Ireland have done New Zealand a large favour by coming out to the far reaches of the south Pacific on what was supposedly going to be mission impossible, only to sit now just 80 minutes away from making what would be their second and easily most treasured piece of history.
It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this, of course. Ireland, so New Zealanders thought, had taken on a daft-mad itinerary of essentially playing five tests in three weeks and in doing so would be splatted like roadkill. New Zealand would restore a sense of all being right in the world again after the All Blacks were bumped and banged around the Aviva Stadium last year before France sliced and diced them the following week.
Those two defeats sent New Zealand into the usual tailspin of angst and introspection, but it was at least tempered by the knowledge that the All Blacks had been on the road, in a secure bio-bubble for 13 weeks before they played Ireland.
Ireland had taken their chance, no one doubted that or didn’t see they were a good team, but there was a sense that when they found themselves in New Zealand at the end of their long, hard season in July 2022, they would be exposed as not quite the champion team they had looked, and the All Blacks would boot them about for three weeks and remind the rugby world just who is boss.
But what Ireland have done is provide an entirely different, but more powerful and sobering lesson. They have shown the All Blacks that last year was not an aberration.
They have removed any doubt that the difference between the two teams was the mitigating pandemic-enforced circumstances in which the All Blacks found themselves.
Ireland have in fact done what was almost unthinkable. They have become the dominant partner in their rugby relationship with New Zealand.
It was hardly a long time ago that a single victory against the All Blacks, just one test match where they somehow managed to get to the final whistle ahead on the scoreboard, was all Ireland coveted.
But look where we are now.
Ireland have won four of the last eight tests these two have played. But more pertinently, it is how they have won — how they have played — that has tilted the balance in this rivalry.
Ireland, in the first two tests of this series, have played almost exactly how the All Blacks want to play, but are not good enough, or cohesive enough to fulfil their own ambitions.
At the moment, it is almost as if Kiwis are having to get their rugby fix vicariously through the Irish: they can see that Ireland’s players are smarter, tougher, and better drilled.
The All Blacks showed in the first test that they can still be a deadly force, but they won that test on the back of a 20-minute blast of counter-attack rugby that Ireland spoon-fed them.
Some things don’t change, and however far the All Blacks star has fallen in the last few years, they remain the masters at the art of pouncing on opposition mistakes.
But that’s about the only area in which they are leading Ireland. In the altogether more complex and difficult art of creating space — of stringing together cohesive ploys to break down a defence — Ireland are surging ahead.
And that’s what has been so sobering for Kiwis — this tour has shown that Ireland’s players have sharper pass and catch.
The Irish backs probably don’t have the array of individual talent as their New Zealand counterparts, but in the two tests so far, they have played with more awareness and with crisper movement and understanding of how they are working together.
Ireland’s tactical kicking is a world apart, too. Johnny Sexton, in the minutes he has managed, has shown Beauden Barrett that an old head can compensate amazingly well for old legs.
Sexton has shown ample tactical wizardry and while he won’t be able to split a defence with the same searing acceleration Barrett can, New Zealand would love for some of the veteran’s composure, game management and tactical nous to infiltrate their own No 10.
Just as they would like the All Blacks back three to be able to challenge so well for the ball in the air as Hugo Keenan and Mack Hansen, or any of the Irish back three for that matter.
And how much would New Zealand give for a warhorse like Peter O’Mahony? The All Blacks have been hunting for a bruising No 6 since Jerome Kaino retired in 2017.
Many have come and gone, none quite capable of giving them the tackling grunt and lineout target they are after.
None have been able to offer what O’Mahony so brilliantly delivers and if the All Blacks had a similar version of their own, perhaps the series wouldn’t be tied right now, and they wouldn’t have imploded in Dunedin the way they did.
So a sense of gratitude is beginning to fall upon the landscape in New Zealand. Ireland have shown that standards in New Zealand have slipped.
There were maybe signs of that being the case in the last couple of years of Steve Hansen’s coaching reign between 2012 and 2019, but it has most definitely accelerated since the last World Cup.
New Zealand are not the standard bearers any more in terms of precision skill-sets. New Zealand are not leading the world in tactical thinking any more.
Ireland have not only proven that, they have also shown New Zealand the level to which they must now aspire and regardless of what happens in Wellington, the All Blacks know they have an enormous amount of work to do before they get to France and the World Cup next year.
They know that their recent demotion in the world rankings to number four is a fair reflection of where they sit in the world right now.
But they also know they have a secret, or not so secret weapon in their midst, one who comes with a distinctly Irish flavour.
After this series Joe Schmidt formally begins his new role with the All Blacks as a selector/technical analyst. No one is quite sure precisely what he’ll be doing once he arrives, other than expounding some much-needed thoughts about how the All Blacks can go about not so much emulating Ireland’s style of play, but their precision, cohesion and accuracy.
Ireland should probably be flattered by his arrival and interpret it very much for what it is — a direct attempt by the All Blacks to instil some of the qualities that Schmidt brought to Ireland.
It is the most definitive evidence to date that the balance of power has shifted — the mighty All Blacks now looking to Ireland for inspiration and good ideas.
Gregor Paul is the rugby correspondent for the New Zealand Herald