New Zealand v Ireland, Auckland
All Blacks out to feast on Ireland
June 8, 2012
Brian O'Driscoll returns to boost Ireland on Saturday © Getty Images
After a disappointing Six Nations campaign, Ireland will throw themselves into world rugby's toughest challenge this weekend with a three-Test series against New Zealand kicking off in Auckland.
The All Blacks kick-off their tenure as world champions against an opponent with a dire record against them through the years, although a new coaching setup and a few unfamiliar faces on the playing staff will ensure a fair share of nerves for the hosts at Eden Park on Saturday.
Irish rugby is on a high at the minute thanks to Leinster's Heineken Cup heroics - at the expense of Ulster - but domestic success has not translated into international results in the last couple of years. The All Blacks will not be taking this lightly, so Ireland must hit their straps quickly.
New Zealand - Player to Watch: Aaron Smith has been one of the stars of the Super Rugby season to date and the Highlanders scrum-half has a deserved shot at establishing an All Blacks career. With Piri Weepu out of form, it could be his time.
New Zealand - Team News: Smith is joined in the starting line-up by two more new caps, winger Julian Savea and lock Brodie Retallick. Dan Carter returns at fly-half, Sonny Bill Williams is at inside-centre and Zac Guildford gets the nod in the No.14 jersey following injuries to Cory Jane and Richard Kahui. Victor Vito joins skipper Richie McCaw and No.8 Kieran Read in the back-row following the departure of Jerome Kaino.
Ireland - Player to Watch: Having missed the Six Nations to recover from a shoulder problem, Brian O'Driscoll is back to add some bite to the Irish midfield. Since his return he has helped Leinster to a third Heineken Cup in four seasons - is there another achievement in him?
Ireland - Team News: Rob Kearney starts at fullback with debutant Simon Zebo on the wing alongside Fergus McFadden. Brian O'Driscoll starts at outside centre with Keith Earls named at inside centre. Jonathan Sexton is at fly-half with Conor Murray at scrum-half. Cian Healy, Rory Best and Declan Fitzpatrick form the front-row with Dan Tuohy and Donnacha Ryan in the second-row. The back-row sees Peter O'Mahony, Sean O'Brien and Jamie Heaslip all link-up.
Key Battle: Kieran Read is arguably the best No.8 in the world at the moment and he is a key aspect of the All Blacks' go-forward from the set piece. Jamie Heaslip will have to be at his very best if he is to stop Read from taking control of the breakdown.
Trivia: Brian O'Driscoll and Ronan O'Gara know all about Ireland's pain against the All Blacks. This weekend will be their 10th meeting - a new record - and one more shot at overturning one of the biggest hoodoos in the game.
Stats: Ireland's last Test opener in New Zealand, in 2010, was an eventful one. Declan Kidney's side recorded their highest overseas total against the All Blacks - 28 points - but shipped 66 - their worst ever effort in the fixture - after Jamie Heaslip's red card for kneeing Richie McCaw.
"From what I saw, they like to put a bit of snow on the ball so we will be tested with those contestable kicks, that's one thing we'll have to nail during the week." - New Zealand wing Zac Guildford predicts Ireland's tactics.
"We always think we can turn up and match it with the best teams in the world. We have really good memories of Eden Park. We played one of our finest games collectively as a team there." - Ireland fullback Rob Kearney recalls their Rugby World Cup victory over Australia in Auckland.
Prediction: The All Blacks will continue where they left off with a win at Eden Park.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.