Well, Declan Kidney has picked an exciting-looking team for Ireland’s first test against New Zealand, on Saturday, 8.35 am Irish time. There are 2 new caps, and 8 of the players will be featuring in their first ever game against the All Blacks.
Of the team selected: Kearney is playing possibly his best season ever; McFadden is coming on in leaps and bounds; Earls can be explosive on his day (I know I’ve criticised him in the past) and Zebo has been doing great things for Munster (Zebo becomes the youngest player to play for Ireland at 22, also the first Irish player to be born in the 90’s, well 1990).
Sexton really needs to step up, show his Leinster form for Ireland, especially against the great Dan Carter. Murray needs to revert to his World Cup form, when he was one of the best scrum-halves in the tournament.
The new second-row pairing look promising (Tuohy actually scored against New Zealand the last time we played them in New Zealand, in 2010. We still got hockeyed in that match, though, 66-28).
Prop Declan Fitzpatrick is the other new cap. Ireland have had problems with the scrum all season. Let’s hope he can sort the problems out. O’Brien has his first match against Richie McCaw, who many consider the best player in the world. I think McCaw is a little over-rated but O’Brien still has his work cut out for him.
This is the first of Ireland’s 3 matches against the All Blacks. A 3-test series against New Zealand would be a daunting prospect for any Irish team, but this squad is coming off the longest season in rugby history, suffering from a loss of form, and also dealing with a lot of injuries.
Ireland have played 14 tests since the August 2011, with 6 wins, 7 losses and a draw. The biggest win was against Australia during the World Cup, 15-6. The losses included 2 each against Wales, England and France.
Only twice in those 14 tests have Ireland looked really impressive, the win against Australia in the World Cup (15-6), and the draw against France in the 6 Nations, and in the French game we only looked impressive for the first half of the match.
Most of the Irish players have been playing non-stop since the World Cup ended, with the Leinster players having had 3 tough games in as many weeks just recently. Of Saturday’s team; both O’Driscoll and Best are carrying knocks, and Healy, O’Brien and Heaslip were injured in recent weeks.
Unfortunately, Ireland have a load of injuries to contend with as well: Paul O’Connell, Stephen Ferris, Tommy Bowe and Luke Fitzgerald have been ruled out of the tour entirely. All these players would have featured in the series, and O’Connell and Ferris are world-class players, sorely needed against the world champions.
I can’t overstate the challenge that New Zealand poses the Irish team. We’ve played them 24 times and lost 23, with one drawn! New Zealand are also playing their first game since becoming world champions, in the stadium they won the cup in, Eden Park.
New Zealand do have one or two slight disadvantages; they have a new coach in Steve Hansen (who was assistant to Graham Henry), they have some new players, and they haven’t played as a team since winning the World Cup back in September.
These would be major problems for most teams, but New Zealand aren’t most teams. They weren’t at their best during the World Cup and still managed to win it. There won’t be the same pressure on the team as there was during the tournament, and they also have Dan Carter back (who missed the World Cup), the top no.10 in the world!
The outlook looks bleak for Ireland, with keeping the score-line respectable the only realistic goal (personally I think a score within 10 points would be ok). The last time we played them in Ireland (where we should have a better chance against them) was in 2010. We played very well against them, and still managed to lose the game, 38-18!
For the senior players (O’Driscoll, Best, O’Gara and O’Callaghan) this series is, realistically, their last chance to beat New Zealand, in New Zealand (possibly to beat New Zealand anywhere). Let’s hope that can give them motivation to do well.