By Sarah Mockford, Rugby World Features Editor
IRELAND PRODUCED an incredible performance last week, one that few saw coming, but it seems New Zealand have finally learnt how set up a drop goal (even if Dan Carter’s was one of the most ugly witnessed on the international stage), and so Brian O’Driscoll & Co were condemned to another defeat. The wait for that first Irish victory over the All Blacks goes on – so can they do it this weekend?
Top ten hits
Aaron Cruden comes in for the injured Dan Carter for the Hamilton Test and he’s had a great season for the Chiefs in Super Rugby, stepping up his game and dictating play. He will obviously team up well with his Chiefs team-mate Sonny Bill Williams outside while scrum-half Aaron Smith has delivered masterful service in both his previous Tests so will surely do the same on Saturday.
However, Ireland will be looking to put pressure on Cruden and target his defensive capabilities; with his slight frame he won’t enjoy the sight of Sean O’Brien and Peter O’Mahony running down his channel. If the Irish manage to make a breakthrough here, they could catch the All Blacks out in defence.
Low on juice
Ireland’s Herculean effort last weekend will have drained their already depleted energy resources after a long, hard season dating back to last summer’s World Cup build-up. Do they have enough left in the tank for one last push? In all honesty, I think it’s extremely unlikely.
The match in Christchurch will have taken so much out of them that they will be physically and emotionally exhausted. This Test in Hamilton is likely to be a game too far, so don’t expect a similar performance to the one seven days previously.
Chop and change
Both sides have made tweaks to their starting line-ups, some injury-enforced. Peter O’Mahony comes in at No 8 for Jamie Heaslip and has a great chance to show what he’s capable of as Ireland will look to gain the advantage at scrum time. It’s disappointing to see Keith Earls shunted out to the wing after a strong performance at 12 in the first Test. He added a different element to Ireland’s attack and it would have been good to see his partnership with Brian O’Driscoll develop. Instead, the more conservative Paddy Wallace has been brought into the midfield.
New Zealand have changed both their wide men, Ben Smith and Hosea Gear given their first starts of the series, while Richie McCaw will have more of a ball-carrying role when wearing the No 8 shirt in Kieran Read’s absence. Will they lose anything at the breakdown? With yet another talented back-rower in Sam Cane starting at openside, probably not.
Ireland were heroic in defeat last week but I can’t see a repeat of such a tight match. I’m saying New Zealand to win by 15 points.
NEW ZELAND v IRELAND, SATURDAY 23 JUNE, 8.35am (BST), HAMILTON, Live on Sky Sports 1
NEW ZEALAND: Israel Dagg; Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams, Hosea Gear; Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith; Tony Woodcock, Andrew Hore, Owen Franks, Luke Romano, Sam Whitelock, Liam Messam, Sam Cane, Richie McCaw (captain).
Replacements: Keven Mealamu, Ben Franks, Brodie Retallick, Adam Thomson, Piri Weepu, Beauden Barrett, Tamati Ellison.
IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Fergus McFadden, Brian O’Driscoll (captain), Paddy Wallace, Keith Earls; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Mike Ross, Dan Tuohy, Donnacha Ryan, Kevin McLaughlin, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony.
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Declan Fitzpatrick, Donncha O’Callaghan, Chris Henry, Eoin Reddan, Ronan O’Gara, Andrew Trimble.