Fear may allow men in green to restore some respectability
Ireland will be 100 times better than last weekend and that alone should make the All Blacks work for their unbeaten year, writes Eddie Butler
You'd have to go some in Dublin today to find rational backing for an Irish win.
The odd burst of blind loyalty will cut through the cold air, but colder logic spells out a tough day at the Aviva, where there is not even a comfort blanket of good cheer. Ireland's newish rugby home is not a hotbed of unwavering support.
The lads in green are down, no question, and the All Blacks need only this final victory in 2013 to make it even more indubitably a first in the professional age: a tier-one country going through a calendar year with a 100 per cent record. These All Blacks are heading for a special place in the annals of any age, ferocious of determination and magnificently skilful, even in the tightest of corners.
How grand the opponents; how down the Irish. What a different world it was – and not even so very long ago – when Brian O'Driscoll was floating a sublime pass to Simon Zebo. When the winger then backheeled a less accurate pass from Jamie Heaslip into his own hands, and O'Driscoll scored a try early in the second half in Cardiff against Wales. Ireland were 30-3 up in the opening round of the Six Nations of 2013. What could ever possibly go wrong?
Everything, it seems. Six weeks later Ireland were finishing fifth out of the Six, below Italy to whom they lost in their last game, with O'Driscoll sent to the sin-bin for stamping. Over a baker's dozen of years – ever since he scored a hat-trick against France in Paris – he had built a stellar career, one unlikely to be tarnished by a truculent moment in Rome, and his long-lived wholesomeness was acknowledged this month when he picked up an honorary doctorate from Dublin City University.
Unfortunately, he had also picked up a calf strain, an injury to add to the insult of being dropped for the third Lions Test against Australia. The great Dr BOD's farewell to the game is proving more painful than a fairytale ending would have it.
As for the other principal participants in that golden period against Wales, Zebo cracked a bone in his foot while playing – and losing – to Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup. And Heaslip seems to have disappeared too, even though he continues to be selected for Ireland. Like O'Driscoll, he was dropped for that final Lions Test in Australia, and with greater candour than his team-mate declared himself royally "pissed off".
He might well have found himself facing his chagrin earlier, because it was already clear he was not the player of old. The player who replaced him, Toby Faletau, was, and still is, playing in accordance with what is nowadays demanded of the No 8 position. It is an uncompromisingly conspicuous role and Heaslip has slipped out of sight.
It won't help his self-resuscitation that today he is face-to-face with Kieran Read, rated back home as up there with the very best. And New Zealand knows a thing when it comes to compiling lists of top back-rowers. Read is a master without compare of the unlikely pass.
The decline in the Irish players' forces was compounded by – or perhaps went hand in hand with – the termination of their coach's contract. Declan Kidney was out by the end of the first week of April, leaving the much respected Joe Schmidt to prepare Ireland for these November Tests against Samoa, Australia and New Zealand. Ireland saw off the hastily assembled Samoans, but looked in turn horribly unacquainted with each other when it came to the Wallabies.
They have had a full week together since then, sorting out the mechanics of togetherness and drawn tighter by the less tangible prospect of what might happen if they play as badly again today. There is a sound logic to the mechanics – where to stand, when to run and what to tackle (everything) – and there is bound to be an even more galvanising effect from the contemplation of an uncoordinated performance. It will not be given.
Ireland will be 100 times better today, and New Zealand may well find that nerves – even the All Blacks can have them – dampen their efficiency. Does that mean that rising green might ambush imperfect All Black?
You'll have to go some in Dublin to find punters buying into that. But this could be a lot less one-sided than seems possible. Sometimes fear is just what Dr BOD orders.