Irish issues out of question for travelling party
ZERO. The number of questions the New Zealand media present in Castleknock yesterday asked assistant coach Steve Hansen about the All Blacks' opposition on Saturday.
Perhaps understandably, they are already in World Cup mode. After Saturday, they have just five Test matches before their tournament starts against Tonga on September 9. The World Cup is their Holy Grail and their kryptonite all at the same time. To fail to win it in their own backyard would be unthinkable.
The countdown has already started and Ireland are seen as a stepping stone to their coronation, as were Scotland last week and as they expect Wales to be on November 27. Hansen spoke of the development of lock Sam Whitelock, the contribution of Brad Thorn and the continuing progress of hooker Hikawera Elliot but, on the eve of their team selection, no one mentioned Saturday's game.
When asked about the Grand Slam champions of 2009, Hansen was respectful and courteous, comparing the absence of Paul O'Connell to the All Blacks fielding a side without Richie McCaw.
"He's a huge loss. He's the go-to man at line-out time and definitely the leader in the forward pack," he said. "If you took Richie McCaw out of our side, you lose something. In saying that, it's a chance for someone else and they'll want to step up and do the job and it's been a while without him so they should be looking to the other leaders around that pack. It's a pretty experienced pack on paper."
But New Zealand are not in the habit of allowing situations to develop where an article can be pinned up on the opponents' dressing-room wall to aid motivation. They are an amazing PR machine and have planned "media activity" for every day of their tour, which started with a flight to Hong Kong on October 23.
Perhaps their indifference lies in that unblemished 105-year-old record or in Ireland's loss to the Maori side during the summer and the respective form of the teams.
Hansen dismissed any notion of 'cabin fever' setting in amongst the squad and the team caught some of Munster's win over Australia in the hotel. They have a weekly 'club night' to help players unwind. What exactly happens there is shrouded in mystery but they pack their club gear for the festivities.
As you'd expect, Hansen has his homework done. Ireland's newest cap Devin Toner is on his radar.
"He's a big man and like any young lock, what you see in the beginning isn't what you get in the end. It's having that ability to visualise where he is going to be able to get to as an athlete," Hansen said.
"He's 6' 10" so you don't expect him to be a gazelle do you? But at the same time, you look at the boy from South Africa (Andries) Bekker, he's around the same height and he is a gazelle and he is a good athlete. Sometimes, early in their career we judge them too hard, those tall boys."
But we don't go off point for too long. Hansen is soon asked about the problems of trimming the squad for the World Cup and how to deal with those who will be left out. Despite the lip service, Ireland are merely sparring partners ahead of the big fight.
From their point of view, it's acceptable. After all, McCaw has never lost an Autumn Series Test in the northern hemisphere, while under Graham Henry they have won 40 of 42 matches in this half of the world. The law of averages gives Ireland a better chance with every passing game (it has to kick in at some stage) but the bookies make the home side an 8/1 shot to end the hoodoo.
Only a notch in the win column, and sooner rather than later, for Ireland will have the Kiwis asking the right questions.