Maori challenge a chance for Farrell to judge depth of talent ahead of headline clashes with New Zealand
In the early days of the Maori All Blacks, heritage was important, but it wasn’t exactly top of the agenda when it came to selecting a squad. Nowadays, every player must have their ancestry verified before they pull on the famous black jersey.
Maori culture is a huge part of New Zealand’s identity, and as some of Ireland’s young guns are about to find out in Hamilton tomorrow morning, they pack a serious punch.
This is not just a group of players looking to catch the eye of the All Blacks coaches ahead of the Test Series, but a proud team who understand what it means to represent the Maori.
Family values are deep-rooted in the Maori culture, with former Munster centre Rua Tipoki relaying to the Ireland squad the passion that’s involved whenever they take to the field.
Ireland were the first to feel the wrath of the Maori, who travelled to Lansdowne Road for their first full international in December of 1888, when they claimed a 13-4 victory.
They have only faced Ireland once since, another 31-28 win in Rotorua, either side of two Irish defeats to New Zealand and Australia.
Munster secured a famous win over the Maori on an emotional night in Thomond Park six years ago, but just as is the case with the All Blacks, the Maori are tough to beat on home soil.
A large crowd is expected at the FMG Stadium for a clash that could set the tone for Ireland’s tour.
With players like TJ Perenara and Cullen Grace out to prove a point after missing out on the All Blacks squad, this will be a ferocious challenge for an inexperienced Ireland team.
Andy Farrell has repeatedly made it clear that he wants to find out about the quality and depth of his squad and come full-time, he will have learned a lot about where exactly he stands on that front.
The Test series is ultimately where Ireland will be judged but developing depth in both Maori games will also be vital in determining whether or not this was a successful tour.
James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park, who between them played 12 games for the Maori, would have relished a crack at their former team, but as Farrell put it: “There’s a game on Saturday as well that the lads want to be involved in.”
The last couple of days have been a real test for Farrell and his coaches, as they aim to get a young team up to speed whilst also ramping up preparations for Saturday’s first Test at Eden Park.
It’s all part of the challenge of an extended tour, with Ireland braced for the Maori to come out swinging in a bid to lay down a marker for what’s to come in the next three weeks.
“It’s going to be brilliant because there are some of our lads who haven’t been capped and they will get an opportunity,” Farrell said.
“It’s not a capped Test match but it’s damn near it, isn’t it? The passion that they know is coming from the Maori team and the quality of player that they have picked means it’s going to be a brilliant challenge for that team.
“And that’s why we are doing it, that’s why we are here, that’s why we want to give people the opportunity to see how they handle the pressure moments. For that group, there’s not going to be any bigger game this year really, is there?”
An opening-night defeat wouldn’t derail the tour, but a win would provide a massive boost leading into the first Test.
“I mean, let’s put it in context,” Farrell said. “We have been over here, a lot of us in 2017 (with the Lions), and we had the best from Ireland and the British Isles and I think the consensus was we were pretty pleased with a drawn result.
“So that just shows the size of the challenge for us. But it’s good. Let’s see what we’re about.”
For the five uncapped players – Jimmy O’Brien, Ciarán Frawley, Jeremy Loughman, Joe McCarthy and Cian Prendergast – all of whom are pushing for starts, this is a chance to stake their claim for involvement in the Test series further down the line.
All eyes will be on Frawley, should he get the nod at out-half, while Loughman will be under pressure to impress against a powerful Maori front-row.
Bundee Aki would relish the occasion, even more so if Farrell names him as Ireland captain for the first time. Keeping his emotions in check will be important, as he links up with James Hume in what is an exciting centre partnership.
Bringing a physical edge will be important so from that end, McCarthy and Prendergast would add some youthful exuberance and ballast, with Keith Earls likely to provide plenty of experience on the wing.
The Kiwis would love nothing more than to claim a scalp tomorrow, and having been warned about the intense welcome that awaits, it’s up to a much-changed Ireland team to get the tour off to a positive start by beating the Maori for the first time in the country’s history.
Maori All Blacks: Z Sullivan; S Stevenson, B Proctor, R Poihipi, C Garden-Bachop; J Ioane, B Weber (capt); O Norris, K Eklund, T Lomax; J Dickson, I Walker-Leawere; C Suafoa, B Harmon, C Grace. Reps: T Thompson, T Williams, J Ainsley, M Selby-Rickit, TK Howden, TJ Perenara, R Love, B Sullivan.
Ireland (possible): J O’Brien; J Larmour, J Hume, B Aki (capt), K Earls; C Frawley, C Casey; J Loughman, D Heffernan, T O’Toole; K Treadwell, J McCarthy; C Prendergast, N Timoney, G Coombes. Reps: D Sheehan, C Healy, F Bealham, T Beirne, R Baird, C Murray, H Byrne, M Lowry.
Ref: W Barnes (England)
Maori All Blacks v Ireland, live, Sky Sports Action, 8.05am (Irish time) tomorrow
Brad Weber (scrum-half)
The experienced Chiefs man has edged out TJ Perenara for the starting No 9 spot and will co-captain the team, along with his scrum-half rival.
Billy Proctor (centre)
Younger brother of current Northampton and former All Black midfielder Matt, the 23-year-old Hurricane is a strong ball-carrier.
Shaun Stevenson (wing)
A regular face in the Maori team, the Chiefs player knows where the try-line is and is tough to stop when he gets up a head of steam.
Tyrel Lomax (tighthead)
The well-travelled prop finds himself outside the All Blacks squad but having won 14 caps, the Hurricane will be hoping to force his way back in.
Cullen Grace (No 8)
Eyebrows were raised when the talented 22-year-old Crusaders man was overlooked by the All Blacks, but the versatile lineout operator may yet earn a second cap in this series.