Ireland are facing into a tough test match a long way from home on Saturday. They should park it at that and forget about everything else surrounding the game. It doesn’t really matter that the Kiwis are world champions: they always turn out top quality teams … and besides, they’re missing a significant number of the team that won the trophy.
Furthermore, the fact that we’ve never beaten the All Blacks isn’t all that relevant: we’re not playing a composite New Zealand team of the last 107 years with George Nepia, Colin Meads and Jonah Lomu all lining out in the famous black jersey. Games from a decade ago are dusty enough in the memory as to be insignificant, so results from half a century ago – played under different laws with different scoring systems by amateurs – are immaterial to Saturday’s game.
With those two issues pushed to the side for the moment, it’s still a very difficult test. Ireland are missing the keystone of their scrum, Mike Ross; the standing Lions captain in hugely experienced second-row Paul O’Connell; Stephen Ferris, a world class blindside who has been Ireland’s most consistently excellent performer this season; and Tommy Bowe, the top try-scorer in this year’s Six Nations.
These are very real limiting factors for Declan Kidney. All four men would be automatic selections were they available, and while Kidney earned the reputation of having fifteen automatic selections during the Six Nations, it’d seem that the old dog has learnt a new trick since he crossed the equator.
Apart from the halfback pairing of Conor Murray – once again Eoin “Punchbag” Reddan finds himself dropped, despite an outstanding display in the Heineken Cup final for Leinster – and Jonny Sexton, there are new combinations in every line of the team. Simon Zebo and Fergus McFadden combine in the back three with ERC and IRUPA Player of the Season Rob Kearney; Brian O’Driscoll and Keith Earls start in the centre for the first time together [although they combined well there against Wales in the 2010 Six Nations when Gordon D’Arcy came off injured early in the game]; Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip form a new backrow combination; Dan Tuohy and Donnacha Ryan mirror the All Blacks’ selection in an inexperienced but exciting second row partnership; and Declan Fitzpatrick earns his first cap on the tighthead side, slotting in with established front-rowers Cian Healy and Rory Best.
Donncha O’Callaghan and D’Arcy, the chief on-field underperformers during the Six Nations, are dropped from the starting lineup, although O’Callaghan finds himself a place on the bench ahead of Mike McCarthy. Alongside him are Connacht’s dual-sided prop, Ronan Loughney; turbo-charged Leinster hooker Sean Cronin and blindside Kev McLaughlin; the aforementioned Eoin Reddan; Munster outhalf Ronan O’Gara, and Ulster outside centre Darren Cave, a peculiar choice as utility back. Cave is very much a one-position man, and Andrew Trimble [who has started games for Ireland in all four three-quarter positions during his career] would have seemed a more logical man for the bench.
It’s a more thought-provoking selection than any other this year, and while Kidney was quoted recently as saying that “You don’t experiment in matches against New Zealand”, that’s exactly what he’s doing. Irish commentators have been crying out for less conservative and more form-based selections, and that’s what this is.
Cian Healy goes head to head with Owen Franks in what should be one of the best battles of the series. Both men are relatively young for prop forwards at 24 years old, and they’re both hovering around the 30 test cap mark. Healy is renowned for his athletic excellence, having been an All Ireland Schools champion in the discus and the shot put, while the Franks brothers have brought their own expertise in the weights room to the All Blacks camp.
Andrew Hore and Rory Best are two grizzled old campaigners who share similar games. Beer drinkin’, fun havin’ Hore has lived somewhat in Keven Mealamu’s shadow throughout his career, and is thus somewhat under-rated: of his 62 All Black test caps, 30 have come from the bench. He’s just as dogged as Best at the breakdown, and is a real expert at turning over ball on the deck. He’s got that big head that you like to see in front row forwards, an old wives’ sign of a big skeleton and real inert strength. Never trust a small-headed hooker!
Rory Best has a far more stable temperament than the fiery Jerry Flannery, the Munster hooker who retired earlier this season and with whom he feuded over the Irish No2 Jersey. While he may seem a more placid character, he’s just as tough. His incredibly early return from a serious neck injury, and the fact that he was Ireland’s best player in the disappointing RWC11 quarter-final loss to Wales when he was a huge doubt to even play the game will testify to that. Due to the absence of Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell’s mid-tournament injury, he took over the captaincy of the team mid-Six Nations and will be looking to make up for the disappointing way in which it ended against England.
