THESE are giddy times for Irish rugby, as they face into a deciding Test against the All Blacks in Wellington, but for New Zealand rugby there is not much to laugh about right now.
All Blacks head coach Ian Foster probably expects that his team are playing to keep him in his job on Saturday.
Last week’s defeat in Dunedin marked the first time ever that a New Zealand head coach’s win percentage record dropped below 70%.
This is a far cry from the 85% win rate that numerous All Black coaches helped maintain from 2004 to 2019.
It is fair to say that one more loss may well be the Rubicon crossed that ensures that the suits in the New Zealand Rugby Union decide that Foster is not the man to take them to the World Cup in France next year.
Make no mistake about it, the natives are extremely restless in New Zealand right now.
Travelling down under for this Series the New Zealand rugby public knew that Ireland had beaten the All Blacks on three occasions in recent years, including most recently in Dublin last November, but they never contemplated the possibility of losing an actual Test Series to Ireland.
And on home turf? No chance.
Well, all bets are off now, as the reality is starting to sink home in New Zealand that a game against Ireland isn’t a walk-up victory any longer and that an Irish Series victory would not be the huge surprise it would have been in other years.
Four wins in seven by Ireland over New Zealand means that the All Black aura has well and truly been blown away.
Irish sides will never fear the black jersey ever again.
That is not to say that Ireland are going to win on Saturday morning either.
It will take a monumental effort for Andy Farrell’s side to take the spoils.
In fact, the bookmakers still make the All Blacks heavy favourites to win the deciding Test, with them being 1/3 and being -8 in the handicap. History counts for so much in these types of scenarios and one tends not to lose too often if you stick with the historically dominant side.
The game takes place at the Sky Stadium in Wellington, where not only did the Maori All Backs lose to Ireland by 30-24 on Tuesday, but it is a venue where the All Blacks have only won one of their last five Tests, which is an incredible stat given their proud record on home soil.
Bizarrely, the last two matches that New Zealand played here were 16-16 draws, in 2020 against Australia and in 2019 against South Africa.
They did beat France here four years ago, but that win was sandwiched in between defeats to South Africa and the Lions.
It has not been a happy hunting ground for the All Blacks.
The All Blacks discipline left them down badly last week, with the one red and two yellows they were brandished in the first half undermining their efforts.
They will want to up the physicality stakes for this Series decider, but they are bound to be worried about crossing a line that could end up presenting the Series to Ireland.
They will know that to beat Ireland they will have to do far better in restricting the influence of Ireland captain Jonathan Sexton, as Ireland’s 37 year old outhalf will pull New Zealand apart if given the time and space to do so.
The back row battle is going to be crucial. All Black number eight Ardea Savea was brilliant in the first Test in Auckland, but the Kiwi back row was outplayed by Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier and the brilliant Peter O’Mahony in Dunedin, with O’Mahony’s mid-game quip to All Black captain Sam Cane of “Who do you think you are? You’re a shit Richie McCaw pal”, being the ultimate rugby banter mic drop moment.
Tadhg Beirne reminded everyone last week that when he is fully fit that he is arguably Ireland’s best forward.
New Zealand might not have been aware of this, but they are now.
The Munster pair can expect special attention from their Kiwi counterparts on Saturday.
In truth a Series win in New Zealand will probably count for very little come next year’s World Cup, but that can take care of itself.
A Series win there would be a truly historic achievement and there is no reason why Ireland cannot control the game in the same manner as last week and put the All Blacks to the sword.
15. Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD); 14. Mack Hansen (Connacht); 13. Robbie Henshaw (Leinster/Buccaneers); 12. Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians); 11. James Lowe (Leinster); 10. Johnny Sexton (Leinster/St Mary’s College); 9. Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster); 1. Andrew Porter (Leinster/UCD); 2. Dan Sheehan (Leinster/Lansdowne); 3. Tadhg Furlong (Leinster/Clontarf); 4. Tadhg Beirne (Munster/Lansdowne); 5. James Ryan (Leinster/UCD); 6. Peter O’Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution); 7. Josh van der Flier (Leinster/UCD); 8. Caelan Doris (Leinster/St Mary’s College).
Replacements: 16. Rob Herring (Ulster/Ballynahinch); 17. Cian Healy (Leinster/Clontarf); 18. Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers); 19. Kieran Treadwell (Ulster/Ballymena); 20. Jack Conan (Leinster/Old Belvedere); 21. Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen); 22. Joey Carbery (Munster/Clontarf); 23. Keith Earls (Munster/Young Munster).