Ireland v New Zealand: Expect another Black day
History will be made tomorrow evening at the Aviva Stadium where at least two things are guaranteed.
Firstly, after two disappointingly small attendances for the visits of South Africa and Samoa, tomorrow will see the biggest crowd yet to have watched a rugby international at the new Lansdowne Road complex.
Secondly, the visitors’ captain Richie McCaw and full-back Mils Muliaina make their 93rd Test appearances, and by doing so become the most capped All Blacks of all time.
Last weekend at Murrayfield the pair equalled former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick's record of 92 caps. Now they surpass it, with the Dublin crowd being eye witnesses to the special moment.
But while the creation of those records for crowd size and New Zealand caps is assured, the one the crowd would most like to see — namely an Irish victory — most certainly is not.
With Ireland never having beaten New Zealand, home or away, once again those who wear the green shirt know they can write themselves into Irish rugby history — and the annals of the game itself — by finally exorcising that ghost.
Lovely idea, but how probable? Not very, I fear. In the wake of the All Blacks’ demolition of Scotland at Murrayfield last weekend, Graham Henry inadvertently warned Ireland of what to expect.
“One of the aims of this tour is to build the foundations of the team for the future, so there have only been a few changes from the team that beat Scotland.”
Those changes amount to five and they do not appear to have weakened the visitors in the slightest. Quite the opposite. “We were pleased with the physicality and accuracy shown against the Scots and we will look to improve on that this weekend,” Henry added.
His diplomatic postscript was: “However, the team also know they will be up against a very good Irish team which they respect.”
They may well respect Ireland, but I very much doubt they |fear tomorrow’s hosts. And why should they?
No Irish supporter will need to be reminded that back in March unfancied Scotland — whipped 49-3 by the All Blacks in Edinburgh last weekend — won 23-20 in what was Ireland’s final game at Croke Park, thereby denying Declan Kidney’s side back-to-back Triple Crowns.
Add to that the memory of what happened when Ireland then met New Zealand as recently as June 12; the hosts won 66-28.
The combined effect of those two results is a decidedly uncomfortable feeling going into tomorrow’s showdown.
Ireland have made 11 changes to the side which started against Samoa last weekend.
Tommy Bowe is the only non-Leinster player in the back line. Fit-again Rob Kearney returns at full-back with Luke Fitzgerald moving to the left wing, while Gordon D'Arcy resumes his provincial partnership alongside skipper Brian O'Driscoll. None of those selections will have raised any eyebrows or caused any real surprise.
The half-backs issue was less clear-cut though, with Munster veterans Peter Stringer and Ronan O’Gara having played their way back into the reckoning by virtue of their final-quarter appearances against the Springboks followed by inclusion from the start against Samoa.
But for this, the big one, Leinster duo Eoin Reddan and Jonathan Sexton got the nod, just as they did for the South Africa Test a fortnight ago.
In fact, the entire back line is the same as started against the Springboks. But guess the channel for which McCaw and co will be aiming tomorrow evening?
Ulster provide four of the eight forwards, with Tom Court’s promotion to tight head starter suggesting that Ireland finally have begun to recognise his potential at number three, where he has done well when switched to that side of the scrum in each of the past two outings.
He packs down alongside Ulster colleague Rory Best, with Cian Healy completing the front row.
For my money, this is Ireland’s best front three and if they manage to perform as a unit against Tony Woodcock, Hikawera Elliot and Owen Franks they will do themselves a huge favour going into a World Cup year.
Munster mates Donncha O'Callaghan and Mick O'Driscoll are together in the second row, which is rough on Devin Toner. True, Ireland may be wary of including the 6ft 10ins Leinster lock given that he won his first cap last weekend. But New Zealand hooker Elliot is in a similar situation and they have not baulked at giving him a second outing.
The back row features a man from each of Ireland’s three premier provinces — Ulster’s Stephen Ferris, Munster’s David Wallace and Leinster’s Jamie Heaslip.
Is this a side likely to create history? Don’t think so, sadly.
IRELAND: Robert Kearney; Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll (captain), Gordon D’Arcy, Luke Fitzgerald; Jonathan Sexton, Eoin Reddan; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Tom Court; Donncha O’Callaghan, Mick O’Driscoll; Stephen Ferris, David Wallace, Jamie Heaslip
Replacements: Sean Cronin, John Hayes, Devin Toner, Denis Leamy, Peter Stringer, Ronan O’Gara, Keith Earls
NEW ZEALAND: Mils Muliaina; Cory Jane, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Hosea Gear; Dan Carter, Andy Ellis; Tony Woodcock, Hikawera Elliot, Owen Franks; Brad Thorn, Tom Donnelly; Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw (captain), Kieran Read
Replacements: Andrew Hore, John Afoa, Anthony Boric, Liam Messam, Alby Mathewson, Stephen Donald, Sonny Bill Williams.