As he has done in 74 of his 83 tests, Tony Woodcock will start in the No1 jersey for the All Blacks. Woodcock is an incredibly under-rated prop, and some may already have forgotten that he was the New Zealand’s sole try-scorer in the World Cup final last October. At 31 years old, Woodcock is in the prime of his propping career and has done the business against absolutely everyone in test rugby. While his form – like many other World Cup-winners – hasn’t been great since the Super Rugby season kicked off, the man is a test match animal and is going to give Declan Fitzpatrick the toughest of days.
Fitzpatrick is the second best scrummaging tighthead in Ireland, but given the dearth of competition, that’s not as complimentary as it may sound. He made it into the squad essentially on the back of a very good performance against Edinburgh and Scotland’s Allan ‘Chunk’ Jacobsen in the HEC semi-final, and while Chunk is an experienced test loosehead, he’s coming to the end of his career and was never a physical marvel. Fitzpatrick has played so little rugby this year that it’s very difficult to judge just how good a scrummager he actually is: he’s only started 31 professional games for Ulster in his entire career.
Ireland are very shallow at tighthead at the moment, and it’s a very specialized position. Ideally you’d like to see six Irish tightheads starting every week [one in all four provinces and two in England], and while the situation is improving – Timmy Ryan has signed for the Newport Gwent Dragons and John Andress has moved from Exeter to the Worcester Warriors – there’s still a hell of a lot of ground to be made up. Ireland have to make do. Greg Feek spoke recently about Fitzpatrick’s build being very suitable for tighthead – narrow shoulders, deep chest and short legs – and if he can hold his own against Woodcock, he might just be the single most beneficial find of the entire tour.
If you look over our Six Nations statistics, the amount of scrums per game can vary wildly: there were just 8 scrums in the game against Wales, but there were almost three times as many in the game against England . The All Blacks are a team that make very few handling errors in most conditions, so there’ll probably be fewer scrums on our own ball. In the June 2010 game, when Tony ‘Mushy’ Buckley played tighthead and Heaslip was sent off for striking Richie McCaw in the head with his knee, there were only 8 scrums: that was a bit of a freakshow, because it was fifteen versus fouteen for 65 minutes, and the Kiwis were more intent on running up a huge total than grinding out a victory.
The All Blacks second row is far younger and more inexperienced than in recent times: Sam Whitelock is 23 years old and debutant Brodie Retallick is just 20. Both of them are very good at Super Rugby level [admittedly this is only Retallick's first season], but Whitelock hasn’t yet stood out at international level: on the NZ Herald reader-voted Team of the Tournament, he was the only All Black who failed to make the XV!
Retallick is a mutant – 204cm tall and listed by the Waikato Chiefs as 121kg – and has a hell of a workrate for such a big kid. Everything points to him being an All Black for a very long time, but he’s still young and inexperienced at the moment.
What we can do with that, I don’t know. While our engine room pairing are considerably older – Donnacha Ryan is 28 years old and Dan Tuohy is 26 – they’ve never played together at test level, and indeed are even less experienced than their opposition. Whitelock has 25 test caps [12 starts] and has started a World Cup Final, while between them Tuohy and Ryan can only muster 20 test caps and five starts [all of them Ryan’s].
On the positive side, both Irish second rows are better ball-carriers and have better handling skills than the missing Paul O’Connell. While O’Connell is a formidable player, he has the tendency to take too much ball into contact and then to the deck, and rarely breaks the gainline. Scrum-half Conor Murray might at times feel obliged to give him one out passes merely because he’s Paul O’Connell and he’s calling for the ball. Hopefully we’ll see Tuohy make a couple of runs from a better depth, and the one-out pod used as a decoy more often. Ryan is a very good handler and a fierce counter-rucker, and was one of Ireland’s better forwards during the Six Nations. If he carries that form through, Ireland should be competitive in the loose, but all three set-pieces are a source of worry.
