Sunday November 24, 9 AM Eastern – Lansdowne Road (the Aviva, if we must call it that), Dublin
The New Zealand All Blacks are going after a pretty special achievement on Sunday – a win over Ireland would make them the first international team to go through an entire calendar year undefeated. The All Blacks are, as always, loaded with talent. They are captained by openside Richie McCaw, one of the best players of his generation. The pack also features Sam Whitelock, the best lock in the world, and Kieran Read, the best number 8 in the world. In the backs they are without flyhalf Dan Carter, who picked up an injury while winning his 100th cap against England last weekend, but Carter’s boots are ably filled by Aaron Cruden. Powerful and skillful inside center Ma’a Nonu is back to his best, while outside center Ben Smith remains a threat despite playing out of position (he is more comfortable at fullback or wing). Wing Julian Savea is one of the world’s best in his position, and Cory Jane and Israel Dagg combine with him to form a dangerous back three.
Ireland were comprehensively beaten last weekend by Australia, a team the All Blacks have defeated three times this year. This Irish team has a lot of quality, but they lacked urgency and did not defend the gainline strongly enough against the Aussies. Part of this may be explained by the inherent difficulties of a coaching transition. Joe Schmidt, a New Zealander, faces his biggest challenge in just his third match as Ireland coach. Outside center Brian O’Driscoll and lock (and captain) Paul O’Connell are two legends of the game, and they will have their teammates incredibly motivated for this match amidst a sea of green in Dublin. The back row of Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, and Jamie Heaslip has the potential to be very destructive. At flyhalf, Jonathan Sexton is probably the best in Europe – but there are lingering questions over his fitness. Hopefully he is close to 100% for this one, because at his best, he is masterful at controlling a game. Fullback Rob Kearney is one of the best in Europe, although he currently has competition from England’s Mike Brown.
My head says New Zealand will win comfortably, by a couple of tries. But I think Ireland are going to surprise everyone. Their pride will have been dented by the manner of the Australia defeat, and they will relish their underdog status for this match. An All Black victory is being treated as a fait accompli. Ireland has never beaten New Zealand. As Lee Corso of ESPN’s College Gameday would say: “Not so fast, my friend!” I’m backing Ireland to produce a performance reminiscent of their victory over Australia at the 2011 World Cup. Below: it is always good to revisit O’Connell’s famous “manic aggression” pregame speech. That is exactly what the Irish will need to beat New Zealand and ruin their perfect season. Ireland by 1