For aspirational professional rugby players the summer tour is often your best chance of breaking through from being an uncapped novice to winning that coveted first cap and hopefully becoming part of the furniture for the November series and Six Nations championships in the future.
Coaches seem to have more freedom to experiment at this time of year. Often some of the established stars are rested, especially the tour after a Lions tour, or some players sit it out to have little repair operations that have niggled them all season.
With Ireland playing their first group match in the Rugby World Cup in Bordeaux in 15 months and given the quality of the opposition that we will face over five matches in the coming weeks, Andy Farrell has decided not to rest any frontline players.
But the fact that he is bringing 40 players to New Zealand gives us an insight into his thoughts on what players he thinks may push through before that World Cup in France.
It’s been a while since the Irish squad have been together for a camp without some of them having won silverware that season (the URC shield doesn’t count) but Ulster’s and Leinster’s defeats in the URC semi-final will have been a double-edged sword. It has given the Irish coaches access to all their players for an extra week of preparation before they fly out of Dublin Airport across today and tomorrow but there will be niggling doubts about our ability to overcome the power games of the South African or French teams at national and club level.
Farrell has been quick to point out that the Irish team have their own way of playing so he isn’t worried but it’s always better in my opinion if players are learning how to, and more importantly, overcome different challenges weekly rather than just in the green jersey of Ireland.
This may surprise many but the All Blacks aren’t one of the most powerful teams in world rugby and, while they present a formidable challenge, even if Ireland beat them it will do nothing to quell the doubts around our ability to beat teams that physically look to strangle us.
France and South Africa have a template that Ireland need to prove we can handle or else we may be looking at another early World Cup exit. If Eddie Jones can settle on his best squad selection and get a better balance to their play, England also have the ability to physically dominate us given the personnel he has at his disposal and the way a lot of the Premiership teams play. New Zealand beat you with speed, skill and high levels of game intelligence.
While Ireland benefitted from an extra week’s preparation together, the All Blacks coaches will have been watching the Super Rugby final yesterday morning between the Crusaders and the Blues with apprehension. In total, 21 of his 36-man squad were in action and if the quality of the game was anything to go by his players look in great shape.
Yet, head coach Ian Foster is a man under pressure going into this series. “This will be the biggest home series since the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour for the All Blacks,” he said last week. Is he trying to sell tickets? Have Ireland now become one of the biggest draws in world rugby? Is Foster trying to manage the message to his bosses?
Defeats by Ireland and France on last year’s November tour have done nothing to quell the nagging doubts amongst the Kiwi public about whether he should have been appointed in the first place. He was part of the coaching team for the Japan World Cup where the All Blacks went out limply to England at the semi-final stage.
The New Zealand Rugby Union went through a formal and quite public application and interview process for the job, and the three-man shortlist contained Foster, Jamie Joseph and Scott Robertson. Joseph had won a Super Rugby title with the Highlanders and performed miracles with Japan. Robertson has huge support amongst the public and the pro players in New Zealand and is creating a dynasty with the Crusaders who are dominating Super Rugby.
Having failed to win a World Cup there must have been a temptation to restart with a fresh canvas and bring in Joseph or Robertson but having stuck with Foster the NZRU would have expected better results and performances and have acted accordingly. In December they added Joe Schmidt to the management team as a selector, replacing the legendary out-half Grant Fox. Fox’s role was seen to be more of an ambassadorial one but there is no doubt that Schmidt isn’t there for the free lunches.
He is back coaching at the Blues and I am sure he will be giving the All Blacks coaches and players his insights into how to beat Ireland and where the individual strengths and weaknesses lie. Ironically, if the All Blacks were to under-perform in this series the NZRU may look to make a change to the coaching team immediately so as to give time to prepare for the World Cup and that change could very easily see Schmidt become the head coach.
With his squad selection, Farrell has illustrated some of the obvious gaps in our depth chart. At loosehead prop it’s critical that we get Cian Healy to the World Cup in one piece and also back to his best. Dave Kilcoyne is injured but behind them Farrell is backing Jeremy Loughman to be the best of the rest, even though Munster rate Josh Wycherley ahead of him right now.
Harry Byrne may have played a lot less than his brother Ross for Leinster this season, that he looks to be a player Farrell feels can become a successor to Sexton.
This tour could be a huge turning point in the career of Ciarán Frawley. He is what the French call a ‘Swiss army knife’ in that he can solve a lot of problems in terms of his versatility but, depending on how well Harry Byrne goes, he may become fast-tracked as back-up to Sexton.
Alternatively, if Farrell and Mike Catt think that having a second playmaker in midfield is one of the tactical evolutions that we need to look at then he may get some game time in the number 12 jersey.