The three test series between the All Blacks and the Ireland rugby team starts this weekend, the last of its kind for many years. Although Ireland have never beaten the All Blacks, the two teams share a rich history, based on their supporters’ love of rugby and the similarities in their cultures, population and land mass. However, this relationship has been tested over recent years following the ruck clear-out that ruled Brian O’Driscoll out of the British and Irish Lions tour. This may have thawed recently, as the Ireland team and fans were extremely popular during their time in New Zealand during the Rugby World Cup.
While the All Blacks team is a mix of old and new players, it also signals the priority placed on winning the test and respect towards the Ireland team. The three debutantes, Brodie Retallick, Julian Savea and Aaron Smith, have been on fire during the Super Rugby season and have simply demanded their place. Brodie Retallick has been the find of the season at lock, although New Zealand fans will have their fingers crossed he will make the step up to the fiery cauldron of test rugby look as easy as he did the step to Super Rugby. When on form, the Ireland forward pack showed what they are capable against Australia last year and Retallick will be in the thick of that battle.
Julian Savea and Aaron Smith in the backline find themselves in their first test shirts. Savea, the 2010 IRB player of the year, has come of age this year and New Zealand will be hoping he doesn’t need a season to come to grips with test rugby like he did for Super Rugby. If he steps up, Ireland will be in for a rough time with his Lomu-esque attacking style. He’ll get plenty of opportunities from his halfback, as Aaron Smith is being talked about as the best New Zealand passer since Graeme Bachop.
The rest of the team is fairly predictable. Sonny Bill Williams’ undeniable form gives him an opportunity at 12 ahead of Ma’a Nonu. Despite Adam Thomson’s impressive work for the Highlanders, the All Blacks are clearly wanting a like-for-like replacement for Jerome Kaino and will be hoping Victor Vito provides that physical edge.
The Ireland test cap club will welcome two new members, with winger Simon Zebo and tighthead prop Declan Fitzpatrick named to make their debut. It’s a balanced looking Ireland team, with an exciting back three of Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden and Simon Zebo outside the impressive Brian O’Driscoll. However, while his centre Keith Earls has some class, he is yet to come of age as an international midfielder. Jonathan Sexton keeps Ronan O’Gara on the bench, which might disappoint the big All Blacks backline.
The juiciest match up probably comes in the loose forwards, with Ireland’s Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien and Peter Mahony taking on the All Blacks’ Kieran Read, Richie McCaw and Victor Vito.
Considering the loss of Paul O’Connell, Ireland has done well in the locking department, where Donnacha Ryan and Dan Touhy should be a good match for the young Retallick and Whitelock in the All Blacks.
However, it is probably the scrum that the All Blacks will look to target, with New Zealand veteran loosehead Tony Woodcock welcoming debutant tighthead Declan Fitzpatrick to test rugby.
RugbyFix Pick: All Blacks by 11
The rabid New Zealand media and fans have long since written off the Ireland team. An eleven point margin would seem to generous to the Irish. However, New Zealand rarely play to their potential in their opening tests. Also, while Savea, Smith and Retallick demanded inclusion and are incredibly promising, the odds are against all three easing seamlessly into test rugby. They will all be tested by the Irish, Retallick in the tight, Smith at the ruck and Savea under the high ball.
Finally, despite their injuries the Ireland team have named a solid lineup with plenty of momentum from their impressive form in the Heineken Cup. They will have targetted this game as their best chance to gain an elusive win over the All Blacks. They have also had far more preparation time than the week the All Blacks have had.
RugbyFix is picking the upset in this test series to come in the third test where Ireland will throw everything at a complacent and experimental All Blacks team.
All Blacks Team to play Ireland:
Israel Dagg, Zac Guildford, Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams, Julian Savea, Dan Carter, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw (captain), Victor Vito, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock.
Reserves: Hika Elliot, Ben Franks, Ali Williams, Adam Thomson, Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden, Ben Smith.
Ireland Team to play All Blacks:
Rob Kearney, Fergus McFadden, Brian O’Driscoll (captain), Keith Earls, Simon Zebo, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray, Jamie Heaslip, Sean O’Brien, Peter Mahony, Donnacha Ryan, Dan Touhy, Declan Fitzpatrick, Rory Best, Cian Healy.
Reserves: Sean Cronin, Ronan Loughney, Donncha O’Callaghan, Kevin McLaughlin, Eoin Reddan, Ronan O’Gara, Darren Cave.