Kidney's young guns primed to have a cut
Fearless opening hand can make All Blacks sit up and take notice of support act
THERE is a well-known, apocryphal, story told about a secondary school teacher catching one of his pupils nodding off during class.
"What is it with you, Jenkins?" asked the exasperated tutor. "Are you ignorant or just apathetic?"
"Don't know, don't care, sir."
Ignorance and apathy would be a fair way to sum up the local attitude to the Irish rugby team ahead of tomorrow's first Test at Eden Park. There is overwhelming interest in the match, a triumphant return to the scene of the All Blacks' World Cup triumph last year, but Ireland are viewed as fulfilling an ancillary role.
Aside from Brian O'Driscoll, the Kiwis do not know the Irish players and don't particularly care. It could have something to do with New Zealand's location on the bottom edge of the world map, so far away that perhaps introspection is natural, but you would at least expect the All Blacks players and local media to have some idea of the opposition.
Yet, when star New Zealand out-half Dan Carter was asked yesterday about the qualities of his Irish counterpart, Jonathan Sexton, his panic-stricken look told of man thinking 'Jonathan Who?' before he managed a generic answer.
Then, at the Ireland team announcement a few hours later, a New Zealand reporter caused momentary confusion when he asked: "Brian, how do you feel about winning your first cap against an opponent as experienced as Tony Woodcock?"
Realising the question was meant for him, Ireland's new tight-head Declan Fitzpatrick had the good grace to answer without correcting his inquisitor.
It is all undeniably galling if you are Irish, but the truly infuriating aspect is that until you beat the All Blacks they do not feel any need to alter their cursory approach.
That could have had something to do with Declan Kidney's bold selection, banking on the fearlessness of youth overcoming the inferiority complexes that have hampered the Irish over 107 years of failure in this fixture.
GOING FOR BROKE
Simon Zebo, Keith Earls in midfield, Fergus McFadden, Peter O'Mahony and Dan Tuohy are Kidney picks which constitute a derisory snort at the accusations of conservatism that have been flung his way in the past.
He was widely expected to stick with experienced operators like Gordon D'Arcy, Andrew Trimble and Donncha O'Callaghan, who have served him faithfully over the last four years, and the adventurous spirit extended to the bench, where Darren Cave was picked as utility back -- another nod to the future.
It can be viewed as a massive gamble against the world champions on their favourite stage, but it also created a tremendous buzz around the camp yesterday, with Kidney claiming it would be "remiss of me not to take a look at a few things -- it is certainly a long way from the end for the lads who have been there a long time, but the younger lads deserve a break too".
A positive, Warren Gatland-esque approach that says: 'We need to look forward so why not start now and see what these guys are made of?'
Why not indeed? Nothing else has worked against the All Blacks, and though some will see it as risk stemming from an acknowledgment of inevitable defeat, there is something fearless about the likes of Zebo, O'Mahony, McFadden and Co which suggests they care not a jot for the All Blacks' intimidating reputation.
Whether it works is an entirely different matter but this looks like a side that is going to have a real cut and that is hugely energising in itself.
It is also an intelligent selection from the point of view of keeping the All Blacks guessing.
Kidney has selected a very fluid side.
Brian O'Driscoll wears the No 13 jersey but will spend the majority of the match in the inside-centre position, an acknowledgment both of the need to contain Sonny Bill Williams and of the progress made by Earls when O'Driscoll was ruled out of the Six Nations.
The fact the Ireland captain will swap in and out with Earls adds to the unpredictability factor, which continues into the back-row where O'Mahony and Sean O'Brien can alternate between the open and blind sides at will.
Zebo likes to roam around from wing to wing, making him extremely hard to mark, while McFadden can be effective coming infield and using the stepping skills that mark him down as a future Ireland No 12.
There is also the second-row, where Tuohy and Ryan can alternate between two and four at line-out time, and the fact both men have extensive flanker experience makes this arguably the most mobile Ireland engine room ever assembled.
It is safe to assume the All Blacks will not be overly concerned by any mixing and matching in the Irish ranks, but having such variety to call upon cannot be a bad thing.
Having made encouraging progress earlier in the week, Mike Ross' hamstring could not stand up to scrutiny at yesterday's training session and so Fitzpatrick, with just seven Heineken Cup starts to his name, makes his debut at tight-head.
Apologists for the continuing indulgence of overseas, non-Irish qualified players in a country that only has four professional teams should look at this scenario.
What is the real worth to Irish rugby of the likes of John Afoa and BJ Botha, who strengthen the provinces but weaken the national side by denying game time to Irish alternatives?
Ireland scrum coach Greg Feek admitted this week that Fitzpatrick was brought on tour on the basis of one Heineken Cup outing for Ulster -- the semi-final win over Edinburgh when Afoa was suspended.
Fitzpatrick is a decent player and maybe he can grab this chance and own the No 3 jersey, but given his lack of exposure, and the experience of his opponent Woodcock, that looks an enormous ask.
If Ireland are to be competitive tomorrow, Fitzpatrick needs to help provide a foundation at scrum time, and the Irish system is working against him -- a situation that would never be allowed to exist in New Zealand.
LES BE HAVING YOU
Assistant coach Les Kiss has excellent credentials and this is his greatest test since joining the Ireland ticket in 2008.
With the responsibility of overseeing attack and defence, the Australian's primary duty is ensuring that the All Blacks are not allowed to run amok as they have the forwards to punch it up and backs to exploit any gaps that then present themselves.
Crucial to this will be preventing Williams exercising his remarkable capacity for off-loads and marking the men who run onto his passes when he does get them away.
On the wings, McFadden has a major task in shackling Julian Savea, who has the size and power to run over defenders as well as the jinking skills to go around them at full tilt.
It is easy to see why Kidney took a punt on Zebo on the left touchline: the Cork youngster has something special about him with ball in hand. But his defence has been suspect in the past and the in-form Zac Guildford will put his work with Kiss through a severe examination.
In attack, there is the need to make the most of the few opportunities that do come Ireland's way, which, as well as depth and a degree of invention on the ball, requires quick ruck ball and dependable set-piece possession to even get going.
RATTLE AND HUM
There has been a certain degree of fatalism following this Irish expedition, summed up by soundbite predictions as the tour progresses.
First week: "We can take on the best."
Second week: "We have to bounce back straight away."
Third week: "We still have pride to play for."
That cynical outlook was challenged by the Irish team announcement yesterday and, while a first victory remains extremely doubtful, the indications are that this Irish side will go down swinging.
In these challenging circumstances, and following the World Cup and Six Nations letdowns, a young Irish team having a real crack at the best side in the world would be a step in the right direction.
New Zealand 37, Ireland 22