There have been some interesting debates during the week about this third test.
Other discussions haven't been quite so interesting, in fact they have been really, really boring because they go through the usual motions like "Why are we picking Sexton when we should be developing the squad" and the such.
But one that really caught my eye was featured in this poll posted on Twitter by Gavan Casey from The42.ie, where he asks whether as Irish fans we'd prefer a series win in New Zealand over reaching a World Cup semifinal (and going no further).
The reason it got me thinking is that I had assumed that such opinions depend on timing. When you ask in the week leading up to a competitive 3rd test, you'd think most people would go for the series, yet still the vast majority went for the World Cup one.
And I suppose that's understandable, even though my vote went for the minority. That semifinal thing has been churned over time and time again as a narrative so that it has become something of a "holy grail" for Irish fans.
But the question is...should those expectations of fans, however understandable, carry over to the squad itself? Especially this particular one, considering how they have played since last November?
It doesn't take much thinking to realise that of course this boys in green wouldn't be happy with the bars at the levels we set. A win over the All Blacks last autumn wasn't enough, a strong second place finish and Triple Crown in the Six Nations wasn't enough, just one win on New Zealand soil wasn't enough. OF COURSE this squad approaches series and tournaments with a view to winning them. So of course merely reaching a semifinal in France next year won't be anywhere near enough.
So shifting back to this weekend, we have a fair idea where the lads' heads are at as they prepare for Wellington. Defeat won't bring about a sense of "ah, well, sure we won last week and we never expected that". Defeat will bring disappointment. And what's more, it looks like the kind of set up which would know how to take that kind of disappointment and bring it forward.
One key feature of this Farrell project is that he seems to know the core team he wants, while acknowledging the few tweaks required to make along the way to allow for injuries and form. Maybe some will laugh at that because individuals they want to see get caps haven't made it, but I'm confident that the statement holds true and until performances and results begin to change, I don't see why the coaching ticket should.
Let's have a look at the 23 chosen for Wellington shall we...
One comment after Dunedin that pissed me off the most was "Lowe really let the side down". I mean, neither winger shone to be fair, but for that to be someone's first takeaway from such a historic win was astounding.
Anyway...while Lowe has definitely played better, even against this opposition, I wonder how much our wingers were part of our game plan last week. That sounds odd, because he and Hansen are the kind of players who can make something happen out of nothing, but I'm wondering if we used that fact to an extent.
When you look at the moves that created the space for our two tries, our wingers were more or less decoys in the play. First it was Tadhg Beirne put into space up the middle, then it was a pinpoint pass to free up Bundee Aki.
Now that was all very well last week, but I'm pretty sure we need to show something at least a little different on Saturday, and I'm wondering if this is where James & Mack come into it. Maybe now the home side know we can pretty much get to their red zone them from anywhere and also get points when we do, now we can really hit them with our full barrage of options, and with the extra strength up the middle afforded by the Aki/Henshaw midfield combo, it might bit easier to create opportunities out wide..
Whatever the plan, we know in Johnny Sexton we have just the man to implement it, in fact the chances are he had a big say in coming up with it. One thing is for sure - dominating the first 5-10 minutes as we have done in the past two tests will do our chances no harm at all.
I said last week we need a stand out performance from James Ryan. Maybe it wasn't quite that, but he certainly played a big part, especially at lineout time. Now with Sam Whitelock back in the mix, Ryan's task has gone to another level again, but with two bruising encounters under his belt this time, both with Tadhg Beirne who starts again, they are bound to be even better.
When it comes to the front row, as always you'd be happy with settled set pieces but from this trio you really want more and they generally bring it. Porter's brace of tries last week were great but he's great at the breakdown too, Sheehan has done well but can definitely do even better, and Furlong's involvement around the pitch has become the rule rather than exception for this particular tighthead.
But it's the backrow where we can grab hold of this match. I saw a comment during the week which suggested Gavin Coombes "isn't so much knocking on the door as blowing it off the hinges" and this is definitely true, the Munster man was amazing during the week. The thing about that door analogy is that there are four guys working hard to prop it up on the other side.
