Date: 9th June 2012
Referee: Nigel Owens
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
There is a slightly transitional sheen to this All Blacks set-up, but do not expect the Webb Ellis holders to relinquish their grip on world rugby. The presence of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw suggests that new head coach Steve Hansen is taking this summer very seriously as a runway towards 2015. Three debutants – Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick and Julian Savea – seize a chance on merit and will be bolstered by proven performers everywhere else in the starting team. A tasty prospect.
Six Nations redemption is the name of the game for Declan Kidney’s charges, who will be desperate to dispel memories of how they dissolved to England at a rainy Twickenham in March. Brian O’Driscoll returns to national service as captain and Ireland will need every ounce of his talismanic qualities to galvanize a flimsy-looking selection. Up front, Mike Ross, Paul O’Connell and Stephen Ferris are all absent, which may prove gruesome. Simon Zebo and Simon Fitzpatrick make their Test bows at Eden Park – fiery baptisms indeed.
What to Expect:
A pack headed up by Cian Healy and Rory Best will never lack passion or industry, but a new-look lock combination and a first cap at tighthead means that the Irish forwards will be under the cosh straight away. Further back, it is an even more worrying tale, with mismatches galore across the three-quarters, at least in terms of size. Sonny Bill Williams won’t lose sleep over marking Keith Earls, while Fergus McFadden’s banishment to the wing means he must shackle the 103kg Savea. Light rain is forecast in Auckland, but it would take a hurricane for the hosts to hold back from an direct, relentless running game.
Head to Head: Kieran Read & Jamie Heaslip
There are fascinating match-ups all over the pitch but let’s get nostalgic for a moment. 15 minutes into Heaslip’s last encounter against New Zealand over here two years ago this weekend, he suffered an inexplicable brain explosion and aimed a couple of brutal knees to Richie McCaw’s head. Wayne Barnes rightly gave the big Dubliner his marching orders, a game-breaker that led to very tough night for the men in green to the tune of a 66-28 thrashing.
Back somewhere near his Herculean best, Ireland’s No. 8 squares off against one of the stand-out performers of the last four years. Read is colossal, consistent and – mind-blowingly – still only 26 with his prime ahead of him. Last Friday he teamed-up with McCaw on club duty for the first time since the World Cup final. The result? A dominant 51-18 victory for the Crusaders over the Highlanders. No coincidence.
Ones to Watch: Aaron Smith & Peter O’Mahony
At the turn of the year, Smith was the Highlanders’ third-choice halfback – Jimmy Cowan was on top of the pecking order, with daylight a close second. However, a match-winning try off the bench against the Chiefs in the opening round of this year’s Super 15 has been the catalyst for a rapid ascension. Now, the 23 year-old has a gilt-edged chance to lay down a marker for the number nine jersey. He should have some space for his trademark sniping behind an immense back-row on what could well be a dream debut.
Trying to stop him will be O’Mahony, a considerable unit gradually adding his name to the list of tyro twenty-somethings lighting up international rugby from wing forward. Munster’s Young Player of the Year gets a fifth cap at the expense of Ferris and, as an underdog in an illustrious kennel, has nothing whatsoever to lose.
New Zealand’s only blip in this 24-match rivalry so far has been a 10-10 draw in Dublin way back in 1973. That says it all. In truth, Ireland’s two hopes heading into this tour were keeping everyone fit and All Black complacency. Thanks to a traumatic treadmill of domestic rugby, the former has not materialised even before a ball has been kicked in anger. Because of Australia’s soggy capitulation to Scotland on Tuesday, Hansen and McCaw will be fiercely vigilant against the latter. Despite a Leinster spine of Heineken Cup winners, far more than the luck of the Irish is now required. New Zealand by 18