Tony Ward: All Blacks on verge of greatness but Ireland must give them battle of their lives to achieve it
There's a debate going on in New Zealand as to whether this is the greatest All Blacks team ever. It's difficult to compare teams across generations, but if Richie McCaw and the class of 2013 do the business at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow, then I think they'll have to go down as the best there has been.
How could you better what this extraordinary group of players look set to pull off tomorrow?
When rugby was first played, it was a game for thinner, scrawnier, lighter men, which offered oodles of space on a field designed for running.
Rugby league parted company with union along the way and soon reduced the numbers per team by two. They did so on the grounds of creating space on a playing field where it was fast disappearing.
Still, union has soldiered on and, while I do fear for its future as the athletes who play the game continue to grow bigger, stronger, faster and fitter, the idea that it too should reduce numbers for the good of the game is consistently undermined by the nation that continually sets the standards for everyone else to follow.
Should they win tomorrow, this All Black squad (bear in mind Tony Woodcock and Dan Carter will be missing) will, having accomplished a perfect year, become the most successful New Zealand side ever. But there's much more to it than that.
They don't just win – they win with style. Of course the Kiwis dig deep when the occasion demands, winning ugly if they have to.
But when Kieran Read, the best player in the world this year, talks of wanting to finish the season in style, he does so without a trace of arrogance.
When he said midweek: "I don't think we're a team that has been playing our best footie in the last two weeks," he was simply being honest. He knows what his side are capable of achieving.
I can't help thinking that had Ireland been to London and Paris over the last fortnight and beaten the English and French on their own patches, we would have erected statues of our rugby heroes on O'Connell Street!
Such are the standards that this All Black generation have set themselves that they were not happy with those two victories.
Under Steve Hansen, their thrilling style of rugby is not an aesthetic thing; it is viewed as the most economical way of winning.
The key components in New Zealand's game are turning over ball, and punishing loose or indiscriminate kicking.
On both counts Ireland have been wayward in the extreme. If Joe Schmidt's men produce a repeat of their displays over the last fortnight, then the Hamilton horror show will be repeated.
Watching New Zealand counter-attack is poetry in motion. The ability and desire to switch the point of attack by way of a couple of 15-yard passes may seem simple, but it is the precision of the pass allied to the injection of pace and appropriate realignment that makes for irresistible rugby that is almost impossible to defend.
The message is simple: surrender possession cheaply, defend narrowly and the hosts will be crushed.
So where to for Ireland? We are huge underdogs, but being the sideshow on our own patch should cut deep.
Schmidt's men need to play from the heart. The reputation of Irish rugby is on the line. A repeat of the Wallaby effort and, to borrow from Brian O'Driscoll, the Kiwis "will post a cricket score".
Every Irish player must first and foremost aim to outplay his opposite number. Units and systems will then work themselves into place. Play the ball and let the grand plan look after itself. If we are to go down again, let's at least 'give it a lash'.
Last week's dismal performance was heartless and soulless. The players know that, so tomorrow should be a mission of redemption.
Not for a minute would I compare the game today with where it was back in '78, when the All Blacks' only hiccup came – as is pretty well recorded – in Limerick.
Munster won, not because they believed they would, but because they bought into the tradition and accepted responsibility for producing the required performance.
That must be the mantra again for the Irish tomorrow. They need a huge display. This squad sold itself short in last weekend's no-show.
The All Blacks stand on the verge of greatness. The very least they deserve, in terms of respect, is the battle of their lives to achieve it.
If Schmidt's men do that, it could be a good day all round. Ireland will likely deliver a much-improved performance, but expect New Zealand to complete the perfect year by 10-plus.