Joe Schmidt drafted in to help Covid-ravaged All Blacks

Both coaches and players test positive ahead of first test as Maori All Blacks name squad for Wednesday

In a sensational development less than a week out from the first of the three-test series between New Zealand and Ireland, Joe Schmidt has been co-opted onto the All Blacks coaching ticket in light of head coach Ian Foster and assistant coaches John Plumtree and Scott McLeod all testing positive for Covid-19. As a result, all three are isolating at home.

Schmidt was not due to start his role as a selector and analyst with the All Blacks until their opening games in the Rugby Championship away to the Springboks, but he will now attend the team’s training sessions in Auckland this week.

The former Irish head coach will work with attack coach Brad Mooar and his one time Irish scrum coach Greg Feek, who are now poised to be in charge of the All Blacks up to, and potentially including, Saturday’s first Test in Eden Park (kick-off 7.05pm local time/8.05am Irish).

Schmidt was set to replace the long-serving All Blacks national selector Grant Fox, who is stepping down after the three-test series against Ireland, and is credited with making a major impact as a support coach for the Blues in their run to the Super Rugby Pacific final.

Mooar was added to the All Blacks’ coaching ticket at the end of 2019 as attack coach after NZR were understood to have paid €150,000 in compensation to the Scarlets just one season into his three-year contract with the Welsh region. He was previously assistant coach at New Zealand’s Canterbury Crusaders and helped them to win three consecutive Super Rugby Cups from 2017 to 2019.

So, while these developments appear disruptive from the outside, they could also have a galvanising effect and Foster, who is monitoring preparations remotely, said he is very confident in the team’s ability to carry on preparing for the first Test.

“We’ve had a plan for this happening, and it’s a great opportunity for the wider coaching group and the senior players, who will be highly motivated to step up.”

“We have learned how to cope with the unexpected, like everyone has over the past couple of years. I will still be working alongside the coaches and team via Zoom and I have huge faith in the coaching group and the players.”

“We have structures in place and everyone is working together.”

In response to suffering three defeats, by South Africa, Ireland and France, in a calendar year for the first time since 2009, Foster had added Waikato director of rugby Andrew Strawbridge to the All Blacks’ coaching ticket as a skills consultant, while veteran scrum coach Mike Cron was brought back as an informal mentor alongside Feek.

So it’s not that the All Blacks will lack for off-field expertise.

Nonetheless, in a further disruption, the midfield duo of David Havili and Jack Goodhue have also tested positive and are also not with the team in Auckland, while their Crusaders teammate Braydon Ennor has been added to the squad.

Havili had been expected to start against Ireland at inside centre along with either Reiko Ioane or Goodhue. Foster and his assistants will now most likely play Jordie Barrett, or possibly the uncapped Blues centre Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, inside Ioane.

Meanwhile, Maori All Blacks Head Coach Clayton McMillan has named what appears to be a very strong blend of experience and rising young talent, including ten debutants, in the side to face Ireland in their opening tour at the FMG Stadium in Hamilton on Wednesday (kick-off 7.05pm local time/8.05am Irish).

The match day squad features ten players who will be making their debuts for the Maori All Blacks, including the demoted All Blacks scrumhalves Brad Weber and TJ Perenara, with the former starting and the latter finishing the game as the team’s co-captains.

The side is drawn entirely from players who have featured with New Zealand’s five Super Rugby franchises this season, many of them prominently and in strong form

The frontrow is an experienced unit made up of Ollie Norris, Kurt Eklund and Tyrel Lomax, while the back-up props are Tamaiti Williams, who reinforced the Crusaders’ scrum dominance over the Blues in the Super Rugby final, and the 26-year-old Hurricanes tight-head Jermaine Ainsley, who won the last of his three Australian caps in 2018.

The Maoris seem well equipped to establish a firm foothold up front, all the more so with the dynamic 22-year-old Cullen Grace, who has established himself as the Crusaders’ first-choice number eight this year.

The 21-year-old Zarn Sullivan, an outhalf by inclination who has flourished at fullback with the Blues this season given the presence of Beauden Barrett at 10, has been named at 15. Touted as an All Black of the future, he could be in line to play with his 23-year-old brother Bailyn for the first time given he has been named among a potent-looking bench which also features the latter’s 21-year-old Hurricanes teammate Ruben Love.

“We are anticipating a huge challenge from Ireland on Wednesday. They are a top tier, physical team, with a strong defence,” said McMillan.

“Having Weber and Perenara as co-captains ensures there is always strong leadership on the field, especially against the unrelenting Ireland side. For our debut players, this will be a proud moment to not only represent this team, but their whanau (extended family) and their iwi (tribes).”

“It will be a great opportunity for us to showcase Maori rugby internationally, it has been 12 years since the Maori All Blacks last played Ireland,” McMillan said in reference to their 31-28 win over Ireland in Rotorua in 2010.

Maori All Blacks: Zarn Sullivan (Auckland/Blues); Shaun Stevenson (North Harbour/Chiefs), Billy Proctor (Wellington/Hurricanes), Rameka Poihipi (Canterbury/Chiefs), Connor Garden-Bachop (Wellington/Highlanders); Josh Ioane (Otago/Chiefs), Brad Weber (Hawkes Bay/Chiefs, co-capt); Ollie Norris (Waikato/Chiefs), Kurt Eklund (Bay of Plenty/Blues), Tyrel Lomax (Tasman/Hurricanes); Josh Dickson (Otago/Highlanders), Isaia Walker-Leawere (Hawkes Bay/Hurricanes); Cameron Suafoa (North Harbour/Blues), Billy Harmon (Canterbury/Highlanders), Cullen Grace (Canterbury /Crusaders).

Replacements: Tyrone Thompson (Hawkes Bay/Chiefs), Tamaiti Williams (Canterbury/Crusaders), Jermaine Ainsley (Otago /Highlanders), Maanaki Selby-Rickit (Bay Of Plenty/Highlanders), TK Howden (Manawatu/Hurricanes), TJ Perenara (Wellington/Hurricanes, co-capt), Ruben Love (Wellington/Hurricanes), Bailyn Sullivan (Waikato/Hurricanes).

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times