Steve Hansen has made six changes to the New Zealand side to face Ireland in Saturday’s 3rd and final test. Two of those are injury-enforced, with key men Dan Carter and Kieran Read ruled out. The loss of those two would weaken any team in the world. They’re both world-class and any replacement would be a step down. That said, the players that Hansen has brought in are not to be totally underestimated. Ireland will have another huge battle on their hands if they’re to finally beat the All Blacks.
Carter’s out with a hamstring problem and into the number 10 jersey comes Aaron Cruden. During last year’s World Cup, the 23-year-old was called up to the All Blacks squad when Carter’s groin injury ruled him out of the latter stages. Cruden started the semi-final and final and did well, but didn’t dominate as Carter would have. He looked understandably nervous and realistically, not particularly ready. But the experience did him a world of good, as Cruden has gone from strength to strength since.
His form in Super Rugby has led the Chiefs to the top of the overall table. Cruden has looked a different player. Physically he finally looks comfortable at senior level. There’s a more confident, almost cocky edge to his play and that’s thanks to being part of the World Cup win. His playmaking skills are excellent and as well as that, his place kicking has been superb. Steve Hansen has said he always planned to make changes for the 3rd test. While that could be seen as an attempt to play down the losses of Carter and Read, it would have been no surprise to see Cruden start this game even if Carter was fit.
The other changes in the backline see Hosea Gear and Ben Smith come in for Julian Savea and Zac Guildford on the wings. Gear and Smith are team mates at the Highlanders and have linked up to great effect this season. 26-year-old Smith has been playing at fullback, but is very versatile and will be comfortable on the right wing. At 28, Gear is fairly experienced in comparison to Savea. He has 5 tries in his 8 caps and has been unlucky not to earn more international recognition. He will be a lot more comfortable under high ball than Savea was, if Ireland look to use that tactic again.
The loss of Read means a move to No.8 for Richie McCaw. I may be tempting fate, but McCaw hasn’t been at his best in the first couple of tests. Uncharacteristic knock-ons have been a feature in both games and he has looked shocked at Sean O’Brien and Rory Best’s willingness to take him on at the breakdown. The legendary captain will be eager to finish on a high note. Sam Cane takes over at openside. The 20-year-old had a strong debut off the bench last week and looks test-ready at international level. Still, O’Brien should have the measure of him.
Completing the back-row is Liam Messam of the Chiefs. He was left out of the All Blacks’ original 35-man wider training squad, with Hansen stating that he knew exactly what Messam offered and didn’t need to see him at that point. The injury to Victor Vito and the fact that Adam Thomson wasn’t physically up to standard last weekend means a swift promotion for Messam. The 28-year-old has been consistently impressive for the Chiefs for a number of years but only has 9 caps to his name. Like Hosea Gear, he was left out of NZ’s World Cup squad and will be keen for redemption.
The only other change to the starting XV sees Luke Romano come into the second-row to win his first cap, with Brodie Retallick dropping to the bench. Romano is something of a late developer. At 26, this season has been his first as a starter for the Crusaders in Super Rugby. Indeed, he only started playing ITM Cup for Canterbury in 2009, under Munster coach Rob Penney. He has developed his 6’6″ frame, but at 110kg is still not the biggest lock around. Romano is a grafter though and will work hard around the pitch.
There’s three new faces on the All Blacks’ bench. Experienced hooker Kevin Mealamu has recovered from a calf injury and is likely to enter the fray for the closing stages. Uncapped Hurricanes outhalf Beaudan Barrett will be hoping for a debut. The 21-year-old has been in sparkling Super Rugby form and would add attacking excitement to the game. Finally, Tamati Ellison is included for his versatility. Capped once, back in 2009, the Highlander covers the midfield and the entire back-three.
So, plenty of changes to the All Blacks’ match day 22. The losses of Carter and Read have certainly weakened their team, but the six players who come in have all been performing well for their clubs sides. Still, Declan Kidney will recognise that this is not a full-strength New Zealand team. He’ll ask for one more effort from his Ireland team.