It's a combination that is more than the sum of its parts, that is for sure. Peter O'Mahony bring the guile and the heads up plays (and the sledging too, just as important IMO). Van der Flier brings, well, everything - the other two were so good in Dunedin that Josh's usual excellence was only really noticeable on second watch for many. Meanwhile Doris brings punishing carries, jackles, and the odd critical tap tackle, as Jack Conan slots in for a critical cameo towards the end.
Maybe this is a bit simplistic, but if those four can repeat their dominance a week later, we're really in a good place.
Given how Farrell & co try not to make too many changes, the only real question mark over our bench was who would get the 23 jersey. This might have been a chance for Coombes to be involved had we gone for a 6/2 split but like I say above, the four back rowers we have are in such form that we might not even need an extra forward.
So instead we look to a back - and while we ended up being glad to have Bundee Aki wearing 23 last week, the better percentage play is to have someone who can cover the back three positions so it came down to a question of Earls or Larmour. Either would have been fine, and the two combined really well for the opening score against the Maoris at the same venue Tuesday, but I can see the sense in going for "The Man" given his experience.
Their task in the closing stages might be more difficult as the home bench is a tad stronger, but hopefully what we do in the first three quarters can actually make it easier.
No doubt their starting lineup is stronger with the likes of Whitelock and Jordan back in it. No doubt their bench is stronger with the likes of Dane Coles back in it. No doubt the pressure will be on them after a week of dismay from fans and media alike.
On our podcast during the week our panel discussed how it could be hubris that is their undoing. We have clearly identified a way to hurt them, so do they find a way to adapt, or simply try to do their original plan better? History would suggest they will do the latter, especially with a stronger lineup, but will that be enough against an Irish side that has shown that if anything it can actually play better?
Yet again I think we only need to focus on our own game. The All Blacks are gonna All Black. (UPDATE - a couple of late changes to their lineup shouldn't change our approach)
I don't often include this category as you hate to think the officials can influence a game, but after all that happened in Dunedin it really turns the spotlight on Wayne Barnes who holds the whistle here.
Everything on the All Blacks side has been well documented not only in this series, but over the years. There's a narrative that they tend to get away with things other nations don't, and there has been plenty of evidence for this. But when Dalton Papali'i got pinged for clearing beyond the breakdown last weekend, that appeared to change, although even with the card-fest that followed, there could have been even more sanctions like a very obvious penalty try.
For Ireland winning in Wellington, we must watch Wayne ourselves. Keep our side of the penalty ledger as low as possible. Because we are going to be under the harshest scrutiny ever on Saturday. I don't mean that in a corrupt way, I mean it's just human nature. Whatever about past complaints, it's not the officials' jobs to just catch All Blacks being naughty, and if I'm Sam Cane I'll be doing all I can to highlight every little transgression by our guys, which would be hard for him to do if there aren't any.
So I guess my point is, let's take the officials out of the equation altogether so I can go back to leaving this heading out of my previews!!!
Last week the bookies had a 12-point home win. This week that has shortened to about 9. Personally I don't see any reason to change my forecast from the second test so what you see below is essentially a copy/paste.
"I have to be honest, I really do think it will be a home win (4-6 pts)....I wholeheartedly believe we CAN win, and I'm very much looking forward to watching us have a go."
Obviously this is just one of four decisive tests on Saturday so there's plenty for us fans to be getting on with, but if you plan to be stuck to your couch all day spare a thought for both the Women's and Men's Sevens squads who have World Cup qualifiers in Bucharest throughout the weekend - here's the schedule and all matches are available via RugbyEuropeTV.
Saturday, July 16:
Ireland Women v Wales, 9.50am Irish time
Ireland Men v Poland, 12.20pm Irish time
Ireland Women v Germany, 4.50pm Irish time
Ireland Men v Portugal, 7.20pm
Sunday, July 17:
Ireland Women v Czechia, 9.50am Irish time
Ireland Men v Italy, 12.20pm Irish time
PLAYOFF TIMES TO BE DETERMINED
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It's End Of Season Week here at Harpin Manor. This is the last preview, after the full time whistle on Saturday you can go to our Facebook page and leave your thoughts for the last time, on Monday we'll have the last writeup, and during the week, we'll wrap things up for 2021/22 with a final pod.
We're planning a good few changes to our presentation for next season but for now please keep the conversation going by leaving comments on whatever social media platform suits you best and here's to even more history being made for Irish rugby this weekend!!! JLP