New Zealand kick-start their reign as world champions when they host Ireland at the scene of the nation's epic RWC win last year.
New Zealand kick-start their reign as world champions when they host Ireland at the scene of the rugby nation's epic World Cup victory last year.
It's been seven long months since the men in black lifted the Webb Ellis trophy at Auckland's Eden Park, and Kiwi fans will accept nothing less than for their team to pick up where they left off – albeit in more convincing fashion – in the first of three Tests against the Irish.
There's always added pressure for any newly crowned world champions to perform, and the All Blacks will want to quash the theory that they're suffering from a RWC hangover by opening their 2012 account with a good win.
Under a new coaching setup headed by Steve Hansen, Sir Graham Henry's successor will also be in the hot seat to appease New Zealand's rugby-mad public that their beloved All Blacks are in safe hands.
Indeed, building a team to defend the Webb Ellis trophy in England in 2015 starts now and the 53-year-old Hansen has already made good by selecting a side blended with massive experience and young guns that have consistently stood up during the Super Rugby campaign.
Even though the rigours of a long Super Rugby season has taken its toll on a number of All Blacks with several star players already ruled out (Richard Kahui, Cory Jane, Jerome Kaino, Keven Mealamu etc), the depth of quality players in NZ has still allowed Hansen to pencil in a side to leave opposition quivering in their boots.
And certainly if history is anything to go by, All Blacks supporters have nothing to worry about. In 107 years of trying, Ireland have never managed to beat New Zealand, whilst the closest they've come to a win in the 24-Test rivalry was a 10-10 draw in Dublin in 1973.
But droughts are there to be broken – just ask the Scots – and Ireland will take plenty of heart from their Celtic cousins' first win on Australian soil since 1982. Don't be surprised if they're doing a similar rain dance to the one performed by Scotland in Newcastle… though come rain or shine, the Irish will have to be on top of their game when facing the world champs in their own back yard.
The last time Ireland played a Test against the All Blacks in the 'Land of the Long White Cloud', they were comprehensively beaten 66-28 in New Plymouth, where the visitors were outscored by their hosts nine tries to four. That was two years ago. The last time Ireland played at Eden Park, they beat the Wallabies in their RWC pool match and turned the tournament on its head. That was last year.
Fast forward a few months and Ireland return to New Zealand in 2012 with a forgettable Six Nations campaign under their belt, and missing some key players who are either retired (Denis Leamy and David Wallace) or injured (Paul O'Connell, Stephen Ferris and Tommy Bowe).
They will, however, be boosted with a squad built around Heineken Cup finalists Leinster and Ulster which make up the spine of the team. They've also been together on and off for virtually an entire year, whilst this All Blacks unit have had much less time together in the build-up to Saturday.
If anything, this will give under-fire coach Declan Kidney some hope as he looks to exploit some rust in the All Blacks machinery. With the noose getting tighter around his neck, Kidney is feeling the pinch to produce the goods ever since watching his side dumped out of the RWC by Wales in the quarter-finals.
Unlike his coaching counterpart, it's gone from bad to worse for the former Munster boss who has overseen Ireland slip to eighth spot in the IRB rankings due to a run of poor results and one feels a winless tour could spell the end of Kidney unless he has anything to do about it.
“We will see how we measure up. You have an excellent side there and we are under no illusions about the size of the task we're up against,” he said.
“There's a belief that we can perform better than we have been.”
Actions speak louder than words.
Players to watch:
For New Zealand: All eyes will be on how the uncapped trio of Julian Savea, Aaron Smith and Brodie Retallick get on in their first Test outing. Having barely put a foot wrong in Super Rugby, it was inevitable that the 21-year-old Savea would be handed a black jersey. The same can be said of young lock Retallick (also 21), who will add energy and enthusiasm behind a grizzled front row. Smith – noted for his slick passing – will be feeling the most pressure to produce the goods however, after it was felt Andy Ellis or TJ Perenara (both snubbed by the selectors) were better options at nine. But there's no better way of proving your doubters wrong with a solid performance, and the Highlanders halfback will be looking to do just that.
For Ireland: There will be a couple of new faces in Ireland's line-up too in the form of Munster wing Simon Zebo and Ulster prop Declan Fitzpatrick – the tighthead getting the nod after Mike Ross failed to recover from a hamstring strain. Of the new caps, Zebo is the most exciting and certainly has an eye for the try-line as seen in his breakthough season for Munster (12 tries in 23 games). If the 22-year old natural talent continues to threaten with ball in hand, then he should be a real handful for opposite number Zac Guildford.
Head to head: There's plenty of individual battles to whet the appetite, but perhaps the most evenly matched is in the second row. Dan Tuohy and Donnacha Ryan are two players coming off the back of superb seasons for their respective clubs. They're a completely untested combination but make tackles, hit rucks and secure line-out ball without fuss. New Zealand's Sam Whitelock and Retallick are bigger boys and aggressive ball-carriers, but the Irish pair can match them around the park.
2010: Ireland lost 38-18 at Aviva Stadium
2010: Ireland lost 66-28 in New Plymouth
2008: Ireland lost 3-22 at Croke Park
2008: Ireland lost 21-11 in Wellington
2006: Ireland lost 27-17 in Auckland
2006: Ireland lost 24-23 in Hamilton
2005: Ireland lost 7-45 at Lansdowne Road
2002: Ireland lost 40-8 in Auckland
2002: Ireland lost 15-6 in Dunedin
2001: Ireland lost 29-40 at Lansdowne Road
Prediction: Ireland will put up a brave fight, but it won't be enough to knock down the world champs at their Eden Park fortress. New Zealand by 10!
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Zac Guildford, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Dan Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Victor Vito, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Hika Elliot, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Ali Williams, 19 Adam Thomson, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Aaron Cruden, 22 Ben Smith.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Brian O'