Keiran Read is in unbelievably good form at the moment, and was recently hailed by Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder as the best player in the world. That’s up for debate, as Imanol Harinordoquy outplayed him in the World Cup Final in October, but what’s not up for debate is the incredible standard of his performances for the Crusaders since the Super Rugby season kicked off. It’ll need a massive defensive performance from opposite number Jamie Heaslip and the rest of the backrow to limit his impact on the game.
In a ‘styles make fights’ clash between Richie McCaw and Sean O’Brien at No7, you’d have to give a big edge to McCaw – he’s amongst the best forwards of the professional era, and the best openside of all time! Rugby is so positionally diverse that it’s pretty much pointless to go further than that, but anyway, McCaw is as good a player as The Mole has ever seen. He’s absolutely magnificent. We might well see Peter O’Mahony and Sean O’Brien mix and match the openside and blindside roles, because both are better with ball in hand than scrabbling for the pill on the ground. Nevertheless, Ireland will have gameplanned for McCaw, so keep a close eye on how he’s treated in the first five or ten minutes when instructions are fresh in the players’ minds. I don’t expect that we’ll see anything nefarious, but I’d imagine that players will have been detailed to hit McCaw at every ruck and try and keep him on the ground, no matter where he is or what he’s doing.
Jerome Kaino’s absence means that the blindside position is up for grabs, and the late form surge of the Hurricanes’ Victor Vito has meant that he has got the nod over the Highlanders’ Adam Thompson, who was outstanding in the first few weeks of the Super Rugby season. Thompson sits on the bench, and is an outstanding substitute to have at your disposal.
Aaron Smith debuts for the All Blacks inside Dan Carter, and just like the Irish forwards will have instructions to keep McCaw busy, expect loads of bollockology to try and upset the young scrum-half – O’Mahony and Ryan will hit static rucks, Murray will hit him when he’s passing, O’Brien and Heaslip will kick the ball out of breakdowns, Dan Tuohy will charge through on any tapped line-outs, and generally the Irish forwards will try to harry him from the first whistle to the last.
Dan Carter is Dan Carter. He can do everything. One thing to watch out for is how he’ll try and find Declan Fitzpatrick in broken play and target him. Carter is the past master of finding front-five forwards in defense once the game breaks up, and he has the speed, the swerve and the handoff to get around them. Ireland will need to keep the gaps around Fitzpatrick small and make more mobile players defend a bigger space.
Conor Murray and Jonny Sexton start at No9 and No10 for Ireland: the last time they started together, both players played well against France in a 17-17 draw in Paris. Both players have been fitful for Ireland, but have the potential to form a genuinely exciting partnership. Eoin Reddan is unfortunate to lose out, but if he’s not well used to it by now, he should be. Sexton needs to stamp his authority on the game, and if that means moving away from the quite conservative gameplan that Ireland play under, so be it. If Declan Kidney wants to play a game based more on establishing position and attacking from close to the All Blacks line than a more risky brand of rugby, Ronan O’Gara is probably a better choice to implement that strategy.
The Mole has little doubt that Brian O’Driscoll will perform well if he lines up in the No12 slot, even against such an in-form opponent as Sonny-Bill Williams. He has got more experience of top class rugby in the centre than any player in the history of the game, having passed out Philippe Sella’s previous record of 111 test caps, and is as combative a centre as the game has seen. Whether or not it’s a viable positional switch for the remainder of his career … who can tell? Legendary All Black openside Michael Jones switched to the blindside to accommodate tyro Josh Kronfield in the historic 1996 New Zealand tour to South Africa, and it added even more lustre to his legend. I was worried before about the amount of tackles that O’Driscoll would have to make in the inside centre channel when he had his dicky shoulder, but he has been smashing people with no fallout since the surgery. The Kiwis won’t have any tape on that O’Driscoll/Earls partnership, so it’s not a bad way to try and spring a surprise on them in the first test.
Keith Earls did well at outside centre during the Six Nations and D’Arcy struggled inside him – there’s no reason Darce should have tenure in the No12 jersey if he’s not doing the business for Ireland, no matter how well he plays for Leinster. Besides, I expect we’ll see a Darce/Drico combination start one of the other tests.
