Kidney keeps faith in nearly men to go step further in quest for All Blacks scalp
GIVEN the quality of last weekend's performance against the world champions in Christchurch, there was always going to be a 'same again' imperative heading into the third Test in Hamilton.
Ordinarily, in the final game of end-of-season tours there is an argument for an injection of fresh legs to help summon the energy for one final push, and after 12 months of toil due to preparations for the World Cup, that case could have been made strongly for Saturday.
However, this is where the worth of the player management programme comes into focus, while coach Declan Kidney always has faith in his team continuing to improve with more time together.
The contention of New Zealand coach Steve Hansen that Ireland played as well as they could in Christchurch has received a fair bit of airplay this week, but the Irish players know they can get better, with a particular emphasis on restarts and maintaining possession.
So, continuity is king for Kidney who has kept his changes to a minimum, bringing in replacements for the injured Gordon D'Arcy and Jamie Heaslip and restoring Keith Earls to the side after he was forced out of the second Test.
15 -- Rob Kearney
The New Zealand media claim he is "not living up to the hype he has generated in Europe this season", but Kearney has been class at the back, unflappable in everything he does -- even when blatantly targeted as he was by Israel Dagg last weekend.
14 -- Fergus McFadden
After a rough night in Eden Park, McFadden was far tighter in Christchurch. Clearly more comfortable in the centre, he may be a long way off Tommy Bowe as a 14 but he does not want for heart, pace or industry.
13 -- Brian O'Driscoll
Looked far more comfortable at outside centre last weekend, the principle reason Earls was not brought back into midfield. The All Blacks will have studied the tapes and seen just how effective Ireland's captain was last weekend, but this is O'Driscoll's last crack at them and he will not leave it behind him.
12 -- Paddy Wallace
The big gamble. He was called out as a specialist replacement for D'Arcy and has enjoyed arguably his finest season with Ulster. However, going from a Portugal beach straight into a slot against the All Blacks is a huge ask. There was a good case to be made for McFadden at 12, but O'Driscoll and Ireland looked most threatening when Jonathan Sexton was playmaking outside Ronan O'Gara and Wallace is earmarked for that second five-eighth role.
11 -- Keith Earls
Earls has stated his desire to be considered solely as a centre, but as he showed during the World Cup, he is a high-quality left winger. Has to impose himself physically as neither of the Irish wingers are the most intimidating size-wise.
10 -- Jonathan Sexton
It would have been intriguing to see him start at 12 inside O'Gara, given his superb cameo there in Christchurch, but Sexton was going pretty well at out-half before that. Looked a lot more confident in the second Test than in the first but must get his restarts right.
9 -- Conor Murray
Great attitude and great response after he was heavily criticised for his uncertain first Test display. Murray said after Christchurch that a scrum-half is only as good as the quality of his ruck ball and that is an area where the All Blacks will be ferocious on Saturday. Must continue to impose himself physically.
1 -- Cian Healy
Having an immense series, the All Blacks would happily welcome him into their front-row.
2 -- Rory Best
One of the reasons Best is such an excellent scrummager is because he is left-footed, making it easier to push than strike on Ireland put-ins. It has been a long season for Best, but he has one more big one in him and line-out accuracy will feature prominently in that.
3 -- Mike Ross
Completing a first-choice front-row that is now set in stone, Ross made a sensational return after his hamstring-enforced break. The All Blacks will try to get to him, but he is a hard man to rattle.
4 -- Dan Tuohy
A review of the tape again highlighted just how much Tuohy raised his game from his no-show in Auckland a week earlier. There was still a powerful argument for starting Donncha O'Callaghan, given his big impact in Christchurch, so Tuohy needs to back up Kidney's faith again.
5 -- Donnacha Ryan
No contest for his position as enforcer and line-out organiser. A leader in the pack.
6 -- Kevin McLaughlin
Carries the potential to become a Richard Hill-like figure for Ireland. Completely unfazed by the big names in the All Blacks back-row, McLaughlin is getting reward for a strong end of season.
7 -- Sean O'Brien
New Zealand went after him to no avail. He has been the best back-row on display, for either side.
8 -- Peter O'Mahony
Heaslip is a massive loss but O'Mahony, who did well at No 8 against the Barbarians, continues to grow into the green shirt and gets in ahead of Chris Henry after making a good impact last weekend.