They call it the Land of the Long White Cloud.
Perhaps the Land of the Long Memories would be more apt.
Make no mistake, for the hosts, tomorrow’s first Test, and the subsequent two meetings, between New Zealand and Ireland will be played against the backdrop of what has gone before.
After a 111-year wait, Ireland notched a very first win over the sport’s most dominant side in 2016. And if that alone stuck in the craw, imagine how what’s happened since has been received.
Two wins in Dublin have followed that unforgettable day in Soldier Field, the most recent back in November of last year, representing three wins in the last five meetings between the two sides in this once most one-sided of rivalries.
While many would point to the fact that one of those Kiwi victories came when it really counted — in the World Cup quarter-final of 2019 when the then-champions won by no less a convincing score than 46-14 — there is no doubt this has been a paradigm-shifting sequence.
Gone are the days when you got the impression the All Blacks would take on the boys in green knowing little about the men facing them beyond the likes of Brian O’Driscoll and Sean O’Brien.
There is more needle to these games now, as evidenced by the billboard campaign around Auckland teasing their visitors over their record in New Zealand and the number of naturalised Kiwis in their ranks.
There is a theory too that the scheduling reflects the size of the challenge the All Blacks are expecting. Conventional wisdom will tell you that the hosts are most vulnerable in the opener given this is their first game of the year. Staging this first Test in Eden Park, rather than saving their spiritual home for the finale, means Ireland will start on a ground where the opposition haven’t lost for 28 years.
Josh van der Flier, Ireland’s starting openside tomorrow, was only a little over a year old when France triumphed there 23-20.
“There’s only one way to look at this,” said the recently crowned European Player of the Year.
“Coming to their backyard, you want to do something special by winning here. Is it 28 years since they have been beaten in Eden Park?
“My mindset is to be excited by this kind of thing; we are competitive people, it is probably why we choose to do this for our living.
“You want to play in hard games. The more of a challenge it is, the better. Playing New Zealand in New Zealand is where you want to do it. This is where we want to be.”
Despite what was essentially an Ireland ‘A’ side succumbing to a disappointing opener on Wednesday against the Maori All Blacks, Ireland travelled, initially at any rate, with some reason for optimism.
This is still an All Blacks side that feels like it’s transitioning between two eras. The chastening defeat to England in the World Cup semi-finals that brought to an end an eight-year reign at the top was soon followed by the Covid shutdown.
While they won the Rugby Championship last year, ending the season with not only the defeat to Ireland but a second loss at the hands of the French has ensured that the pressure is on back home.
And that was before the last week of tumult. Covid cases in the camp have ruled out three players, including what could well have been their starting midfield tomorrow, as well as preventing head coach Ian Foster and three of his assistants from having a hands-on role in the preparations.
Of course, they had little trouble in rustling up an adequate stand-in. Ireland’s greatest ever rugby coach, Joe Schmidt, was due to start a role with his native country as a selector and advisor after this series but has been on hand in a tracksuit this week.
When it comes to replacing those isolating players, Andy Farrell notes that the fill-ins are equally able.
“They’ve one or two injuries, and obviously so do we, but at the same time they could pick four teams in New Zealand and they would all be unbelievably hard to compete against,” said the Ireland head coach, once nicknamed an ‘All Blacks slayer’ for his role in victories by not only Ireland but England and the Lions too.
“So we are under no illusions about what we are up against at the weekend. Any type of performance we have had before that got us over the line, that won’t do this weekend, that’s for sure.”
With Farrell’s selection yesterday, the head coach showed faith in those who have authored a strong year so far. With Ronan Kelleher, Iain Henderson, Rob Herring and Mack Hansen all absent, most deviation from the norm has been forced.
While Keith Earls goes again having started the Maori game, among the 14 changes made only one could qualify as even a mild surprise. Jack Conan’s position at the base of the scrum seemed to have been cemented through the Six Nations but his form dipped for Leinster over recent months and in his stead comes Peter O’Mahony back on the ground where he captained the British and Irish Lions Test team five years ago.
The only Ulsterman in Farrell’s ‘23’ is Kieran Treadwell, the lock who during the Six Nations forced his way back into the Test reckoning for the first time since 2017. While used as a replacement rather than a starter more often than not over this season, the head coach clearly has taken something of a liking to the 26-year-old.
That he is the sole representative from his province speaks to the ill-timed injuries suffered by his colleagues. Henderson’s tour is already over after a knee injury and James Hume seems set to join him as he awaits the results of an MRI scan on his injured groin.
In the case of the latter in particular, it is rotten luck given how this tour had been cited as a potential international breakthrough after a season spent starring in Dan McFarland’s midfield.
A watching brief instead now seems certain. Will it be bearing witness to history?