With the home sides leading 2-0 in their respective series, this weekend’s games might be described as “dead rubbers.” They are in terms of winning the meaningless silverware on offer but they are anything but as far as the teams are concerned. The southern hemisphere teams will want to go into the new Rugby Championship with three wins and certainly won’t want to drop a test to the sides from up north. For Ireland, Wales and England it is the last test of a very long season and to head off on holiday with the scalp of one of the big three would be a satisfying end to what so far have been disappointing tours.
On consecutive weekends both Old Ireland and New Ireland have been on display. The capitulation of the first test will have brought back memories of similar humiliating trouncings from the past. The tenacity, intensity and skill of the second game were something rarely seen from Ireland, and resembled Leinster in many ways. Old Ireland might have celebrated the narrow defeat as a moral victory, but this team is hurting and realise that the All Blacks won because they are better at closing out tight games.
The All Blacks were curiously flat in the second test and Ireland deserves much credit for this. Richie McCaw suffered another attack of the dropsy’s but maintained his usual high work rate. He does, however, look like he has been overtaken by the young open-side pretenders Warburton, Pocock and O’Brien – with Sam Cane possibly the next cab off the rank.
Discipline was a problem for the All Blacks, though the yellow card rightly awarded to Israel Dagg was out of character. Ali Williams was apparently in the squad because of his experience but he let himself and his team down with the foul on Eoin Reddan and his subsequent petulance. He conceded three points at a crucial stage of the game and he may have played his last game for the All Blacks. However, Dan Carter remains in a class of his own and while put under pressure by the Irish loose forwards still managed to secure the victory for the All Blacks….just.
Carter will watch the third test from the stands as one of a number of changes made by Steven Hansen, though Aaron Cruden looks ready for the challenge, he is not DC. Julian Savea has experienced the highs and lows of test rugby in his first two games and one hopes he bounces back after being dropped from the squad of 22 for Saturday. Hosea Gear and Ben Smith should shore up the defence as well as providing potent attacking options. McCaw will win his first cap at No 8 and will be joined in the back-row by Sam Cane and Liam Messam. Kieran Read will be missed in many areas of the game and the AB’s will look to Luke Romano to bring some steel to the scrum which has sorely missed Brad Thorn in the series so far. The Irish pack will sniff an opportunity to repeat their dominant performance of the second test, though know they still have work to do at the set piece.
The scrum was as controversial as ever and it seems that inconsistencies in the application of the laws are a part of the game these days. This was certainly the case on Saturday and likely to be again in the final test. Romain Poite will officiate in Hamilton and he is known for having a unique interpretation of not just the scrum but the breakdown too. He was in charge in the recent RaboDirect and France’s Top 14 finals. In both games he awarded yellow cards to props for scrummage offences and five cards in total to forwards in the two games. Ireland have felt hard done by Poite in the past and will be hoping that is not the case this time round.
Ireland will expect a “blacklash” in Hamilton and it would be a surprise if the All Blacks don’t improve substantially. The Irish will be encouraged having got close in the second test and there will be no shortage of passion or self belief on display from the men in green on Saturday. This will be their 17th test of the season and the final chance for many of the Irish team to secure an elusive win over the All Blacks. While this would appear unlikely, after last weekend, it would be a brave man who would write them off completely.