Ireland are prize scalp on Maori’s historic day
THe Maori are lining up Ireland tomorrow and the tourists' capacity to cope with the onslaught will have massive significance for the rest of this exacting expedition to the southern hemisphere.
Jamie Joseph's side warmed up for their clash with Ireland with a 37-31 win over the NZ Barbarians last weekend and have had a week to iron out the wrinkles exposed in that performance.
While beating a talented Barbarians outfit will have pleased the Maori, there is no question that Ireland are the prize scalp. Victory over Declan Kidney's side is seen as the perfect way to mark the Maori's centenary celebrations, particularly in their spiritual home of Rotorua where the Maori played their first match in 1910.
Joseph has made five changes to the side that won last weekend, one was enforced through injury with scrum-half Aaron Smith replacing Chris Smylie, who fractured his cheekbone against the Barbarians. The other alterations see starts for prop Ben Afeaki, lock Hayden Triggs, No 8 Colin Bourke and centre Dwayne Sweeney.
Those names may not mean a lot to the Irish but Afeaki is certainly one to watch out for.
He is a beast of a tight-head prop, not far off Tony Buckley size, and his selection has a lot to do with the wobbly Maori scrum last weekend.
The marquee names are all in place, from captain Liam Messam in the back row, to out-half Stephen Brett, centre Luke McAlister and Corey Flynn at hooker.
However, while Brett and McAlister have been garnering most of the attention in the build-up, the player who is arguably the biggest threat to the Irish is Hosea Gear on the left wing.
Gear is a lethal finisher and ferociously committed to the Maori cause.
For all the injury issues that have clouded this tour and the fact that Kidney is using this fixture to develop his squad, there is still quality and experience in the Ireland line-up, starting with the captain Geordan Murphy at full-back.
Jonathan Sexton and Eoin Reddan form an assured half-back partnership and centres Gavin Duffy and Paddy Wallace have been around the block a few times, as has right wing Shane Horgan.
Bring it on is the message from the Maori camp.
"I'd say they'll be hurting (after the New Zealand defeat) and we'll get it," said coach Jamie Joseph. "I would be hurting after that, and usually when teams are hurting, it brings the best out of them.
"It will be huge. Both teams are playing for the pride of their people. That usually means a pretty fiery game."
The former All Black flanker faced Ireland on their tour in 1992 when the under-strength tourists nearly pulled off a remarkable upset and he has not forgotten that passionate Irish performance.
"I've played against Ireland myself and I know how passionate they are as a rugby team and a rugby nation,” he added.
"The guys are aware of that, and if they're not, they will be by tonight."