Beware the All Blacks on the charm offensive.
Ireland have generally come and gone from New Zealand with the minimal of fuss or notice from the locals, but this tour has had an altogether different feel to it from the very beginning.
The music could easily change come full-time tomorrow, as Andy Farrell’s men look to go where no Irish team has ever gone before on Kiwi soil.
For the last 28 years, fortress Eden Park has been unbreakable with 46 games undefeated there since France emerged victorious from the famous old ground in 1994. This is as tough as it gets.
The All Blacks are feeling the heat, as well as the effects of Covid ripping through their squad, but none of the tourists are naive enough to fall into the trap of underestimating them, especially at home.
“I think they don’t want to be part of the team that loses there,” Farrell said of the aura surrounding Eden Park.
“That’s an unbelievable motivation for them, but at the same time, as far as opportunity is concerned, for us that’s what life’s all about.”
“It’s a big task in front of us but if you don’t get an opportunity in life how are you going to push forward? We’re certainly keen to see where our potential really is because where we’re at at this stage isn’t good enough to push us forward to where we want to be in a year’s time.”
One-by-one the big-hitting Kiwis were rolled out in front of the media yesterday, and as if to ensure that they were each singing off the same hymn sheet, the compliments for Ireland’s evolution came flooding in.
Take veteran scrum-half Aaron Smith for example:
“It doesn’t get much bigger than Ireland coming here,” he said to surprised looks from the Irish contingent in the audience.
“Definitely in the last sort of five to six years, the rivalry has definitely grown.
“Every Test match is hard but it’s going to be really nice to play Ireland at home. We are ready to go. We are bloody excited. It’s been a great week. It doesn’t get much bigger than Eden Park, playing a Test.”
A real respect now exists between the two teams, and while Ian Foster was honest enough to admit that very few supporters would have recognised many names on the Ireland team sheet for the Maori defeat, they are well aware of the threat posed by each of the 15 Ireland players who will take to the pitch tomorrow (8.05 Irish time).
It wasn’t always like this because in the not too distant past, the extent of the knowledge of Irish players was limited to Brian O’Driscoll and Seán O’Brien.
This is a new breed, but it is one that stands within 80 minutes of writing themselves into the history books. It will take a monumental effort to do so, yet there is real belief within this group, even if their preparations haven’t exactly gone smoothly either.
Injuries to Rónan Kelleher, Iain Henderson and Cian Healy, who for now is named on the bench, as well as Mack Hansen testing positive for Covid, means Farrell is without three first-choice players.
Sympathy will be in short supply from the All Blacks, who have had to deal with an ongoing Covid crisis throughout the week, as Greg Feek became the fourth coach to test positive along with Foster, John Plumtree and Scott McLeod. Three backs – Will Jordan, David Havili, and Jack Goodhue, all of whom would have been in the reckoning – have also been ruled out with Covid.
Feek’s knowledge of the Ireland scrum is unrivalled, having spent so long working in the country, while Joe Schmidt’s addition to the staff this week added further intel on Farrell’s men.
There are real concerns around Ireland’s set-piece, as the scrum and lineout have had their struggles at various stages. That will not have gone unnoticed by the All Blacks, who will target Ireland in both areas.
Much will depend on Karl Dickson’s interpretation of the scrum and breakdown – an area that has become vital to Ireland’s high-tempo game-plan.
Dickson’s compatriot Wayne Barnes whistled Ireland off the park in the Maori game, and although a much more cohesive team will start tomorrow, the struggles in Hamilton were another stark reminder of the difficulties of playing off slow ball.
New Zealand will do everything they can to disrupt Jamison Gibson-Park’s service to Johnny Sexton, which is why the pack need a huge performance from one to eight.
Tadhg Beirne hasn’t played since the Six Nations due to a thigh injury, but if he can hit the ground running around the breakdown, the Munster lock can have a big impact on proceedings.
The glaring problem for Farrell is, if any of his front-row – Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan or Tadhg Furlong – go down injured early on, they are in for a long night.
The starting XV has a familiar look to it, but the bench, particularly the quality of the front-five replacements, is a major concern for Farrell.
This may not be a vintage All Blacks team, yet it is one that is littered with game-breaking ability. If Smith and Beauden Barrett get quick ball, they could run riot. Scott Barrett’s selection in the back-row, his first since the 2019 World Cup semi-final defeat to England, will look to offset Peter O’Mahony’s lineout threat.
The hosts have spoken about the “scar tissue” that still lingers from last November’s defeat in Dublin, but there is an acknowledgement throughout the Ireland squad that this is a much more difficult proposition.
“Obviously the side we have picked to take to Eden Park has been together for a while,” Farrell added.
“We get confidence from the way that we prepare and the know-how of how we want to best attack the game.
“I think we have been pretty good at that of late. You always go into a new tournament trying to hit the ground running.
“But I think with our preparation and how we trained against Counties (Manukau), I think we’re in a good spot.”
The All Blacks’ reputation has always been based on shattering the illusion of opposition teams believing they are on their level.
The challenge for Ireland is to prove that they are, and not just away from home.
The fortress Eden Park awaits.
Verdict: New Zealand