AND SO, WE move on to the third test and Hamilton.
After an inspiring journey south – to Christchurch; where we came oh so close to a famous win (or a famous draw) and on to Queenstown, the dream venue for a troop of young men who can’t rely on drink to ease the pressure – Ireland are back in the north of the North Island.
The shadow of the first test defeat will loom large, but will be unspoken. The positives of almost getting a monkey off the rugby nation’s back will be extolled.
But that was Christchurch, this is now.
In Hamilton the temperature will be up, the pitch will be firmer and the crowd have grown accustomed to watching a superior brand of rugby.
Whereas the Crusaders have taken their time to find form back in the AMI stadium, up in Waikato, the Chiefs have been turning on the style and it is they who currently hold the coveted mantle of being New Zealand’s best rugby team.
With the evidence of recent weeks, Ireland can be confident of holding their own at the set-piece, but the World Cup holders will be out to prove a few points. They will target Ireland at every facet to try and wrap up a series whitewash before the 60 minute mark.
Here are three areas Ireland must find success in to avoid that outcome.
Peter O’Mahony v Richie McCaw
The All Blacks’ old-reliable and Ireland’s up-and-coming openside flankers have both been shifted to number eight. After Sam Cane’s introduction last week, McCaw showed some rare glimpses of fallibility and his carrying ability was stunted by the switch in position.
We’ve never seen McCaw play eight from the start, though he’s spent his fair share of time there due to mid-game back row reshuffles. O’Mahony has played the role with distinction for Munster and having an out-of-position McCaw in direct opposition will be far less suffocating than having Kieran Read looming high above him.
The Munster man’s selection at the back of the scrum is a gold seal of approval for the work being done by Sean O’Brien on the open side. That’s the argument over, we won’t see O’Brien in any other position for Ireland any time soon.
Jonathan Sexton v Aaron Cruden
In recent weeks it has been Dan Carter’s boot which has kept the All Blacks just out of reach. Even in the first test he landed some astonishing penalties to relax his side before Julian Savea began to run riot.
Aaron Cruden is the golden boy of Kiwi rugby, they won’t want for invention with him on the field. At times he looks like the most gifted player on the planet and he showed in the World Cup that international level is well within his temperament. However, as with any fly-half, he is at his best behind a dominant pack. If Ireland can keep his service scrappy then he will be drawn into zones he would rather avoid. Zones where Jonathan Sexton has distinguished himself with his physicality.
After Sexton’s almost-perfect display of goal kicking last week it will be interesting to see how Cruden copes with that pressure. Piri Weepu has been consigned to the bench, and so, this will be the first time Cruden has been the sole bearer of kicking duties.
As an aside, Ireland have four starters who can take the tee. Rob Kearney, Paddy Wallace and Fergus McFadden are all reliable kickers and, when you add Brian O’Driscoll’s penchant for a crucial drop goal, that points to a decent spread of three-point threats.
Brian O’Driscoll v Conrad Smith
Whereas the the inside centres / second five eights will be an interesting watch too – Paddy v Sonny Bill had a bit of a David v Goliath ring to it – we want to focus in on this match-up between the men who remain the world’s best in their position.
O’Driscoll has (as usual) gone above and beyond the call of duty in recent weeks, putting his body on the line to help shove Ireland towards the impossible dream.
His game should be strengthened in Hamilton with the addition of Keith Earls, a more sure-footed defender on the wing. While the late-season form of Paddy Wallace would suggest that his inside shoulder shouldn’t need more attention than last week.
Sadly, this is likely to be the last time we see these two ’13s’ go head to head.