Crunch time: All Blacks' season reaches its defining European Tests

New Zealand destroyed Ireland in their last meeting, triumphing 46-17 at the 2019 World Cup Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images

Five weeks on from the Springboks and the All Blacks are set to face their greatest challenge since splitting successive Tests against the world champions.

After notching a century against the USA; blowing the weakened Welsh away in the final quarter and spluttering to an ugly win over Italy last week with their second-string team, the All Blacks' arrival in Dublin marks the defining stage in their season.

To this point, the All Blacks have locked away the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship titles. They've progressed significantly from last season's COVID-disrupted campaign, which delivered a 50% winning record in Ian Foster's maiden year at the helm, all the while building depth.

Away from home and families for 15 weeks all told, the All Blacks have navigated a challenging climate in which they've been confined to a restrictive touring bubble and forced to live out of each other's pockets.

To a man they say that time has brought them closer than ever.

Now, though, the mismatches are in the rear-view mirror. The crunch is here.

The All Blacks humbled Joe Schmidt's Ireland 46-17 in their last meeting during the 2019 World Cup quarterfinal in Yokohama. Yet their last five Tests have been split 3-2 - a stretch dating back to Ryan Crotty's try and Aaron Cruden's match-winning conversion on the second attempt in one of the all-time great comebacks in 2013.

Three years ago Ireland claimed the last Test in Dublin, their first home win over the All Blacks, to serve a reminder that they are a different beast at a sold out Aviva Stadium.

Andy Farrell and Ian Foster were both promoted from their respective assistant roles in the wake of underwhelming World Cup results. This Test, the first of four between the All Blacks and Ireland in the next nine months, will go a long way to shaping the narrative around their team's quest for the next pinnacle event.

So, who will win this weekend and why? Here we analyse four key areas the All Blacks must get right.

High ball:

In the first Test against the All Blacks, the Springboks were widely criticised for their negative tactics that involved hoisting to the heavens at every opportunity; kicking with the same intent as attempting to shake a crab from one's foot. They persisted with the tactic, though, because it worked.

Since then we've seen Wales and Italy, with varying degrees of success, attempt to emulate the high ball assault on the All Blacks' back three. While Jordie Barrett and Will Jordan, the latter since the Boks examination, have been sound under the high ball, others such as George Bridge were exposed.

Defusing high balls has increasingly become a lottery. Teams will often send players past the ball with the sole purpose of disrupting the attempted leap, while others frequently fling an arm out in the hope of knocking the ball back, rather than being in any genuine position to make a catch. Cleaning up this area needs urgent attention.

For all Ireland's purported evolution with Conor Murray, one of the best box-kicking exponents in the game, and Jonathan Sexton running the cutter, the All Blacks can expect another torrent of towering bombs.

While the high ball ploy worked for the Boks it remains a risky tactic. Get the balance or accuracy wrong and allow the All Blacks time and space to launch counters from the back field and they will make you pay - as Jordan's sublime chip and regather proved against Wales.

Breakdown:

Shutting the All Blacks down at the source is the most effective way to kill their game. When it comes to the breakdown, the All Blacks have a need for speed. When they generate quick, clean ball they are unstoppable. When they don't, they can be frustrated into impatience; pushing offloads behind the gain line and making snap decisions.

Contesting possession remains one of the pillars of Ireland's game. They probably don't possess the same size and physicality to replicate the Boks clinical counter rucking. Ireland do, however, have proven the ability to win the collisions, to deny the All Blacks ball carriers getting a roll on. Achieve that, slow the speed of ball, snaffle the odd turnover and half the job is done.

Defensive line speed:

Farrell masterminded the 2017 British & Irish Lions defensive systems and held that same brief with Ireland during Joe Schmidt's successful tenure. His template is similar to that embraced by the Boks - rushing the midfield and leaving space on the edges.

When they don't deliver a front foot platform, the All Blacks continue to present vulnerabilities in the face of defensive line speed pressure. This was again true against Italy last week. In this regard, finding ways to beat the rush and get the ball to the edge through cross-field kicks and chips in behind the defensive line could be influential.

Inside scoop:

Three New Zealanders donning green this weekend - Bundee Aki, James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park - are familiar to the All Blacks. Perhaps more significant is the All Blacks have two forwards coaches, John Plumtree and Greg Feek, to offer inside oil.

Plumtree was Ireland's forwards coach when the All Blacks pulled off their 2013 Dublin escape, while Feek worked with Schmidt and Farrell in over 100 Tests before moving home last year.

In an arena of small margins that knowledge could prove telling.

"I know the mindset of the Irish boys," Plumtree said. "In my time here I could see they're very passionate about who they are as people. They know exactly who they're playing for. They believe in themselves as a rugby team. They've had mixed results in last year's Six Nations which they were disappointed in but after dismantling Japan they showed they're building something.

"We know what a tough challenge this will be. We know we'll have to work hard and earn everything on Saturday night.

"The team is bouncing this week. I've loved the energy. We're in a rugby mad country. We know they're after our scalp and that's when the All Blacks are at their best when we feel our backs are against the wall and we have to come out swinging so that's what we'll do."