Hugh Farrelly: Ideal time to take on the men in black
IT is less than a month to Ireland's opening Test against the world champions in Auckland and things are bubbling up nicely for coach Declan Kidney.
The success of the Irish provinces in making an all-Ireland Heineken Cup final, with the possibility of another Irish affair in the RaboDirect Pro12 decider, has been noted in New Zealand ahead of the three-Test series. However, it is clear that Kidney's side are still regarded as little more than cannon fodder ahead of the immodestly titled 'Rugby Championship', which sees Argentina join the Tri-Nations party for the first time.
It was ever thus in a fixture that has yet to produce an Irish victory in 107 years of trying and, in the professional era, home Tests against Ireland have been regarded as a handy way for the All Blacks to blood new players with little thought given to the prospect of defeat.
In 2006, New Zealand handed out first caps to Clarke Dermody, Jerome Kaino and Greg Rawlinson in the first Test against the Irish, while two years later Adam Thompson and Anthony Tuitavake made debuts.
In the 2010 clash, Graham Henry went further again, blooding Aaron Cruden, Israel Dagg, Benson Stanley, Sam Whitelock and Victor Vito, and the indications are new head coach Steve Hansen will use the Irish to look at several fresh faces. Unfamiliar names like Brodie Retallick, Josh Bekhuis, Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara are being touted for international call-ups as established stars like Ali Williams, Piri Weepu and Ma'a Nonu struggle for form.
Not the ideal scenario for Hansen and a glimmer of hope for the Irish, who will be also grateful Dan Carter -- playing at 12 for the Crusaders -- is unlikely to be on place-kicking duty as he protects the groin injury which ruined his World Cup.
History shows that it is dangerous to indulge in optimism ahead of meetings with the All Blacks but it cannot be denied that Kidney will have access to a group of players oozing confidence and battle-hardened after an encouraging season for their provinces.
And, though it is a campaign that has been running since last summer due to the World Cup, the players will still be relatively fresh thanks to the (much-maligned) Player Management Programme.
So, who does Kidney bring? After an anti-climactic Six Nations there were calls for an injection of younger players but, while there is certainly a need to include a few new faces to gain experience, the likelihood is that the 22 selected to face the All Blacks in the first Test will have a familiar look to it.
The view that Ronan O'Gara should be left at home is preposterous -- it's impossible to envisage Ireland beating the All Blacks for the first time this summer without the 35-year-old in the squad. Ian Madigan deserves to be involved as the third out-half behind Jonathan Sexton and O'Gara, but the likelihood is that he will not travel, as Paddy Wallace's excellent form means the Ulster man will probably continue to cover centre and out-half.
However, within a squad of 28-30, there is still an opportunity to bring other youngsters such as Munster hooker Mike Sherry, Ulster and Leinster wingers Craig Gilroy and Dave Kearney, while Connacht's Ronan Loughney has earned the right to be selected as cover for tight-head Mike Ross.
There is a big opportunity also for Ulster's Dan Tuohy to stake his claim for a second-row berth next to Donnacha Ryan following the injury to Paul O'Connell. The Munster captain will be a massive loss but at least there is the considerable boost of the return to fitness and form of Brian O'Driscoll.
He, O'Gara and Gordon D'Arcy will see this as the last opportunity to claim the most prized scalp in world rugby, while memories of New Plymouth will motivate Jamie Heaslip to show why he was regarded as one of the finest No 8s in the world not so long ago.
A possible team-sheet of Healy, Best, Ross, Ryan, Tuohy, Ferris, O'Brien, Heaslip, Murray, Sexton, D'Arcy, O'Driscoll, D Kearney, McFadden and R Kearney is a group that, on their game, is capable of rattling the world champions, who will have the added pressure of wanting to deliver a big performance in their first outing since landing the World Cup.
Twickenham next weekend is a showcase for Irish rugby and the perfect spur to translate provincial success into national achievement. The All Blacks clearly expect another 'handy' victory but so did the Australians at the World Cup. Too much to expect perhaps, but it's shaping up nicely.