Saturday 18 November 2017

Tony Ward: We must hit hard, early to rattle Kiwis

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Following the Auckland annihilation, Brian O'Driscoll said "the beauty of this tour is that we get three cracks at it."

Given the 32-point losing margin in that first Test, there were some raised eyebrows at that statement.

Well, a week on it was a very different post-match interview as a devastated O'Driscoll lamented the one that got away.

The very least a rejuvenated Ireland warranted in Christchurch was a draw. Perhaps the All Blacks subconsciously took the foot off the pedal in the emotion of the Christchurch occasion, but Ireland were unrecognisable just seven days on.

Yet, after the game, you feared the worst for the third Test -- we had blown our best opportunity and it is always hard to maintain focus in the final week of any tour as minds begin to drift towards home.

But yesterday, there was real encouragement when All Black head coach Steve Hansen announced his XV for Hamilton.

The strength in depth of New Zealand rugby is scary, but when you make six changes, it is a big task to get a new team to gel in a matter of days, no matter how promising the replacements are.

For that reason, it is imperative we start tomorrow as we did a week ago, that is taking the game to the hosts. We must rattle the All Black cage early and plant similar seeds of doubt to Christchurch.

While two of Hansen's six changes are of necessity -- New Zealand will feel the loss of out-half Dan Carter and No 8 Kieran Read -- Aaron Cruden is a class act. But he is not Carter. And Read, like Richie McCaw, is one of this All Black team's talismen.

I cannot recall when a New Zealand side last ran out for a major Test without either McCaw wearing No 7 or Carter at No 10. McCaw will be present, but wearing the No 8 jersey in a much-changed, though hugely energetic back-row.

In claiming publicly that the All Blacks will be just as dangerous without Carter, Ireland coach Declan Kidney is, of course, saying the right thing. But in the team room, his take will be very different. He will be fully aware that Carter's absence gives his side a far greater chance.

In his line-up, Kidney has looked for minimal disruption, swapping Peter O'Mahony for Jamie Heaslip at No 8 and Paddy Wallace for Gordon D'Arcy at No 12, necessitating precious little reorganisation.

Favour

The decision to go with Keith Earls in favour of the more defensive-minded Andrew Trimble suggests that Ireland want to take the game to the opposition.

The world champions were poor last week, not because they didn't want to hit the heights of Auckland, but because we didn't let them -- and therein lies the key tomorrow.

This time, the onus is on Ireland to replicate last week's performance.

The All Blacks have been blasted with both barrels by a highly demanding media and public. They will turn up mentally as they did in Auckland -- but it is up to Ireland to stop them reaching the levels of the first Test.

Confidence in the travelling squad at the end of a long hard season has received a timely boost. Bear in mind, too, it could be our iconic skipper's last blast at immortality in the fixture. Could there be a better incentive to blow the ugliest record in world rugby?

Take Ireland to deliver, but New Zealand to make it three from three.

Irish Independent

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