Ireland primed for last tilt at glory
WHEN Declan Kidney was told the New Zealand team yesterday morning in the Ireland team hotel in Queenstown, it was illuminating to watch his reaction.
The Ireland coach is known for the implacable front he presents in public -- he tends not to give too much away in the face of defeat or triumph. But when he heard Aaron Cruden was starting at 10 in place of Dan Carter, and Kieran Read was also on the casualty list, there was just a flicker of emotion.
In a series where Ireland have had every national stereotype from 'potato eaters' to 'Guinness swillers' flung in their faces, even the Kiwis have acknowledged that the 'luck of the Irish' has not really applied.
Bedevilled by injury before and during this expedition to take on the world champions, they had a historic result ripped from their grasp in Christchurch courtesy of some questionable officiating and a drop goal from Carter that, had it been struck cleanly, could well have been blocked.
Yesterday, finally, they caught a break.
Cruden is an extremely talented young player, some would say gifted, but New Zealand are simply not the same proposition without Carter. He excels in every facet of the game, even in oft-overlooked areas such as restarts, and that feeds confidence throughout the side -- just as it did last weekend when his team-mates trusted their 10 to pull them out of the fire.
Not having Carter does not suddenly make Ireland favourites but it does reduce the sense of impregnability that has helped to influence their continuing hold over the Irish. Cruden will have his mettle tested tomorrow.
Then there is the back-row. Read has become one of the key figures in the side, up alongside Carter and captain Richie McCaw in terms of influence and inspiration.
McCaw switches in to No 8, a position he has played regularly in the past, meaning (with our green glass half-full) that New Zealand are suddenly less effective in two positions, No 8 and No 7.
Sam Cane looks like a hell of a prospect but in his first start for his country can cannot hope to compete with the savvy of McCaw had he been at No 7, while Liam Messam is another fine, physical player coming into the blindside. However, the likes of Donnacha Ryan will remember Messam having his hands full with Munster during that epic clash in Thomond Park in 2008.
Of course, this revamped trio could be exceptional tomorrow and it is up to the Irish back-row to negate them but, whatever way you look at it, Messam-Cane-McCaw does not look as threatening as their first-choice combination of Kaino-McCaw-Read from last year.
Luke Romano comes into the second-row to win his first cap -- somewhat surprising given the excellent contribution of Brodie Retallick over the last two weekends when he looked like a young Chris Jack.
Steve Hansen has also chosen to re-jig his wide men but could gain here with the footballing nous of Ben Smith and the searing power of Hosea Gear who, were he Irish, would have closer to 80 caps than the eight he currently holds.
The flip-side for Kidney is that he has lost two of his most influential players from last weekend -- No 8 Jamie Heaslip and centre Gordon D'Arcy.
It is a big leap of faith to expect Peter O'Mahony and Paddy Wallace to have the same influence tomorrow -- particularly with Wallace injected straight into the side after a three-day haul from Portugal.
To achieve their first victory over New Zealand, or to even come close, Ireland have to replicate their ferocity in defence and at the breakdown while significantly improving their efficiency on kick-offs, for and against.
The emasculation of the home scrum in the second half last weekend stung the All Blacks' pride and will provoke a considerable backlash -- the capacity of Mike Ross, Cian Healy and Rory Best to deal with that onslaught will have a huge say on the result.
As will the interpretations of Romain Poite. The Frenchman does not carry a reputation that inspires confidence among Irish rugby supporters but all that Kidney and his players will demand is equality of interpretation -- not too much to ask after the events of last weekend.
However, as was the case before the second Test, a great deal will once again come down to attitude -- a theme amongst the Ireland players all week.
Before Christchurch, you could sense it bubbling around the squad, a deep sense of disappointment at their capitulation in Eden Park creating an edge among the players which blew up more than once in training and was reminiscent of the feelings that prevailed before the World Cup win over Australia last year.
They cannot depend on New Zealand complacency this time around -- and Ireland should not have to rely on perceived slight to produce their best performance if they want to become a consistent international force.
However, the fact remains that they are better when they are angry and need to increase last week's hunger and in-your-face defiance to prosper tomorrow.
Traditionally, the final game of the summer tour, the last outing of the season, is always the most challenging as players can't help but sniff the Sangria and impending holidays.
That need for a break is accentuated by the 12-month slog this season has been, and thus it was encouraging to hear the likes of Donncha O'Callaghan and Sean O'Brien become animated this week when stressing how no thought can be given to anything beyond this final fling.
One thing that will undoubtedly help Kidney as he seeks to press motivational triggers is the mouth of Hansen, whose ill-advised comment that Ireland played to their full ability last weekend, was compounded by his utterance yesterday that "the All Blacks are expected to win every game ... we wouldn't want to change that expectation".
Hansen's post-match observation last week could be explained by adrenalin and pique at the near-miss as well as what happened to his scrum, while he may not have meant to sound as condescending as he did yesterday, but these are still things Kidney and the players can use to fire themselves up.
As is the fact that, injuries notwithstanding, Hansen is clearly using this match to throw the eye over the likes of Romano, Messam and the wingers ahead of the 'real business' of 'the Rugby Championship' later this summer.
Plenty of motivation there.
Ireland have proven themselves again to be a quality international outfit with their display in Christchurch, but this time the All Blacks are waiting for them.
The Irish have the ability and the determination to produce another huge performance tomorrow but it may still not be enough.
If Kidney and his players do manage to pull off this victory, it will rank far above any other achievement in Irish rugby history.