Who says the rugby season is over? A month of summer tour matches kicks off this weekend, to be swiftly followed by the Tri-Nations which will keep us going for weeks and then we’ll be straight back into Premiership, Top 14 and Magners League action come September.
Ireland takes on the All Blacks on Saturday and the game offers a chance for them to exorcise the demons that seem to have haunted them this season. An encouraging win over the Barbarians with a depleted team should set them up nicely to face a new-look New Zealand side that will have to adjust quickly back to the old (proper) laws.
Only six players are retained in Graham Henry’s squad from the team that lost to France in the World Cup – a number of new faces will feature and they might take a while to get going. Anthony Tuitavake is one to watch out for – he plays for the Blues and will start on the right wing with pace to burn and impressive strength in the tackle.
Jerome Kaino steps into the Number 8 berth after Jerry Collins’ retirement from international rugby with Rodney So’oialo shifting to the blindside. It’s still a fearsome back row completed, of course, by Richie McCaw and Ireland will have to be at their best to compete up front.
It’s probably no coincidence then that the Irish are fielding seven Munster forwards, the side that won the Heineken Cup with a dominant forward display. Paul O’Connell looked to be back at the top of his game in that match, and will need to be to challenge Ali Williams and Brad Thorn at the set-piece.
Eoin Reddan has been looking sharp behind the Wasps pack and Ronan O’Gara knows all about facing New Zealand. They won’t have an easy task against Crusaders cohorts Andy Ellis and Dan Carter, but if they can release the new centre partnership of Luke Fitzgerald and Brian O’Driscoll they may cause the Home side some problems.
Ireland’s best bet has to be to keep it tight and keep their score slowly ticking over. As much as I’d like to see a Northern Hemisphere team go to New Zealand and throw caution to the wind, by utilising the familiar forward unit and playing at a completely different pace to that dictated in Super 14 by the ELVs, they should confuse a relatively junior team enough to keep in touch on the scoreboard.
If Ronan O’Gara can steal a few penalties, kick for the corners and keep New Zealand on the back foot they may just stand a chance. Unfortunately, everything is telling me they won’t do it – they never have before, home or away, and have been very disappointing all season. Catching the All Blacks cold is a good opportunity for them, but I fear they’ll just warm them up nicely, ready to demolish England in a week’s time.
15-Mils Muliaina, 14-Anthony Tuitavake, 13-Conrad Smith, 12-Ma’a Nonu, 11-Sitiveni Sivivatu; 10-Dan Carter, 9-Andy Ellis; 8-Jerome Kaino, 7-Richie McCaw (captain), 6-Rodney So’oialo, 5-Ali Willliams, 4-Brad Thorn, 3-John Afoa, 2-Andrew Hore, 1-Neemia Tialata.
Replacements: 16-Keven Mealamu, 17-John Schwalger, 18-Anthony Boric, 19-Adam Thomson, 20-Jimmy Cowan, 21-Stephen Donald, 22-Leon MacDonald.
15-Robert Kearney, 14-Shane Horgan, 13-Brian O’Driscoll (captain), 12-Luke Fitzgerald, 11-Tommy Bowe, 10-Ronan O’Gara, 9-Eoin Reddan, 8-Jamie Heaslip, 7-David Wallace, 6-Denis Leamy, 5-Donncha O’Callaghan, 4-Paul O’Connell, 3-John Hayes, 2-Jerry Flannery, 1-Marcus Horan.
Replacements: 16-Rory Best, 17-Tony Buckley, 18-Mick O’Driscoll, 19-Shane Jennings, 20-Peter Stringer, 21-Paddy Wallace, 22-Girvan Dempsey.