Date: 23rd June, 2012
Kick-off: 08:35am (BST)
Referee: Romain Poite
Venue: Waikato Stadium, Hamilton
Coming off a serious scare and shorn of influential world-beaters Dan Carter and Kieran Read, this is as vulnerable as the All Blacks get. The hosts were truly rocked by Ireland’s manic, aggressive commitment last weekend in Christchurch and an evidently annoyed Steve Hansen has wrung some changes in a bid to finish this series on a high.
Waikato Chiefs playmaker Aaron Cruden fills the coveted fly half spot, while the back row takes an entirely new appearance – skipper Richie McCaw starting at No. 8, flanked by Sam Cane and Liam Messam. Hosea Gear and Ben Smith are handed the wing berths, with Luke Romano primed for a Test debut at lock. In short, there is a great deal of unfamiliarity about this side but, then again, they faced adversity during last autumn’s World Cup, too. That ended up quite well.
Despite eventually succumbing to an excruciating 22-19 defeat at the death, the Irish won a lot of hearts with their wholehearted performance in the second Test. There was immense effort and industry across the board, although the sheer physicality of the contest took its toll. Promising Munsterman Peter O’Mahoney will guide the scrum in the palpable absence of Jamie Heaslip and Ulster’s Paddy Wallace becomes the third inside centre in three matches thanks to Gordon D’Arcy’s calf strain.
Keith Earls, full of verve at Eden Park, recovers from a shoulder complaint to usurp Andrew Trimble on the left wing for what is possibly Ireland’s biggest ever chance to take a Kiwi scalp. Declan Kidney’s cohort need to dig very deep but can certainly harbour hope in Hamilton.
What to Expect:
Something far livelier than your average dead-rubber. The series may have slipped away, but heaps of pride remains, and will be more than enough to incite another awesome showing from Ireland. Brian O’Driscoll called for “controlled abandon” last week and will want something similar, placing a great deal of onus on field position and ferocious defence. Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton must ace their game-management examination and compel the set-piece to excel.
As a side that prides itself on clinical attacking, New Zealand’s return of a single try from Aaron Smith after 59% of possession and 62% of territory was close to inexplicable. An off-night for Sonny Bill Williams won’t be repeated and, with Cruden pulling the strings, there will be a lot of midfield traffic aimed at Wallace from first-phase. Ireland have to stand firm there and make the Kiwis’ rookie half-backs conjure Plan B.
Head to Head: Aaron Cruden & Jonathan Sexton
Two truly precocious performers, these two have an amazing amount of talent between them. 23 year-old Cruden was not afforded any game-time in the Christchurch nail-biter, but showed enough glimmers of class in Auckland from the bench to suggest that he will pose a big threat. Will want to ride Super 15 form and ensure New Zealand do not miss the irrepressible Carter too much. A tough transition from mercurial prodigy to seasoned international beckons.
Having comprehensively made that step over the past two seasons, Sexton has been exceptional this month and might shine even brighter this time out thanks to the hosts’ weakened back row. Composed kicking is crucial but do not be surprised if he tries to stretch the play too.
Ones to Watch: Owen Franks & Sean O’Brien
Franks junior will be a fixture in the All Blacks set-up for the foreseeable future and is hugely dependable around the park, very rarely bullied at set-piece and partial to the odd barnstorming carry – beyond the call of duty for the regular tighthead. This week, however, he faces a buoyant opponent in Cian Healey, who battered Ben Franks at the death with some new-found fight in the scrum. Family honour can be restored by baby brother from the off.
Cunning is a key trait in openside play that O’Brien is developing at a rapid rate. Thankfully, the lessons he is learning at ruck-time are not compromising his barnstorming contributions in the loose, which have been simply brilliant. Faces Cane instead of McCaw, which won’t scare him. Nothing seems to.
Very tough one to call, but the weight of history will be heavy on Ireland’s shoulders – perhaps even more so having nearly made it last weekend. Numerous changes to the New Zealand side do not weaken its overall strength too drastically. On the other hand, Heaslip is a big loss for the tourists and means that O’Mahoney, O’Brien and Kevin McLaughlin have a mountain to climb at the end of a tough trip. 80 minutes too far for this brave team. New Zealand by 15