Ma’a Nonu was absolutely outstanding for New Zealand in the black No12 jersey at RWC11, one of the very best players in the tournament, regardless of jersey number. Since then, he headed off to Japan to pick up a nice pay-day, giving his enormous tournament hangover no time to dissipate. His form for the Blues has been very ordinary in Super Rugby, in contrast to the man who has taken over his test jersey.
Sonny-Bill Williams has been in phenomenal form this season for the Waikato Chiefs, forming a cracking midfield combination with Aaron Cruden and Richard Kahui. All three have been outstanding and extremely enjoyable to watch, but with Kahui out injured and Cruden stuck behind the inimitable genius that is Dan Carter, Williams is the only one who makes it into the ALl Blacks starting lineup. Murray Kinsella has written an excellent article about how Ireland will have to gameplan around his strengths, but it’s a huge ask. The guy is on fire at the moment and nobody in Super Rugby has been able to contain him for eighty minutes: he went head to head with Nonu last weekend and took him to the cleaners.
In the outside centre berth is the phenomenally consistent Conrad ‘Snake’ Smith, one of the most intelligent and skillful No13s of the professional era. He so rarely makes mistakes in either attack or defense that most teams have given up attacking his channel, even South African try-machine Jacques Fourie, whose phenomenal try-scoring record of 32 in 69 tests marks him out as an incredibly difficult match-up. Fourie has gone head to head with Smith six times in the last three years and managed just one try in 480+ mins of rugby.
Fergus McFadden gets the bogey prize of marking the Hurricanes debutant Julian Savea. Savea is just 21 years old, but stands 190cm [6’3”] and weighs in at a hefty 104kg [16st 6lbs], giving him a 10cm height and 12kg weight advantage over the Leinster utility back. He was the 2010 IRB Junior World Player of the Year on the back of his eight tries in that year’s Junior World Championships, and has been in ripping form for Wellington since progressing to the senior ranks. Aside from his massive size, he’s got genuine copspeed to boot:
Andrew Trimble’s form has dropped off somewhat since his excellent August-February performances, but he might have been a better physical match-up for Savea.
It’ll be fascinating to see Simon Zebo show his stuff at international level. The All Blacks and Australia have always picked young, exciting wingers when they’re brimful of confidence and pace and haven’t taken a serious let-down, and it’s an approach worth looking at. Zebo has bagged a hell of a lot of tries this season [12 in 23 appearances for Munster] and while he’s not the finished article quite yet, a tour like this could be the best thing for him in terms of his development. Playing alongside Kearney, Earls and O’Driscoll, and under the defensive tutelage of Les Kiss, this month should see an improvement in his decision-making and awareness of his role in the team.
He’ll be up against Zak Guildford, the in-form Crusaders wing who has had some alcohol-related problems in the recent past, but has worked hard to overcome them and has been part of a cracking Canterbury backline. Guildford is an industrious winger who comes into the middle of the pitch an awful lot to look for work, and a beautiful, well-balanced runner in broken play. With all that movement off the ball, he’s an exceedingly difficult player to mark, so Zebo will have to keep his concentration for the entire eighty minutes and trust in the defensive system … otherwise Guildford will Keyzer Soze him.
A great contest, in which Rob Kearney goes up against Israel Dagg. Dagg is a favourite of The Mole, a naturally gifted broken-field runner who was marked out for All Black greatness whilst still in secondary school. He’s not quite hitting the same form for the Crusaders as he did for New Zealand last year, but he’s fit and close to firing – it’s only a matter of time.
Kearney is in the best form of his career – duly rewarded with ERC and IRUPA awards – and is emerging not only as the northern hemisphere’s best fullback, but also a potential Irish captain. We’ve seen enormous drop-goals, peerless takes under pressure, line-breaks galore, sidesteps, well-timed passes … an improvement on his last-man tackling would make him the best No15 in the world.
I’m looking forward to this game. The All Blacks play quality rugby and Ireland have selected an interesting team for the first time this year. With no pressure on the tourists, we could be in for an enjoyable couple of hours.