New Zealand v Ireland, New Plymouth, June 12
Ireland looking to re-write history books
June 8, 2010
Will Ronan O'Gara get enough quality ball to work with? © Getty Images
There's an All Black monkey on Ireland's back. The 2009 Six Nations champions have faced New Zealand on 22 occasions and the closest they have come to victory remains a 10-10 draw at Lansdowne Road in 1973. It is a statistic that Declan Kidney's team will be hopeful of consigning to the history books when they travel to New Plymouth on Saturday and they have reason for optimism.
Ireland's backline looks as competitive as any in world rugby and is awash with experience. Veteran Ronan O'Gara will once again the shots from fly-half in what will be his 99th test appearance and he will have a familiar face inside him, Munster team-mate Thomas O'Leary winning the battle for the No.9 jersey with Eoin Reddan on the bench.
The familiarity in the Irish back backs continues in the centre as Leinster team-mates Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy, once the most feared centre pairing in European rugby, renew their partnership. Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble have pace to burn out wide while also being solid in defence and Leinster fullback Rob Kearney boasts one of the safest pairs of hands under the high ball in world rugby. Rest assured, the boot of Dan Carter will test his nerve.
Unlike his counterpart, All Blacks coach Graham Henry has opted for the exuberance of youth in naming two new caps in his backline due to a hellish injury list. Highlanders fullback Israel Dagg and Blues centre Benson Stanley win their first Test caps. Dagg, who was set to choose cricket as his preferred career only five years ago after a career chat with Brett Lee, will be facing high balls instead of yorkers as reward for a superb Super 14 season at fullback. Cory Jane remains on one wing and Joe Rokocoko is recalled on the other. Stanley joins Conrad Smith in the midfield while Carter and Jimmy Cowan are retained as the starting halfback duo.
For the Ireland backs to unleash their undoubted talent against an untested All Black line requires an immense effort from their forwards to gain parity and therein lies the problem. The Crusaders-filled New Zealand pack is, on paper, a formidable unit and one that could starve Ireland of quality ball. It is unsurprisingly an area coach Henry expects his side to dominate, with prop brothers Ben and Owen Franks making history as the first pair of siblings to play for the All Blacks since Robin and Zinzan Brooke in 1997.
"The Crusaders scrum was probably the best in the Super 14, I know they had Brad Thorn behind them, which is always helpful, but that's been picked on form," said Henry. "They've shown the way there and it's a good indicator for the other front row guys, that standard which needs to be reached."
It is against this seemingly formidable force that Connacht duo John Muldoon and Sean Cronin will play by far the biggest game in their young Test careers. Muldoon, the standout performer in Ireland's narrow defeat to the Baa Baas, starts in place of the injured and hugely influential Stephen Ferris at blindside while third-choice hooker Cronin deputises for Jerry Flannery and Rory Best. And Ireland will have to enter the Lion's den without second row talisman Paul O'Connell, Mick O'Driscoll stepping in to partner Donncha O'Callaghan.
It does seem a tall order given the key absentees in the pack. But all does not appear totally rosy in the All Black garden and Ireland can grab some crumbs of comfort that Henry is already voicing his concerns that the northern hemisphere referees may not be able to keep up with the law interpretations present in the Super 14.
Henry's side is set for a reunion with England's Wayne Barnes, the official blamed in certain quarters for the All Blacks' exit at the 2007 Rugby World Cup at the hands of France. And Henry is obviously concerned it may happen again.
"I always speak to the referee, but whether it makes a difference is very debatable," said Henry. "I've tried to love them, I've tried to kick them, I've tried to ignore them, and nothing's worked. It's going to be a challenge for the northern hemisphere referees because in the European Cup they didn't play to these rules. But in their own competitions they may have. They know what rules we are playing to and hopefully they can handle it."
So do Ireland's chances of a first ever win against New Zealand really rest with an English referee? The answer will depend on whether the Ireland pack can gain parity and secure quality ball for O'Leary and O'Gara to work with and for the team keep disciplined enough to starve that man Carter of scoring opportunities. Otherwise, Mr. Barnes, it's over to you.
New Zealand: I Dagg (Highlanders); C Jane (Hurricanes), C Smith (Hurricanes), B Stanley (Blues), J Rokocoko (Blues); D Carter (Crusaders), J Cowan (Highlanders); B Franks (Crusaders), K Mealamu (Blues), O Franks (Crusaders), B Thorn (Crusaders), A Boric (Blues), J Kaino (Blues), R McCaw (Crusaders, capt), K Read (Crusaders).
Replacements: A de Malmanche (Chiefs), N Tialata (Hurricanes), S Whitelock (Crusaders), V Vito (Hurricanes), P Weepu (Hurricanes), A Cruden (Hurricanes), Z Guildford (Crusaders)
Ireland: R Kearney (Leinster); T Bowe (Ospreys), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), G D'Arcy (Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster); R O'Gara (Munster), T O'Leary (Munster); C Healy (Leinster), S Cronin (Connacht), J Hayes (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), M O'Driscoll (Munster), J Muldoon (Connacht), D Wallace (Munster), J Heaslip (Leinster).
Replacements: J Fogarty (Leinster), T Buckley (Munster), D Tuohy (Ulster), S Jennings (Leinster), E Reddan (Leinster), J Sexton (Leinster), G Murphy (Leicester)
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England)