No team in the northern hemisphere has taken on a more daunting summer tour than Ireland, and deliberately so. If they are to have any designs on being contenders at next year’s World Cup then much like England in 2003, this squad had to test themselves in the most challenging rugby country on the planet.
Hence, as the first of two matches against the Maori All Blacks next Wednesday in Hamilton looms into view, followed by the first of three Tests against New Zealand in their Eden Park fortress next Saturday, head coach Andy Farrell maintained that in some respects Ireland cannot lose.
“It’s what we want. To me, this is harder than anything we have ever done. We don’t know how the World Cup is going to shape up, but potentially it [this tour] could be harder than that because of the nature of how we set it up.
“We have done that on purpose to find out about ourselves. In that regard, we can’t lose. We find out where we are at.
“You cannot approach Wednesday’s match or Saturday’s match without a mentality of ‘Let’s get after this.’ We will see whether we can or can’t and if we can’t, then we know where we are at. It’s great all round for us.”
With a squad of 40 players, some will need to double up this week, if only as replacements. Ideally, the first test starting XV won’t be involved in Wednesday’s tour opener.
“It depends on how training goes over the next couple of days,” said Farrell. “You know what it’s like, everything always happens, best plans don’t always come to fruition.
“But let’s put it this way, you don’t have to be a mathematician to work out that five or six of them are going to have to back up in a certain way, and that’s the challenge.
“It’s good for us, it’s a different way of doing things and that’s the good part of touring because you find out about yourselves.
“Things don’t always go according to plan and it certainly won’t in the World Cup, so you’ve got to be adaptable and make sure that we just go with the flow.”
Both James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park have played for the Maoris and in further preparing themselves for the fire and fury coming their way at a packed FMG Stadium on Wednesday, the Irish management brought in the former Munster Heineken Cup winner Rua Tipoki to speak with the squad last Friday evening at their Auckland base.
Tipoki played for the Maori All Blacks opposite Brian O’Driscoll in their historic 19-13 win over the British & Irish Lions in the same stadium in 2005. For his visit Tipoki wore an Irish jersey given to him by Jerry Flannery at his Munster farewell in Cork in 2009 but revealed that “it was pretty daunting walking into that room actually” before catching up with O’Connell, Keith Earls and Peter O’Mahony.
“It was awesome, it was awesome,” said Farrell. “A great, genuine honest bloke. Loved his time in Ireland. What we have been doing is making sure that we get people in and we get the lads to ask the questions that they want the answers for and how that’s going to benefit us going forward.
“We had James Lowe and Jamison (Gibson-Park) asking the right questions obviously to get it out of Rua in regard to how he thought the combination between the Irish and the Maori setup is. Family based, proud heritage, all that sort of stuff, which was a great little insight for us to move forward into next week with.”
“James certainly reiterated everything that Rua was saying on Friday night. But like I said, there are massive similarities between Irish and Maori culture.
“A lot of it is about ancestry and playing for them. He was telling us that when they go into the Maori setup, some of them don’t know their history but they find out about it in the setup. They make phone calls to their people.
“We are probably a little bit more connected, we probably know our own history a little bit more than that, but it’s the same thing. They are playing for their people, and so are our lads.”
After arriving by three separate long-haul routes on Tuesday and Wednesday, Farrell said: “I tell you, nobody is whinging. Some lads have never even felt jet lag before, but it is what it is. We have just got on with it and in fact, we’ve had a couple of sessions and (Saturday) was a proper hit out.
“We are underway and we are in a good spot. In fact, we trained well on Friday, good session on Saturday, off Sunday and into Monday, Tuesday, which is Test week and Maori midweek.
“It’s good. We’re certainly off to a good start and the atmosphere is decent enough to build on into what’s going to be a hell of a tour. We’re super excited.”