viewing public, while New Zealand Rugby can also make some serious money.

But the danger is that if the game is a drawn-out affair without the razzle-dazzle, the American audience will switch off because they are not passionately behind either side - they could say 'I'll go for the black team or the green team'.

What they want to see is athletic talent, plenty of tries and some big hits.

But if the games fails to deliver, a lot of spectators will be confused by the laws; they won't understand what's going on. If there's a collapsed scrum they'll say, 'what the hell's that?' And at a pile-up at a breakdown it will be a case of 'what are these guys doing?' It won't look organised and the defensive structure won't be obvious -- they won't get it.

There's a big chance a 21-17 scoreline would leave the American public saying, 'what was that?' That's the danger, even though you have two of the best rugby teams in the world; it's the complexity of the game that will be hard for them to understand.

The difference between this game and Chicago last time against the USA Eagles in 2014 was that that was a one-sided affair and no American wants to go and watch his team get thrashed. They are a proud nation who want to go and see their team do well and they will have that chance the day before when the Eagles play the Maori All Blacks.

What the NZR are trying to do is dent the outside by throwing a few stones and create a bit of impact. The diehard rugby fans that live inside America know about this game but 95 percent of sport-loving Americans haven't got a clue about rugby. What NZR are doing is picking up some low-hanging fruit, putting some coppers in the bank by playing a credible top-tier nation. It's a good thing.

We look at what the USA Eagles do from time to time and we tend to think that for a country of 330 million people they should be a hell of a lot better than what they are. But their talented kids usually play other sports and rugby picks up the leftovers, or people who get involved in the social side of it.

A lot of people are trying to lift interest in the game there. The professional league has started and people like Mils Muliaina and Jamie Mackintosh have been involved in it; at some point they are going to create some good players who do some special things and will create some interest.

To achieve that they need to have high level rugby played and what better team to do that than the All Blacks against the likes of Ireland? At least they can see what a real Test match is all about.

It will be a great occasion. All Steve Hansen and the players have to do is just worry about playing the game.

It will be interesting to see how Ireland play - they are a dangerous side. We need to treat them with the respect they deserve.

The All Blacks have found themselves in a position where they are always trying to improve. The culture within the All Blacks at the moment is about how can they get better; how do they improve and find that perfect game?

Every game they win now extends their world record and the expectation is such that they have got to a level where no-one wants to let them down and there are really good noises coming out of the camp. The competition for spots is huge.

Beauden Barrett didn't start as the first-choice No.10 this year. TJ Perenara wasn't the second-best half-back and now he's kicked on. The midfield is the same. There are so many good positional stories inside the All Blacks camp that whoever gets that jersey they will step up to it; that has come about because of the depth in the squad.

Talking of competition, it was a great finale to the domestic season with the Mitre 10 finals at the weekend.

I was really pleased for Bryn Gatland and the North Harbour team. How Waikato ever let Gatland go is unbelievable. His composure, to put what was a pretty ugly dropped goal through, resulted in a pretty special moment for that young side.

I think that side has the makings of a really good team. Michael Little impresses me. You go through players like Damian McKenzie, Nehe Milner-Skudder and even Walter Little [Michael's father] and they are not the biggest men in the world but they have got some talent and fight.

And Michael Little showed that fight in the final - he wasn't going to give up. The only downside for him is that he is not as big as Sonny Bill Williams. But he's got the mongrel, the fight and the heart.

The skipper, lock Chris Vui, has been injured for the last couple of years but this year he has been absolutely immense. He's been a great leader for them and done really well.

North Harbour's problem now they are in the Premiership is that they have to get some sort of consistency and flow-on. They want to keep that core of players together and whoever comes in as coach now that Steve Jackson has moved on to the Blues has to retain that consistency.

The perfect example of that sort of consistency is Canterbury. They never change too much. The coaches may come and go but the assistants stay and the team and culture is retained; that's why they've got eight titles in nine years.

It was interesting too, that both coaches, Jackson for North Harbour and Scott Robertson got named as Super Rugby coaches part way through the season and both teams lifted. That's probably players thinking they should make an impression and possibly get a Super Rugby contract.

And I know we've mentioned Richie Mo'unga during the season but he's another 10 to be considered, he is just getting better and better. You can look at where the All Blacks might be in 12 months time but this Mitre 10 Cup consistently throws up players who say, 'hey, don't forget about me'.