All Blacks close in on perfect year
November 22, 2013
The All Blacks are just one win away from a perfect year © Getty Images
A perfect year, a rare thing in rugby. So rare that it has not been achieved by a tier one Test side since the outbreak of professionalism. John Hart's All Blacks in 1997 came close but drew their final game of the year.
For Steve Hansen's crop of 2013, they are one match away from writing a slice of history into New Zealand's already burgeoning archives. Their win last weekend over England buried the ghosts of 2012, a defeat which saw their last charge at an unbeaten year come to an abrupt end, and this weekend they tackle Ireland in Dublin, one more game to achieve that record.
For Ireland, things cannot get much worse than last weekend's poor loss to Australia. They were hammered up front by the Wallabies, made some terrible tactical decisions and were second best. Joe Schmidt and his team are fully aware, as Luke Marshall highlighted, that if they do not turn up this weekend it will be "ugly".
Ireland's game against New Zealand is the box office game of the weekend but Scotland versus Australia on Saturday should also be fascinating. Scotland were unceremoniously nilled by South Africa last Saturday and will have to improve if they are to challenge the resurgent Wallabies.
And then there is the unpredictable Les Bleus. They put Tonga to the sword last weekend, but the Boks will offer a more physical, skilful opposition. It may not get the billing of the match in Dublin, but it will make earth-shuddering viewing.
On Friday night, Wales tackle Tonga and Warren Gatland has opted to rest a number of their top players for the match with one eye on the Australia match on November 30. It looks certain to be another weekend of controversy, physicality, tries and talking points - we give you a rundown of the form teams, those who need to pick their socks up and the key areas to keep an eye on.
The All Blacks have been at the top of the IRB rankings for the last four years and are showing no signs of slowing down in their charge to an unbeaten season. Such is their strength in depth, they have the luxury of being able to leave out Keven Mealamu, Liam Messam and Charles Piutau this weekend, only to draft in Andrew Hore, Steven Luatua and Cory Jane. And even without Dan Carter, they have Aaron Cruden to step in who is developing into a world class operator.
Wales are still searching for that big southern hemisphere scalp and will have their attention on next weekend's game against Australia but Tonga are no easy pushover. While some have struggled with the post-Lions lull, Toby Faletau, who was criticised for his fitness earlier this season, is playing some superb rugby.
The Wallabies also warrant a mention and are two from two following wins over Italy and Ireland. Michael Hooper has ensured that life after George Smith and David Pocock's injury has been covered well while Quade Cooper is relishing in his new found responsibility of being their vice-captain.
Out of form
Italy's match versus Argentina in Rome sees two teams who are struggling for form come up against each other. Yes, Italy won last weekend but they nearly clutched defeat from the jaws of victory as Fiji, who were down to 11 men at one stage, came back to within six points of the Azzurri. Argentina last experienced victory against one of rugby's more established nations last year and will be desperate to put that awful run behind them.
Ireland will need to put in a valiant performance against the All Blacks to tee up their Six Nations. They were, by their own admission, woeful against Australia last weekend and if they are off their game against the All Blacks, you could see a collapse similar to England's against Australia in the Ashes.
Key area to watch
Tonga to shock Wales?
It will be fascinating to see how Ireland's front-row gets on against the All Blacks. The home side have their first-choice line-up but after Mike Ross' struggles against Australia last weekend, they will need him to be at his best. New Zealand have changed their front-row but still have plenty of talent and the huge experience of Andrew Hore. Buckle in, it should be eventful.
Beers and suspensions
Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie made the headlines this week when he suspended six of his players for going out for beers on Tuesday of last week. The decision should come as a motivational factor for Scotland - would McKenzie have done that had his team being facing Wales? Doubtful. Scotland will look to use those absentees to their advantage.
Brian O'Driscoll will, on Sunday, equal Ronan O'Gara's haul of 128 caps for Ireland.
Jim Hamilton wins his 50th cap for Scotland on Saturday, he becomes the 35th man to achieve that feat.
Saturday's match will only be the third time South Africa and France have met at the Stade de France. South Africa have yet to beat France at the stadium having lost 20-10 there in 2001 and 26-20 in 2005.
Wales have almost double the amount of Test experience in their starting line-up compared to Tonga. Their total number of caps equates to 412 compared to Tonga's 213.
With Wales making wholesale changes, their starting line-up's average age is 25.
Wales will ease past Tonga on Friday and Italy will do enough to dispatch Argentina on Saturday. Scotland will run Australia close but eventually lose out while the All Blacks will complete their perfect year on Sunday.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.