CRAIG LEWIS looks ahead to the highly-anticipated battle between Ireland and the All Blacks in Dublin on Saturday.
At the beginning of the week, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen proclaimed that the winner of this clash should be regarded as the No 1 side in Test rugby.
That may be a bit far-fetched when one considers that 3.46 points separate the All Blacks and Ireland at the top of the world rankings, with New Zealand having lost just four games and drawn one since the 2015 World Cup.
Nevertheless, Hansen’s comments quite understandably serve as a credit to Ireland, who have made vast improvements under the guidance of Kiwi coach Joe Schmidt since bowing out at the quarter-final stage of the last World Cup.
The fact remains that the All Blacks have been far from infallible this year, with just a couple of points separating them and South Africa in this year’s two Rugby Championship battles, while New Zealand only just managed to overturn a 15-point deficit against England last Saturday.
Ireland also weren’t all that flash against Argentina last weekend, but a dominant scrum performance ultimately laid the foundation for a 27-18 victory.
In front of a vociferous home crowd, Ireland will now be looking to take their game to another level and prove that their historic 40-29 win over New Zealand in 2016 was no fluke.
Although the hosts are still without influential scrumhalf Conor Murray and centre Robbie Henshaw, they have been boosted by the return of Garry Ringrose and Rob Kearney.
Ireland will undoubtedly turn to their talisman Johnny Sexton to run the show on Saturday, with the men in green expected to challenge the All Blacks through a possession-based, phase-play approach.
What should please the All Blacks is the fact that after playing at a rain-soaked Twickenham last weekend, the forecast suggests that conditions will be cool and clear on Saturday.
New Zealand have uncharacteristically blown hot and cold at times this year, but this is the sort of contest that provides an ideal opportunity for them to make a massive end-of-year statement.
On more than one occasion this season, the All Blacks have stared down a deficit, but this Saturday they will be determined to dictate proceedings from the outset and rediscover some of their attacking mojo.
The reliable Ryan Crotty comes in at inside centre as a replacement for the injured Sonny Bill Williams in the only change to the All Blacks’ starting lineup, while Aaron Smith will break Justin Marshall’s record for the most Test appearances by an All Blacks scrumhalf (82) when he takes to the field.
This is sure to be the headline fixture of the weekend, and one where picking a clear-cut favourite is easier said than done.
Ireland – 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Kieran Marmion, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Dan Leavy, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Devin Toner, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Subs: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Iain Henderson, 20 Josh van der Flier, 21 Luke McGrath, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Jordan Larmour.
All Blacks – 15 Damian McKenzie, 14 Ben Smith, 13 Jack Goodhue, 12 Ryan Crotty, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read (c), 7 Ardie Savea, 6 Liam Squire, 5 Brodie Retallick, 4 Sam Whitelock, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 Karl Tu’inukuafe.
Subs: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Scott Barrett, 20 Matt Todd, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Richie Mo’unga, 23 Anton Lienert-Brown.
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