THEY’RE HERE. AGAIN.
New Zealand, the All Blacks, whatever you want to call them, they are the world number one, the World Champions and they’ve never been on a hotter streak than they have been this year.
It’s been a long week of build up since Ireland fell 32 – 15 to Australia. So by now you no doubt have heard – over and over again – that this New Zealand side could etch their name in history as the first professional team to end a season with a 100% winning record.
Last week at Twickenham was the World Cup winners’ major focus on this spring tour. Now, having avenged the 2012 defeat that left them reeling over the southern hemisphere summer, they view complacency as their biggest danger.
The seven changes which head coach Steve Hansen has made from the London victory is an effort to freshen up the playing personnel in both body and mind. Four of the tight five have been switched including an all new front row – Hansen’s confidence in his props must surely have been given a massive boost after witnessing Ireland’s travails against the Wallabies.
Dan Carter is one of two enforced absentees and the stellar out-half will be replaced by 28 times capped Aaron Cruden who has helped steer the Waikato Chiefs to two consecutive Super Rugby champions. A weakness? Perish the thought.
After a week which Ireland spent worrying over the fitness of Rob Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll and Jonathan Sexton, New Zealand’s man mountain of winger Julian Savea pulled up with knee struggle on Friday but, so far, is still hoping to wreak as much havoc on Ireland as he did on his debut 18 months ago.
Savea, erm, lends a hand to Francis Saili ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan
The jewels in Hansen’s crown however, are his back row. The world’s in-form player, Kieran Read will operate in tandem with captain Richie McCaw while 22-year-old Steven Luatua will hope to further enhance his reputation as a robust and skillful blindside.
While the whole country has been dazzled by the sleek black get-up of the visitors, Ireland have been slowly stewing. So much so that Cian Healy broke ranks and spoke his mind of a ‘hate’ for the haka. McCaw yesterday tried to laugh off the cultural sideswipe, but he must have equally been laughing on the inside – ‘wait’ll the boys here this’.
The manner of Ireland’s four try to nil defeat to Australia stung all the more because their peers and the captain immediately pointed to a lack of intensity. That certainly won’t be lacking come 14.00 today, we’re assured. But there were more issues at the centre of last Saturday’s shocker and Joe Schmidt and Les Kiss have pleaded for time and patience while they fine tune this under-performing unit.
In the mean time Schmidt has for the most part reverted to what he knows best for this, the toughest Test in rugby, with 16 Leinster players in his 23 including Dave Kearney winning his full debut and his second cap. If there is a surprise in the selection, it’s the miraculous recoveries of Sexton [hamstring] and Rob Kearney [rib] after both were helped off the field of play eight short days ago.
From the outside it seems like a gamble, yet both came through yesterday’s run out on Lansdowne Road with no issues. If something should happen to Racing Metro’s prize possession after kick-off, then the responsibility of pulling Ireland’s strings will once again fall to Ian Madigan despite an ineffective second 40 minutes last time out.
We all know Ireland have never beaten the All Blacks. And the force forming the opposition today looks too irresistible to change that form guide.
Nobody believes this ‘work-in-progress’ Ireland side are capable of causing an upset. Except for the players, and maybe, just maybe, that’s the best possible scenario an Irish team can take into a sporting event.
Ireland: R Kearney; T Bowe, B O’Driscoll, G D’Arcy, D Kearney; J Sexton, C Murray; C Healy, R Best, M Ross; D Toner, P O’Connell (Capt.); P O’Mahony, S O’Brien, J Heaslip.Replacements: S Cronin, J McGrath, D Fitzpatrick, M McCarthy, K McLaughlin, I Boss, I Madigan, L Fitzgerald.
New Zealand: I Dagg; C Jane, B Smith, M Nonu, J Savea; A Cruden, A Smith: W Crockett, A Hore, C Faumuina; L Romano, S Whitelock; S Luatua, R McCaw (Capt.) K Read.
Replacements: D Coles, B Franks, O Franks, B Retallick, S Cane, TJ Perenara, B Barrett, R Crotty.