A quick glance at the key statistics make for unpleasant reading if you’re an Irish fan; 27 games, 103 tries conceded and 0 wins. Ireland’s record against New Zealand is abysmal. While there have been a couple of near misses over the years, opportunities to claim a maiden win over the All Blacks have been few and far between. In 1973 an Ireland team including Mike Gibson, Willie John McBride and Fergus Slattery drew 10-10 at Lansdowne Roadd, 21 consecutive defeats since then somewhat highlights the irrelevance of that game. More recently, Ireland suffered a narrow 22-19 loss in Christchurch last summer. A result was snatched from their grasp courtesy of a late Dan Carter drop goal. Keen to avoid another tight game, the following week New Zealand inflicted upon Ireland a 60-0 drubbing in the third test, their heaviest ever loss.
It’s something of an understatement to say so, but for Ireland to stand any chance of an upset on Sunday they require the All Blacks to be more than a little off-colour. Unfortunately for Ireland, this New Zealand team arrive in Dublin with the opportunity to complete a 14 test ‘perfect’ season, a bid which would see them become the first team to finish a calendar year unbeaten. And even more worryingly for Ireland, they appear intent on marking the occasion with a performance to justify this question posed by the New Zealand Herald; is this All Blacks team the greatest ever?
Joe Schmidt is boosted by a trio of Leinster players passed fit in to start in the backline. Rob Kearney (ribs), Brian O’Driscoll (calf) and Jonathan Sexton (hamstring) all took full part in training on Friday morning and are joined in the backs by Gordon D’Arcy, with Schmidt opting for his experience over Luke Marshall who returns to play for Ulster on Friday night. Dave Kearney, scorer of two tries on his debut against Samoa, and Tommy Bowe are the wings. Conor Murray returns at scrum-half with Eoin Reddan out of the 23. Isaac Boss and Ian Madigan are the half-back replacements, while Luke Fitzgerald’s versatility to cover across the backline means he takes the final spot on the bench.
There are no changes in the pack from the Australia game, but Declan Fitzgerald covers tight-head rather than Stephen Archer. Schmidt and John Plumtree will be looking for a reaction and huge improvement from the front-five in particular, which was humiliated by Australia.
Steve Hansen has made seven changes, two injury-enforced, to the New Zealand XV which beat England last weekend. Dan Carter and Tony Woodcock were ruled out of the clash meaning Aaron Cruden and Wyatt Crockett start at fly-half and prop respectively, with Beauden Barrett and Ben Franks amongst the replacements.
Not that any of the other changes weaken an ominously strong New Zealand line-up at all! Cory Jane returns on the right wing, replacing Charles Piutau, and in the pack Luke Romano starts with Brodie Retallick dropping to the bench. Steven Luatau comes in to an impressive back-row which includes Captain Richie McCaw and Kieran Read. Kevin Mealamu drops out of the squad with Andrew Hore the starting Hooker and Dane Coles kept in reserve. Back-row forward Sam Cane and uncapped scrum-half TJ Perenara are on the bench.
All Eyes On
I’m definitely clutching at straws for any sign of a good omen, but 13 has never been an unlucky number for Brian O’Driscoll. Not only will Sunday be O’Driscoll’s 128th international cap, equalling the Irish record previously held by Ronan O’Gara, but it will also be his 13th, and final, game in Green playing the All Blacks. Far from his best in Ireland’s lethargic display against the Wallabies last weekend, O’Driscoll needs no extra motivation in his last shot at an elusive New Zealand scalp after twelve disappointing outcomes thus far.
You could single out any number of key players for the All Blacks such is their strength in depth across all positions, but there was a time when Dan Carter’s absence would weaken the All Blacks at fly-half. But his niggling injuries this season coupled with the development of Aaron Cruden in his stead lessens the impact of Carter’s withdrawal. Cruden is much more than an able deputy now, but a natural talent who’s developed this season as the leading challenger to Carter’s position two years out from the World Cup. His game management has improved significantly, but he’s lost none of the spark which first caught our attention.
Head to head: Jamie Heaslip v Kieran Read
No contest on current form. Read is widely considered the outstanding player on the planet right now, while Heaslip’s international form has slipped below par over the past year. Heaslip admitted to being impressed by Read’s incredible form, highlighting his carrying skills and distribution. The All Black no.8 is a clear favourite for the IRB world player of the year gong, announced in December. Read can be particularly dangerous when mixing it with the backs in wider channels, as seen here collecting a wonderful offload from Charles Piutau to score against France.
Heaslip’s form has been questioned in some quarters, and his role for Ireland has evolved from the destructive ball carrier that once earned him similar praise to that which Read is receiving now. But we shouldn’t underestimate his importance in the contact area. It’s an unselfish role allowing Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony to be more prominent in the loose, but one which could see a rampant Read steal the limelight on Sunday.
No two horse race is ever a certainty but, given their respective preparations, this game is as close to it as you will find in top tier rugby. For Ireland, they’ll want to end this autumn series on a positive note and that means putting in a much improved performance to the one we seen against Australia. For the All Blacks, an unbeaten calendar year beckons with a comprehensive win by a minimum two scores. New Zealand by 17.
By David Blair (@viscount_dave)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images