Ireland begin their three-match series against New Zealand on Saturday at a sold-out Eden Park in Auckland.
Andy Farrell’s in-form side have won 12 of their last 13 Tests, including victory over the All Blacks on home soil in November.
Here, the PA news agency picks out some of the major talking points.
Although Ireland lost wing Mack Hansen to a positive Covid-19 test, the hosts’ build-up has been more severely affected. All Blacks head coach Ian Foster and his assistants John Plumtree, Scott McLeod and Greg Feek have each been forced to isolate, while players David Havili, Jack Goodhue and Will Jordan will miss the game after contracting the virus. Foster was reduced to orchestrating plans remotely and joked that he was unsure if experiencing cold sweats and sleepless nights was down to illness or nerves. The 57-year-old expects to be fit to attend the match.
New Zealand’s depleted coaching ranks led to an early call for Joe Schmidt. The 56-year-old was due to join the All Blacks setup following the tour but was fast-tracked to help with preparations. Schmidt has extensive insider knowledge of Irish rugby, having spent six years as national team coach – which culminated in a World Cup quarter-final exit to New Zealand in 2019 – following a previous stint with Leinster. Although he has had limited time to make an impact, his presence provides an intriguing sub-plot.
Records on the line
Head coach Farrell felt Ireland may have ‘poked the bear’ by defeating the All Blacks in Dublin last autumn. The Englishman is braced for a backlash following that stunning 29-20 victory, which was the Irish’s third in the past five meetings between the countries. Rival coach Foster described the display as the best opposition performance he had encountered. Yet Ireland have never defeated their hosts on New Zealand soil, losing all 12 fixtures played. Furthermore, the Kiwis have not been beaten at Eden Park since 1994 – an unbeaten run older than eight of the Irish matchday squad.
Bringing back the big guns
Farrell was left with plenty to ponder after an experimental Ireland team were outclassed by the Maori All Blacks in midweek. While only a warm-up fixture, the manner of the first-half performance in Hamilton – when the youthful visitors conceded four tries – was still cause for concern. Wing Keith Earls is the only player to retain a starting spot as Farrell turns to his senior men for the first meaningful match of the tour. New Zealand-born quartet Jamison Gibson-Park, James Lowe, Bundee Aki and Joey Carbery will each be involved, while the All Blacks’ selection includes a debut for Crusaders wideman Leicester Fainga’anuk.
Head injuries are back in the spotlight following the treatment of Jeremy Loughman against the Maoris. New Zealand Rugby admitted communication errors meant concussion rules were not fully adhered to after the Munster prop, who will not be involved this weekend, returned to the field despite struggling to stand after a collision. The governing body vowed to ensure protocols are properly followed for the remainder of Ireland’s tour. The extent of Cian Healy’s participation will also be of interest. Healy, who twice replaced Loughman, has made a rapid recovery from what was initially feared to be a serious leg injury to be named on the bench.