A much revamped New Zealand side will bid to achieve what no team in the professional era has done and win all their Test matches in a calendar year by beating Ireland at Lans-downe Road today.
Coach Steve Hansen has made seven changes to the starting lineup from the one that on Nov. 16 avenged last year’s defeat against England at Twickenham, but he is confident the fresher faces can round off the perfect year.
Their opponents — coached by New Zealander Joe Schmidt — face an awesome task.
Not only have they never beaten the All Blacks — they lost 0-60 the last time they met in Hamilton last year — but also the manner in which they lost 32-15 to Australia on Nov. 16 has had some pundits commenting that they will be served up as a “Sunday roast.”
No international team in the professional era has had a perfect calendar year, with the All Blacks side led by Wayne Shelford — who won all seven of their Tests in 1989 — the last major nation to achieve the feat when rugby union was still an amateur sport.
New Zealand came close to it again when they won 11 games and drew one under John Hart in 1997.
Hansen, who was assistant coach to Graham Henry when the All Blacks won the World Cup on home soil two years ago, is adamant that even with the radical changes, and without the experience of injured duo Dan Carter and Tony Woodcock, the side can create history.
“In the last nine weeks, we’ve gone round the world twice, and this will be our seventh Test in nine weeks,” said the 54-year-old, whose side will be bidding to make it 14 wins from 14 matches.
“We’ve had a big, physical game against Argentina, another physical performance in Johannesburg, a lot of running and chasing in Dunedin, then France was physical and England was physical,” he said. “It’s just the accumulation of a lot of travel and game time. We need fresh legs and we’ve got ability sitting there fresh, so why not use them?”
A lot of eyes will be fixed on Carter’s replacement at flyhalf, 24-year-old Aaron Cruden, but assistant coach Ian Foster has few doubts about his ability to shine.
“Cruden can be very satisfied with his year as he has started a fair amount of Tests and run the games really well, especially the first Test of the Rugby Championship against Australia [the All Blacks won 47-29],” Foster said.
Foster, who was brought on board by Hansen after the World Cup triumph, said that neither complacency nor fatigue could be used as excuses if they slip up today and claimed making history was not on their minds.
“It’s boring press, but for us this game is just the next one, nothing more,” he said. “We’re not seeing it as the last one. We’re really pleased with the first two results [beating France and England], but we’re not happy with the performances. We’re ambitious and we are still chasing that great performance.”