A classic Test series awaits between two giants of the modern game as the All Blacks welcome Ireland to The Land of the Long White Cloud.
On the surface, the series was already poised brilliantly with Andy Farrell’s outfit figuring out how to unlock the All Blacks, winning three of the past five clashes, going up against aa New Zealand team who must be worried that their bite has lost some venom.
Adding to the inevitable drama is a Covid-19 outbreak in the All Blacks camp that has affected several players and coaches, including Will Jordan, Jack Goodhue and David Havili, coach Ian Foster, and assistant John Plumtree. Stepping into the helm of the All Blacks for this clash is none other than Farrell’s predecessor, former Ireland coach Joe Schmidt.
The turn of events could not be scripted, and the same applies to the Test rugby about to be showcased in New Zealand. Ireland will have their tails up and be looking to capitalise on the chaos, always with one eye on building for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Meanwhile, the All Blacks will be concerned with their general performance since Foster took over and are no doubt keen to remind the rugby world exactly where they sit in the rugby hierarchy.
The mindset in New Zealand will be that of do or die, and Eden Park is the ideal cauldron to reignite themselves.
Last time they met
The sides last met in November at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, where Ireland claimed a stunning 29-20 win over their rivals. James Lowe was first on the board with a try in the 13th minute against his country of birth before Codie Taylor responded with an All Blacks try in the 32nd minute.
After the break, Ireland were quick out of the blocks with two tries from Ronan Kelleher and Caelan Doris by the 52nd minute, only for speedster Will Jordan to cross over in the 61st minute.
From then on, the teams traded penalties, with four successful efforts from Joey Carbery and one from Johnny Sexton, proving the difference in the end, thrusting Ireland to another impressive victory.
What they said
The Covid disruptions dominated the narrative in the All Blacks camp, but assistant coach Brad Mooar showed trust in the systems and the process, claiming the side could prepare well even without coach Foster.
“It’s not an unforeseen event. Covid has been around us for a couple of years now and we’ve planned for what will happen in this situation,” he explained.
“Right now we’re preparing for Ireland, Plum (John Plumtree) and Foz (Ian Foster) have been zooming in, Feeky takes over on the ground with the forwards, and we just connect really closely.
“I’m really confident that, with the machine around us and the way it’s been set up, we won’t miss a beat.”
New Zealand captain Sam Cane shared the sentiment whilst praising the collective effort to adapt and overcome the obstacle thrown at the side.
“The coaches are stepping up, and we’ve got a really experienced leadership group now – one I trust immensely. We’ve got guys in the forward pack, the likes of Brodie [Retallick] and Sam Whitelock taking charge of things there, and Beaudy (Beauden Barrett) runs a pretty good cutter out the back, so the guys are just stepping up and it’s been a good first few days,” Cane said.
The Irish camp has had a dual focus this week, with a portion of the squad featuring in the 32-17 loss to the Maori All Blacks and the remaining players gearing up for Test action on Saturday. However, Farrell brushed aside any suggestions that the game against the All Blacks would be made easier because of the disruptions in the camp.
“I know they’ve one or two injuries and so have we but, at the same time, they could pick four teams in New Zealand and they would be unbelievably hard to compete against,” Farrell said.
“We’re under no illusions of what we’re up against. Any type of performance that we’ve had before where we’ve managed to get over the line, that won’t do this weekend, I’m sure about that.”
Cian Healy seemed a casualty from the midweek game but has undergone a miraculous recovery after the injury was not as severe as initially expected.
“He’s still a bit sore this morning but he’s obviously going through a few protocols now with the rehab but we’re going to give him until tomorrow, he’s made such improvement. We’re optimistic about that,” Farrell said.
Players to watch
It could well be a coming-of-age moment for All Blacks debutant Leicester Fainga’anuku. The Crusaders star has shown impressive form consistently over the last two seasons but seemed to come into his own this season, scoring the most tries in Super Rugby Pacific. Not only is the wing a prolific try-scorer, his strength in the contact point is hugely impressive, adding to that beautiful skill-set that has become the standard in the All Blacks set-up. Fainga’anuku is a player who seems to have more time to precisely execute decisions with the ball in hand. Regardless of the fact it is his first Test match, expect the 22-year-old to be a try threat.
