New Zealand have never lost to Ireland and it would come as a major surprise if they were to lose their unbeaten record in Dublin on Saturday.
The visitors have proven themselves by some way the top team on the International Rugby Board rankings this year while Ireland have struggled to achieve anything approaching the standard of performance to which they aspire.
New Zealand and Ireland have played one another in 23 Test matches dating back to their inaugural match in 1905 and with the exception of a draw in 1973, New Zealand have won every Test, scoring a total of 84 tries to 26 and 626 points to 241.
The team’s respective records for 2010 are equally indicative of what is likely to transpire at Lansdowne Road this weekend.
In the course of the year Ireland have lost to France, Scotland, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, as well as to the Barbarians and New Zealand Maori. They have beaten only Italy, England, Wales and Samoa, with England the only victory which could perhaps be labelled a substantial scalp.
They lost to the Springboks two weeks ago despite what was certainly not a vintage performance by the Boks and then stumbled to an unimpressive win over Samoa last weekend. The Irish will hope that the 11 changes from last week’s squad to this week’s selection makes a massive difference to their performance.
The All Blacks have won 11 out of 12 Tests this year, with the only blemish a late surge last-gasp 26-24 win for Australia in Hong Kong. They’ve beaten South Africa and Australia three times each, Wales twice, as well as England, Scotland and Ireland.
To be in with a chance of a win, the Irish will need to improve their set piece play by leaps and bounds. Their scrummaging will have to be considerably more stable and winning their own line-out ball more secure. They’ve been unconvincing at breakdown too and need to improve their efficacy to gain parity in winning quick ruck ball.
Essential to being competitive will be retention of possession because against the All Blacks the consequence of conceding turnovers is too often standing moments later behind one’s goal-line awaiting a conversion.
Ireland have the attacking prowess to cut the best defences – especially if Brian O’Driscoll can perform at a level which restores his talisman status – and they are expected to score tries on Saturday, but the result of the match will depend more on their ability to restrict the New Zealanders’ tries.
Tight defence is the key to any possibility of an Irish win since the Kiwis have the skills to score tries from first phase and from building continuity through phases, while they are devastating from turnovers. Their variation of point of attack has at times in every match this year been nigh impossible to defend against.
For Ireland, the first 20 minutes will be decisive. If they are ripped apart in the opening stanza – the fate that befell Scotland last week – and are forced into desperate catch-up rugby, they have little chance of putting sufficient pressure on the All Blacks to disrupt their gameplan and of being in with a realistic chance of victory.
Scotland being overwhelmed in the first quarter by the New Zealanders’ high pace ball-in-hand skills will have rendered the Irish determined not to fall into the same trap, but that resolve is easier planned than executed.
A major concern for New Zealand will be to impress South African referee Marius Jonker with the legality of their scrummaging after failing to convince northern hemisphere referees Romain Poite at Twickenham and Dave Pearson at Murrayfield of their legitimacy.
Since Ireland have become trapped in a mire of mediocrity while the All Blacks have produced superb rugby in every match this year – against Scotland touching more than a few times on the sublime – it will take a mammoth leap of faith for the Irish to adjust their mindset and actually believe they can win.
For the Kiwis to stumble it will take an abnormal level of complacency unlikely to be seen from a Richie McCaw-led team.
Ireland: 15 Robert Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O’Driscoll (captain), 12 Gordon D’Arcy, 11 Luke Fitzgerald, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Eoin Reddan, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 David Wallace, 6 Stephen Ferris, 5 Mick O’Driscoll, 4 Donncha O’Callaghan, 3 Tom Court, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 John Hayes, 18 Devin Toner, 19 Denis Leamy, 20 Peter Stringer, 21 Ronan O’Gara, 22 Keith Earls.
New Zealand: 15 Mils Muliaina, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Ma’a Nonu, 11 Hosea Gear, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Andy Ellis, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Tom Donnelly, 4 Anthony Boric, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Hikawera Elliot, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Andrew Hore, 17 John Afoa, 18 Samuel Whitelock, 19 Liam Messam, 20 Alby Mathewson, 21 Stephen Donald, 22 Sonny Bill Williams.
Date: Saturday, November 20
Venue: Lansdowne Road, Dublin
Kick-off: 17.30 (17.30 GMT; 06.30, Sunday November 21 NZ time)
Expected weather: Maximum temperature 9ºC, minimum 7ºC; 40% chance of light rain; wind east/north east 13-19kmph
Referee: Marius Jonker (South Africa)
Assistant referees: Craig Joubert (South Africa), Carlo Damasco (Italy)
TMO: Hugh Watkins (Wales)