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Ireland on the front foot in war of words with All Blacks

Ireland have hit back at New Zealand's criticism of their front five, with forwards coach Gert Smal claiming he is confident the Irish pack can match their opponents when the sides clash in New Plymouth's Yarrow Stadium tomorrow (8.35am).

New Zealand forward's coach Steve Hansen claimed this week that his front five will “physically dominate” their opponents but Smal, who coached South Africa's pack when the Springboks landed the World Cup in 2007, believes in Ireland's power up front — despite the absence of Paul O'Connell, Jerry Flannery and Stephen Ferris, among others.

“I think we have the power up front to match them,” said Smal yesterday. “I think that's the challenge for each and every player to lift their game to see if they can match them. We are confident we can do that.

“When you're growing up playing rugby you want to play against the best and we get the opportunity to play against the best on Saturday. I think the players will enjoy the opportunity.”

Smal identified the lineout as a key contest tomorrow and has backed Connacht hooker Sean Cronin, starting his first international, to step up to the plate.

“He's still in the development stage but he's up there. He's doing really well at the moment and he's confident in his throwing,” Smal added.

“There are a lot of things that can go wrong within a game. Sometimes you think it's the hooker that misses the throw but it's maybe some of the players don't get the call or they don't support properly and the ball goes over their heads.

“We've put a fair amount of time in the past two weeks into our line-outs. I'm confident he will take up the challenge.

“We're confident we can get our ball and put enough pressure on their line-out,” Smal said. “It's maybe one of our strengths. We've got things in place.”

Meanwhile, out-half Dan Carter believes he can put inconsistent Super 14 behind him and bring his best game to bear on the Irish tomorrow.

“It is a long season and I am not concerned about what's happened to date, I'm still confident in my abilities,” said Carter.

“Putting on the black jersey is a little bit special. I'm looking forward to that and I'm confident of turning things around and improving as the season goes on.”

Carter needs six points to become the fourth player to score 1,000 points in Test rugby following Jonny Wilkinson (England and Lions 1,175), Neil Jenkins (Wales and Lions 1,090) and Diego Dominguez (Italy and Argentina 1,010).

Ireland out-half Ronan O'Gara has accumulated 957 points over the course of 98 Tests.

Shane Horgan and Jerry Flannery are due to arrive in New Zealand today and are expected to be available for the meeting with the Maori in Rotorua next Friday.

The Leinster winger and Munster hooker were included in the original touring party but did not travel due to stomach and calf complaints respectively with Leicester's Johne Murphy and Munster's Damien Varley called up in their place.

However, after the injury problems that have beset Declan Kidney's squad for this summer tour, the addition of such experienced campaigners will come as a significant boost, particularly with the Test against Australia in Brisbane looming the week after the Maori game.

The tourists will be seeking to end their ignominious 105-year winless streak against the All Blacks tomorrow. Beating the All Blacks is the one remaining box left to be ticked by the golden generation as they prepare for one last tilt at a World Cup — in New Zealand next year — in which their most recent efforts fell short under Eddie O'Sullivan.

However, the home side’s own injury woes have prompted many to predict that it is now or never for an Ireland side seeking to strike a major blow against southern hemisphere hegemony a year out from the World Cup, mirroring England's resourceful submission of the All Blacks in Wellington seven years ago.

Five memorable Ireland - New Zealand matches

Ireland 10 New Zealand 10 (20 January 1973, Lansdowne Road)

This is the only encounter between the two nations where the All Blacks have failed to come out on top. Two vital penalties from Barry McGann secured the draw for Ireland.

New Zealand 24 Ireland 21(30 May, 1992, Carisbrook)

Ireland had been hammered in their tour matches and more of the same was expected. As it turned out, if Dungannon wing Ronnie Carey (pictured) had held on to an intercepted pass late on, Ireland would have secured an incredible victory.

New Zealand 59 Ireland 6 (6 June, 1992, Wellington)

The following week was a different story altogether. This remains the biggest defeat suffered by an Ireland team in history. In a windswept Wellington, the All Blacks ran up a 44-0 scoreline in the second half.

Ireland 29 New Zealand 40 (17 November, 2001, Lansdowne Road)

Ireland led 21-7 with 38 minutes left, with David Humphreys on form with the boot. But a stunning, if predictable, All Blacks fightback broke Irish hearts.

New Zealand 34 Ireland 23 (10 June 2006, Hamilton)

Ireland came within nine minutes of their first ever win over the All Blacks. Ireland were ahead 23-15 in Hamilton but New Zealand roared back with three penalties and a late try.

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