Scott Barrett being selected at flank is a bold decision by the coaching staff, fast-tracked by Akira Ioane and Dalton Papalii not showing complete fitness. Whilst the Crusaders captain is no slouch at flank and will be a useful ball carrier, it is still a risk. It is one of those decisions that sit on a knife’s edge; it could come up short or be a tactical master stroke. The true strength in the decision is at line-out time with Taylor able to aim for Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Barrett. The decision will be vindicated if the All Blacks can dominate that set-piece.
Ireland scrum-half Jamison Gibson-Park has quickly become a critical player in Farrell’s structure. The ability of the New Zealand-born star to elevate the tempo of the game in the right moments is key to how Ireland plays into space. Having paired up with Sexton for province and country for quite some time, the synergy in the half-back pairing allows for accurate decision-making. Gibson-Park is prolific and will be sniping if the All Blacks show any kinks in the defensive line. A big performance from the 30-year-old will go a long way in helping the Irish side’s chances at Eden Park.
European player of the year Josh van der Flier needs little introduction. The consistency in constantly producing world-class performance after world-class performance is admirable. The Irishman is reliability personified. Expect the flank to work the hardest on both sides of the field. A lot of fundamentals need to line up for Ireland in this clash, and solid performers like Van der Flier will lead that charge.
A battle of the generals awaits two world-class players who have perfected the fly-half role but in very different ways. Thrilling, audacious all-out attack meets calculated skilled mercurial performance when Beauden Barrett faces Johnny Sexton.
Barrett has had a season to remember this year and comes into the clash in red-hot form. His blistering pace for a fly-half is one attribute that genuinely sets the All Black centurion apart. In addition, the 31-year-old is blessed with incredible vision and understanding of how to pierce the defensive line.
Ireland has to prevent Barrett from finding rhythm because he will take chances. Playing in front of his home crowd at Eden Park, expect the playmaker to flex his attacking prowess and create problems in the Irish defensive line if given a chance.
Sexton is arguably one of if not the greatest fly-halves in Ireland’s history, for good reason. The Leinster man is technically perfect across all aspects of his position; he can kick well (both out of hand and at goal), his distribution is world-class and his ability to read the game and execute attacking plays is truly something to behold.
Structure has to be Ireland’s focal point because the All Blacks will punish them if the game breaks open. Having said that, the onus rests on Sexton to be a general in every sense of the word. The 36-year-old needs to draw on every bit of experience and composure to keep the All Blacks at bay. If Ireland manages to win the game and/or the series, it will result from pure execution from Sexton as a foundation.
It truly is an intriguing match-up with a significant number of moving parts. Selecting Scott Barrett at flank is hugely risky but should pay off in the line-out. Ireland brings a reasonably settled line-up, but the challenge is the All Blacks at Eden Park. It does not get much more difficult than that. Home advantage and pure X-factor will power the hosts to narrowly claim a nail-biter. All Blacks by three.
2021: Ireland won 29-20 in Dublin
2019: New Zealand won 46-14 in Tokyo
2018: Ireland won 16-9 in Dublin
2016: New Zealand won 21-9 in Dublin
2016: Ireland won 40-29 in Chicago
2013: New Zealand won 24-22 in Dublin
2012: New Zealand won 60-0 in Hamilton
2012: New Zealand won 22-19 in Christchurch
New Zealand: 15 Jordie Barrett, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Rieko Ioane, 12 Quinn Tupaea, 11 Leicester Fainga’anuku, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Ardie Savea, 7 Sam Cane (c), 6 Scott Barrett, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 2 Codie Taylor, 1 George Bower
Replacements: 16 Samisoni Taukei’aho, 17 Karl Tu’inukuafe, 18 Angus Ta’avao, 19 Pita Gus Sowakula, 20 Dalton Papalii, 21 Finlay Christie, 22 Richie Mo’unga, 23 Braydon Ennor
Ireland: 15 Hugo Keenan, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Robbie Henshaw, 11 James Lowe, 10 Johnny Sexton (c), 9 Jamison Gibson-Park, 8 Caelan Doris, 7 Josh van der Flier, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Dan Sheehan, 1 Andrew Porter
Replacements: 16 Dave Heffernan, 17 Finlay Bealham, 18 Cian Healy, 19 Kieran Treadwell, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Conor Murray, 22 Joey Carbery, 23 Bundee Aki
Date: Saturday, July 2
Venue: Eden Park, Auckland
Kick-off: 19:05 local (08:05 BST,07:05 GMT)
Referee: Karl Dickson (England)
Assistant Referees: Wayne Barnes (England), Jordan Way (Australian)
TMO: Marius van der Westhuizen (South Africa)