Kidney's men gird their loins for a final effort
JUST ONE more almighty effort required against the All Blacks who do, perhaps, look a little less mighty without Dan Carter. Hope springs eternal and all that, though of course, missing half a dozen active Lions through injury, Ireland themselves are being stretched, if not quite to breaking point.
Jamie Heaslip is a huge loss, for his phenomenal work-rate, rugby smarts and leadership. Many of the Munster cognoscenti believe number eight might ultimately be Peter O’Mahony’s best position, but it’s a big ask to emulate what Heaslip brings to the mix.
O’Mahony created Ireland’s one clean line break of the game last week with his clever inside shoulder line and offload to Jonathan Sexton as part of a very useful impact in the last quarter after Kevin McLaughlin had run himself to a standstill carrying, tackling and clearing out. Now though, one or possibly both will have to play the full 80, with Chris Henry obliged to come in from the cold for his first outing on tour.
Paddy Wallace might be regarded as even colder, but will be renewing an old partnership with Brian O’Driscoll and has both the experience and the form this season to cope.
The tight five, and especially Mike Ross after his first outing since the Heineken Cup final last week, ought to be the better for the experience. As Ross said yesterday, Romain Poite tends to favour the superior scrum, not adding no matter how they achieve it, and forecasted that the All Blacks scrum is sure to react angrily to something of a pummelling last week after they exchanged the Franks’ brothers (Brad Thorn describes Owen as the best tight-head he ever played behind).
In what are forecast to be very wet conditions, the scrum’s influence will be even more pronounced. Ominously too, Poite has done Irish sides few favours in recent times, and his decision to yellow card Nathan White in the endgame of the Rabo final was one of the season’s worst decisions.
That said, Seán O’Brien described him as “a very good referee” yesterday, also pointing out he tended to favour the attacking team at the breakdown. Poite certainly gives the impression he won’t necessarily be swayed by home crowds, but in any event, the French official is sure to have a significant bearing on proceedings.
The All Blacks have been seriously discommoded by the loss of both Carter and Kieran Read, not least at restart time. Yet, there could be a better balance to their back-row than last week. Even dropping the ball three times, at number eight in the second half last week, Richie McCaw showed what a quality, driving force he remains for the All Blacks.
His long-term successor at openside Sam Cane worked himself into the game immediately and carried impressively, while Liam Messam will bring more physicality than the demoted Adam Thomson to blindside, all the more so on his home turf.
Another who has enjoyed a stellar season for the table-topping Chiefs is Aaron Cruden, who will be renewing his potent partnership with Sonny Bill Williams. Cruden looked by some distance the most composed of the three outhalves who stood in for Carter at the World Cup.
Conor Murray has also learned plenty over the last two weeks, as has Fergus McFadden, who now comes up against the potent Hosea Gear. But if McFadden keeps his composure he has the tackling technique to cope.
On the other flank, Keith Earls can sharpen Ireland’s cutting edge. And, once again, Ireland have kept the Ronan O’Gara-Jonny Sexton 10-12 combination as their ace in the hole.
A win would remove a monkey from Irish rugby’s collective back as well as all future Irish teams to face the almighty ones, and in the circumstances would rank as a phenomenal achievement. Two weeks ago, the All Blacks had eased into a 9-3 lead by the end of the first quarter, before the first of Savea’s hat-trick made it 16-3 by the 27th minute. Game over. Last week, Ireland led 10-0 at the end of the first quarter. Game on.
The key will be staying with the All Blacks for the first 20 or 30, thereby sewing seeds of doubt in home minds as well as adding to the belief Ireland generated a week ago. True, two summers ago, Ireland failed to score a point after half-time when losing 22-15 in Brisbane, lost 18-12 in Melbourne two years before that and after two competitive performances in New Zealand in ’06, collapsed like a deck of cards by 37-15 in Perth.
Yet, you sense there’s something different about them this week. “We can’t think about holidays now,” vowed O’Brien. “We’ve one Test to go as hard as possibly as we can, throw everything at them and see where we are at the end of the game. That’s what it’s all about. There’s no holiday.
“This is a final for us, and we have to go out and perform. There’s no point in putting in a performance like last week and then going out and getting hockeyed this week. That’s not where we want to be. . . We want to improve on last week.”
Betting: 1/12 New Zealand, 35/1 Draw, 11/2 Ireland.
Handicap odds (Ireland +15 pts) 10/11 New Zealand, 25/1 Draw, 10/11 Ireland.
Forecast: Ireland to beat the handicap. New Zealand to win.
15 Rob Kearney (Leinster)
14 Fergus McFadden (Leinster)
13 Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster, capt)
12 Paddy Wallace (Ulster)
11 Keith Earls (Munster)
10 Jonathan Sexton (Leinster)
9 Conor Murray (Munster)
1 Cian Healy (Leinster)
2 Rory Best (Ulster)
3 Mike Ross (Leinster)
4 Dan Tuohy (Ulster)
5 Donnacha Ryan (Munster)
6 Kevin McLaughlin (Leinster)
7 Seán O’Brien (Leinster)
8 Peter O’Mahony (Munster)
Seán Cronin (Leinster), Declan
Fitzpatrick (Ulster), Donncha
O’Callaghan (Munster), Chris Henry
(Ulster), Eoin Reddan (Leinster), Ronan
O’Gara (Munster), A Trimble (Ulster).
(Crusaders) Israel Dagg
(Otago Highlanders) Ben Smith
(Wellington Hurricanes) Conrad Smith
(Waikato Chiefs) Sonny Bill Williams
(Otago Highlanders) Hosea Gear
(Waikato Chiefs) Aaron Cruden
(Otago Highlanders) Aaron Smith
(Auckland Blues) Tony Woodcock
(Otago Highlanders) Andrew Hore
(Canterbury Crusaders) Owen Franks
(Crusaders) Luke Romano
(Crusaders) Sam Whitelock
(Waikato Chiefs) Liam Messam
(Waikato Chiefs) Sam Cane
(Crusaders, capt) Richie McCaw
K Mealamu (Blues), B Franks (Crusaders), B Retallick (Chiefs), A Thomson (Highlanders), P Weepu (Blues), B Barrett (Hurricanes), T Ellison (Highlanders).