Kidney's men must slow down Gear to stifle Maori threat
THE Maori are lining up Ireland tomorrow and the tourists' capacity to cope with the onslaught will have massive significance for the rest of this exacting expedition to the southern hemisphere.
Jamie Joseph's side warmed up for their clash with Ireland with a 37-31 win over the NZ Barbarians last weekend and have had a week to iron out the wrinkles exposed in that performance.
While beating a talented Barbarians outfit will have pleased the Maori, there is no question that Ireland are the prize scalp. Victory over Declan Kidney's side is seen as the perfect way to mark the Maori's centenary celebrations, particularly in their spiritual home of Rotorua where the Maori played their first match in 1910.
Joseph has made five changes to the side that won last weekend, one was enforced through injury with scrum-half Aaron Smith replacing Chris Smylie, who fractured his cheekbone against the Barbarians. The other alterations see starts for prop Ben Afeaki, lock Hayden Triggs, No 8 Colin Bourke and centre Dwayne Sweeney.
Those names may not mean a lot to the Irish but Afeaki is certainly one to watch out for. He is a beast of a tight-head prop, not far off Tony Buckley size, and his selection has a lot to do with the wobbly Maori scrum last weekend.
The marquee names are all in place, from captain Liam Messam in the back row, to out-half Stephen Brett, centre Luke McAlister and Corey Flynn at hooker. However, while Brett and McAlister have been garnering most of the attention in the build-up, the player who is arguably the biggest threat to the Irish is Hosea Gear on the left wing.
Gear is a lethal finisher and ferociously committed to the Maori cause. A YouTube clip from a few years ago of Gear leading the Maori in a haka ahead of a Churchill Cup game against Ireland 'A' has amassed over two million views. Gear and that haka, which incidentally also features former Munster centre Rua Tipoki, makes for scary viewing, even from the safety of your laptop, and, if the Irish are to do well tomorrow, they cannot be intimidated by the ferocity of the opposition or intensity of the occasion.
For all the injury issues that have clouded this tour and the fact that Kidney is using this fixture to develop his squad, there is still quality and experience in the Ireland line-up, starting with the captain Geordan Murphy at full-back. Jonathan Sexton and Eoin Reddan form an assured half-back partnership and centres Gavin Duffy and Paddy Wallace have been around the block a few times, as has right wing Shane Horgan.
The Irish also bring an extremely mobile pack to the International Stadium but one that has to establish a set-piece platform if they are to cope with the Maori onslaught.
The hosts will run the ball from everywhere, likely to be helped by the interpretations of South African referee Mark Lawrence who caused such consternation during the Six Nations, and after the card-aided nine tries for the All Blacks last weekend, a huge onus falls on the Irish defence to hold firm.
Damien Varley has recovered from his back problem to take his place on the bench and there is plenty of experience around him, which will be called upon in the second half.
This is not a full international but the Maori are a Test-quality outfit and an Irish victory would constitute a phenomenal achievement given the problems that have beset this expedition. That might be too big an ask in the circumstances but there are plenty of motivating factors for the Irish, not least pride and frustration in the wake of last weekend's reversal.
A good performance would go a long way to lifting spirits ahead of the last leg in Australia.