New Zealand will hope to become the first Test team in the professional era to enjoy a perfect calendar year when they face Ireland.
New Zealand will be looking to become the first Test team in the professional era to enjoy a perfect calendar year when they take on Ireland in Dublin.
Few would bet against the All Blacks making it 14 from 14 in 2013 on Sunday after what has been an outstanding period for the World Cup holders.
On that point, world champions seldom continue in such a rich vein of form and it can be said they have in fact strengthened since that 2011 triumph.
Credit must go to Steve Hansen and his selectors for that as some are even talking about this possibly being the greatest New Zealand team, which is difficult to question seeing as four of their squad lead the list for most capped All Blacks. That in itself is something very special indeed.
So how have they got to within 80 minutes of this feat? Of course there is quality aplenty on the Test field and also in Super Rugby and the ITM Cup. However, what was apparent when Richie McCaw presented Dan Carter with his 100th cap after defeating England last week was an unrivalled squad unity. There spoke a leader full of respect for a man who – like himself – could have moved away from New Zealand for financially greener pastures…permanently I mean.
Carter, with admirable values, paid tribute to his father while the squad stood behind him. It was a shame that Twickenham had emptied at that point – whether fans were made aware of the proceedings or not is unclear – as there stood a group without even a hint of an ego.
England head coach Stuart Lancaster put it simply before last weekend's meeting: “New Zealand have become probably the most successful team in world sport.” Not rugby, sport.
Kieran Read meanwhile stressed that the All Blacks have not played well in November and we'd also go along with that assessment – their peak performance of course coming in South Africa earlier this year. And the number eight is keen to finish in style in Dublin.
Ireland can be taken at 12/1 to win while the handicap start is +20 for the hosts. Those numbers were settled on after their dismal showing against Australia as slack defence was punished, something that will happen again if they don't shore up their wide channels.
They may draw upon 2012's second Test in Christchurch for confidence when they pushed the All Blacks all the way in an eventual 22-19 defeat, but we all know how New Zealand responded the following Saturday as they romped to a 60-0 victory at Waikato Stadium. Something like that sort of clinical performance would surely delight the in-form Read.
Joe Schmidt will, of course, be given time to instil his own ethos and playing style on this team and patience will be needed moving forward as they look to improve on a poor 2013.
A win on Sunday we're afraid is highly unlikely judging from last week as Brian O'Driscoll seems set to go through his international career without that scalp. One small consolation for the outside centre will be that he will equal Ronan O'Gara's Irish record of 128 caps.
An achievement of note but no one in world rugby will top New Zealand's should they complete what would be a remarkable clean sweep they fully deserve this weekend.
Ones to watch:
For Ireland: Slightly harsh to drop Luke Marshall? Maybe as he is probably the long-term future at inside centre for Ireland. Joe Schmidt believes Gordon D'Arcy is the answer for this game at least though and it will be a big ask for the veteran to halt the in-form Ma'a Nonu.
For New Zealand: A change to the back-row sees Liam Messam given a well-earned rest as youngster Steven Luatua starts. The latter's efforts this year for both the Blues and the All Blacks have been impressive and Sunday will be another chance to show he is the future at number six. Picked on tour ahead of Brad Shields, Luatua is a real workhorse who carries well and should be a handful for Ireland. It will also be interesting to see the impact young Beauden Barrett makes coming off the bench. He has been short on opportunities this November series after what was an outstanding Rugby Championship showing.
Head-to-head: 'Just mark Kieran Read' was the message from the Wallabies to Jamie Heaslip when they talked at the after-match function last weekend. It's a clear message of just how highly his peers rate Read and why wouldn't they? Number eight Read has crossed for a remarkable six tries in his last six Tests – setting up a few in the process – and is quite rightly being spoken of as the favourite to claim the IRB Player of the Year award.
2012: New Zealand won 60-0 in Waikato
2012: New Zealand won 22-19 in Christchurch
2012: New Zealand won 42-10 in Auckland
2010: New Zealand won 38-18 at Aviva Stadium
2010: New Zealand won 66-28 in New Plymouth
2008: New Zealand won 3-22 at Croke Park
2008: New Zealand won 21-11 in Wellington
2006: New Zealand won 27-17 in Auckland
2006: New Zealand won 24-23 in Hamilton
2005: New Zealand won 7-45 at Lansdowne Road
2002: New Zealand won 40-8 in Auckland
2002: New Zealand won 15-6 in Dunedin
2001: New Zealand won 29-40 at Lansdowne Road
Prediction: Ireland desperately need to avoid those lapses in defence that led to Australia profiting last weekend. If they can do that then it shouldn't be anything like the embarrassing 60-0 defeat they suffered in Hamilton in 2012. Let's go for New Zealand by 15 points!
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Brian O'Driscoll, 12 Gordon D'Arcy, 11 David Kearney, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Paul O'Connell (capt), 4 Devin Toner, 3 Mike Ross, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Jack McGrath, 18 Declan Fitzpatrick, 19 Mike McCarthy, 20 Kevin McLaughlin, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Ian Madigan, 23 Luke Fitzgerald.
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Ben Smith, 12 Ma'a Nonu, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Aaron Cruden, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (capt), 6 Steven Luatua, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Luke Romano, 3 Charlie Faumuina, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Wyatt Crockett.
Replacements: 16 Dane Coles, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Owen Franks, 19 Brodie Retallick, 20 Sam Cane, 21 TJ Perenara, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Ryan Crotty.
Date: Sunday, November 24
Kick-off: 14:00 GMT
Venue: Aviva Stadium, Dublin
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: JÃ©rÃ´me GarcÃ¨s (France), Greg Garner (England)
Television match official: Graham Hughes (England)
Assessor: Donal Courtney (European Rugby Cup)
By Adam Kyriacou