LAST ORDERS AT the last chance saloon.
Ireland will not be back in New Zealand to play a Test match until 2024 and it is safe to assume that this collection of players will not feature here in green again.
As if to emphasise that bruising reality, Richie McCaw and Brian O’Driscoll are the only players who will start on Saturday that began the Hamilton Test match in 2006.
Six years ago Ireland were reeling after a try in the opening minutes by Doug Howlett.
They came back in barnstorming fashion and led 16-8 at half-time only for solid kicking from Luke McAllister and a late try from second-row Troy Flavell.
Ireland took another scoreline advantage into the break in Christchurch last week but an Aaron Smith try on 43 minutes soon saw to that.
A stirring Irish fightback ensued and the All Blacks were reduced to 14 men with 72 minutes gone and Jonny Sexton sizing up a penalty to put Ireland 22-19 ahead.
It was, we were assured, the team’s best ever chance to beat New Zealand.
The scoreline was flipped on its head by Dan Carter’s late drop goal but the third Test represents another golden opportunity to break the winless streak (26 games) against the AB’s.
Loss of big names
He may have tried to hide it, down in Queenstown when he heard the news, but Dan Carter’s hamstring injury brightened Declan Kidney’s week.
Aaron Cruden has played well with the Chiefs this Super Rugby season but he lacks the skill and presence of the peerless Carter.
Hosea Gear is an explosive presence on the wing and Ireland would love a similar player on their left wing but the Highlanders man and Ben Smith are fifth and sixth choices for their country.
Richard Kahui and Cory Jane are injured while Julian Savea and Zac Guildford have been allowed to kick their heels now that the Steinlager Series trophy has been placed in the cabinet beside the World Cup.
Brian O’Driscoll races free for a try at Waikato Stadium in 2006. (AP Photo/NZPA, Ross Setford)
However it is the world champion’s back row that gives Ireland the biggest cause for optimism.
If Ireland were told, in May, that New Zealand would be missing Jerome Kaino and Keiran Read from the back of their pack, and McCaw had been shifted to Number 8, O’Driscoll and his colleagues would have signed up for the tour with indelible ink.
The only shame is that the game comes at the end of a season that began in early July, 2011.
What the players say
Keith Earls is soft-spoken but his words are full of self-belief and daring. Speaking on Thursday in Queenstown, he said:
I was speaking to (former Munster teammate) Rua Tipoki, we met him in Auckland. He said ‘play the men not the jersey’, which is quite right. I think a lot of fellas they play against the jersey not the men.
Just because they’re playing in the All Black jersey it doesn’t mean they’re any better than us, even though they have achieved a lot internationally. But I think that’s us, typical Irish putting ourselves down – but I think we’ve good belief from last week.
Sean O’Brien’s performances in the first two matches have unsettled the All Blacks. He has been unfairly whistled for penalties in both games despite being on his feet a the breakdown.
The Tullow man says thoughts of holidays are far from the players’ minds. He declared:
This is a final for us, and we have to go out and perform. There’s no point in putting out a performance like last week and then going out and getting hockeyed this week. That’s not where we want to be.
We want to be at that level and further, and improve on what we did last week, and I think that’s been the mindset this week as well.
What rhymes with Waikato?
Ireland matched their words with deeds last week.
If they can, once again, achieve the level of intensity they showed on that brisk night in Christchurch it could lead to songs that would be sang with glee when the green army arrive older and wiser in 2024.
You can follow all the action of the third Test on Saturday morning (from 8am onwards) by following our live updates from Waikato Stadium.
*Catch all the latest news, comments and goings on from the Irish camp by following @patmccarry on Twitter and by regularly checking in with TheScore.ie.