Preview: All Blacks vs Ireland
New Zealand host Ireland in the second leg of their three-match series in Christchurch on Saturday poised to deliver the killer blow.
The fixture, scheduled at Rugby League Park, will be the first test match since the city was devastated by earthquakes in January 2011. It could also be the scene of an on-field demolition of the Irish by a formidable All Black outfit.
The All Blacks blooded a number of new players against the Irish last weekend at Eden Park, and sternly accounted for the tourists.
The visitors seemed willing to throw the ball wide, and it paid dividends early with territory and possession but their efforts fell away as the game developed.
The Irish seemed to hang on grimly for periods in the first stanza, but it was only a matter of time before the class of their hosts emerged to remind the viewing public who currently held the World Cup.
Debutants Aaron Smith (scrumhalf), Julian Savea (wing) and Brodie Retallick (lock) all accorded themselves with excellent showings on debut.
Going into the second Test, it seems the All Blacks will continue to forge ahead. With minimal changes to their line-up the New Zealanders can only consolidate.
The All Black 9-10-12 combination of Smith, Dan Carter and Sonny Bill Williams contains enough firepower on its own, but add hat-trick debutant Savea and the backline looks near unstoppable.
Elder statesmen Brian O’Driscoll and Ronan O’Gara will be crucial to the Irish ability to bounce back and make a contest of the Christchurch encounter.
The Irish’s commitment at the breakdown was credible, but to match the All Blacks they will need great cohesion and strength of numbers to build on their ball recycling.
The Irish scrum withheld, but couldn’t create in-roads. They need commitment in the one-on-ones, combine when their defence slides and continue to chance their arm when the opportunities present themselves or be eviscerated by the All Black machine.
The Irish have made four changes to the 22 that played at in Auckland last Saturday. Keith Earls has been replaced by Gordon D’Arcy at inside centre after he sustained a chest injury.
Simon Zebo has been displaced from the left wing by Andrew Trimble but has been named on the bench. Kevin McLaughlin comes into the back row to start on the left side of the scrum in a straight swap with Peter O’Mahony and Mike Ross starts at tighthead, relegating Declan Fitzpatrick to the role of run-on reserve.
The All Blacks have made one change to their starting fifteen, with Adam Thomson stepping in to fill the void left by an injured Victor Vito.
Vito suffered a medial ligament around the mid-point of the second half of the first Test. With Thomson elevated, Test debutant Sam Cane of the Chiefs comes into the 22.
Key Battle: Conrad Smith vs. Brian O’Driscoll. O’Driscoll took his Heineken Cup form into the first Test, where he ran with strength and purpose from the midfield.
He’s a few steps slower in his twilight years but his passing game and reading of the play keep him at the top echelon of the sport.
Look for O’Driscoll’s presence to elevate the midfield around him when carrying the ball to the advantage line.
Smith will shade him in the foot race. While Smith is 8cm taller, the two outside centres tip the scales at 95kg, meaning as the game progresses, the New Zealander may lose a fraction of the speed when it counts.
Smith’s ball carrying is just a strong but his passing game may lack slightly under pressure. He might feed off Williams, but may not create the opportunities O’Driscoll does.
Last Meeting: New Zealand 42-10 Ireland (Auckland).
Prediction: The Irish will improve and will be far more committed to gaining ground with ball in hand. The forwards are reasonably well matched but it will be the finishing of the All Black outside backs that will make the difference. New Zealand by 15 points.
Saturday 16 June: New Zealand vs. Ireland, Christchurch (09:35)
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Zac Guildford, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Adam Thomson, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock
Replacements: 16 Hikawera Elliott, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Ali Williams, 19 Sam Cane, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Aaron Cruden, 22 Ben Smith
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 Andrew Trimble, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Kevin McLaughlin, 5 Donnacha Ryan, 4 Dan Touhy, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Declan Fitzpatrick, 18 Donncha O'Callaghan, 19 Peter O'Mahony, 20 Eoin Reddan, 21 Ronan O'Gara, 22 Simon Zebo.