WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — For Ireland, Saturday’s deciding third test against the All Blacks represents a “chance of a lifetime.”
For the first time, the team finds itself in a position to secure a series over the All Blacks. Charged with confidence after a first-ever test win in New Zealand last weekend, Ireland can feel the pull of history.
The All Blacks in contrast have done their best in a turbulent week to shut out the torrent of criticism which followed their second-test loss and to present a bold face to the world. To do anything else but project calm and determination would likely only make Ireland more certain it has the All Blacks on the ropes.
All Blacks captain Sam Cane said Saturday’s test would be “a good challenge.” Head coach Ian Foster said the All Blacks “love these occasions.” Backrower Ardie Savea said he and his teammates “love being written off.”
In reality, no amount of false bravado can disguise the pressure the All Blacks are under or stave off the consequences which would flow from a loss on Saturday.
A year out from the World Cup, New Zealand is grappling with an unprecedented form slump. Its loss last Saturday was its third in its last four tests, its fourth to Ireland in their last seven meetings and it has dropped to fourth place on world rankings, its lowest spot since records began.
Failings that led to last weekend’s loss are familiar to All Blacks fans; lack of discipline, a shortage of fundamental handling skills, an under-developed kicking game and a general lack of direction and common purpose. Though those problems have recurred over the last few years in matches against England, Ireland, South Africa and France no measures taken by the All Blacks coaches have been able to correct them.
Despite those losses, the makeup of the All Blacks team has been remarkably stable and New Zealand Rugby has retained faith in Foster. All that might change if Ireland wins again on Saturday and public confidence in the team drops to a new low.
Foster mostly has shrugged off calls for his replacement, saying criticism goes with the job and “you get used to it.”
“Individually you go through the same emotions as the team,” Foster said. “When we don’t win there’s a lot of internal reflection on what we’re doing then you get into gear and start nailing the next week.
“That’s where I’m at. I can’t wait to play Ireland in Wellington.
“Everyone else is learning this is a high-quality team we’re playing against. This is a great examination for us. We’ve got to show we’re smart and learning as well.”
Ireland coach Andy Farrell may face an easier task than Foster in preparing his team for Saturday’s match. Ireland already knows it has the ability if it plays well to beat the All Blacks and the importance of the match needs little explanation.
“We are making sure that everyone realizes this is it,” Farrell said. “This is the game that we all want. It’s the chance of a lifetime, a massive occasion that we want to be able to deal with.
“It doesn’t get any tougher than this. New Zealand are at their best after a defeat. It’s where we want to be, the series on the line. It’s exactly where we want to be.”
New Zealand: Jordie Barrett, Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, David Havili, Sevu Reece, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (captain), Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Nepo Laulala, Codie Taylor, George Bower. Reserves: Dane Coles, Aidan Ross, Ofa Tuungafasi, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Folau Fakatava, Richie Mo’unga, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan, Mack Hansen, Robbie Henshaw, Bundee Aki, James Lowe, Johnny Sexton (captain), Jamison Gibson-Park; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Tadhg Furlong, Dan Sheehan, Andrew Porter. Reserves: Rob Herring, Cian Healy, Finlay Bealham, Kieran Treadwell, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Joey Carberry, Keith Earls.
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