Maori All Blacks vs Ireland: Uncapped Irish players to be put to the test

Full international in all but name to give the likes of Jimmy O’Brien and Ciarán Frawley valuable run-out

Maori All Blacks vs Ireland, Wednesday 7.05pm local time/8.05am Irish time, FMG Stadium Waikato, live on Sky Sports

It may not be a Test per se, but the depth charts of New Zealand and Irish rugby will be put to the test by an opening assignment which will go some way to setting the tenor and tone of this searching five-match tour.

Although Bundee Aki is set to captain what is effectively an Irish A side on his old Waikato Chiefs’ stomping ground, both the Maori All Blacks and Ireland will field relatively inexperienced international sides featuring a swathe of young players for whom this is a landmark game in their careers.

In many ways then, this match is a step into the relatively unknown with an untried team of largely unproven players at this level. And that goes for both sides.

The quintet of uncapped players named in the Ireland’s original 40-man squad are all expected to be blooded straight away, namely Jimmy O’Brien at fullback, Ciarán Frawley, interestingly named at outhalf, Jeremy Loughman, Joe McCarthy and Cian Prednergast. With another seven players with cap hauls in single fingers, Keith Earls, Aki and even Jordan Larmour, provide the experience.

Not dissimilarly, Maori All Blacks head coach Clayton McMillan has named ten debutants in his side, albeit this still looks like a dynamic blend of experience and rising young talent, drawn entirely from in-form players with their five franchises in their Super Rugby Pacific competition. The demoted All Blacks scrumhalves Brad Weber and Perenara will start and finish the game as the team’s co captains.

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 Pacific final, and the 26-year-old Hurricanes tighthead 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 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 the latter has been named among a potent-looking bench which also features the latter’s 21-year-old Hurricanes teammate Ruben Love.

There is liable to be some rain about earlier in the day, but the superb sand-based pitch ought to facilitate the kind of unstructured running rugby favoured by Maori teams.

The Maoris also appear more match hardened than an Irish team featuring players who have had varying game time of late in what were disappointing ends to their provincial seasons. Indeed, recalling how the South African sides usurped their Irish counterparts in the URC when the Bulls and Stormers reached the final, it’s hard to imagine they’d have prevented the customary New Zealand dominance in the Super Rugby Pacific series.

As to what Ireland were expecting from the home side, Andy Farrell said:

“Well, you’ve seen them as much as we have seen them. It’s going to be brilliant because there are some of our lads who haven’t been capped and they will get an opportunity.

“It’s not a capped Test match but it’s damn near it, isn’t it? The passion that they know is coming from the Maori team and the quality of player that they have picked means it’s going to be a brilliant challenge for that team.

“And that’s why we are doing it, that’s why we are here, that’s why we want to give people the opportunity to see how they handle the pressure moments. For that group, there’s not going to be any bigger game this year really, is there?”

A win would set up the tour superbly, but you sensed that Farrell appreciates the scale of the challenge facing his somewhat callow side.

“I mean, let’s put it in context like. We have been over here, a lot of us in 2017, and we had the best from Ireland and the Britain and I think the consensus was we were pretty pleased with a drawn result.

“So, that just shows the size of the challenge for us. But it’s good. Let’s see what we’re about.”

McMillan said they were expecting a huge challenge from an “unrelenting” Irish 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.

Liam Messam captained a Maori side which fielded nine past or future All Blacks, including two current All Blacks in Aaron Smith and Dane Coles.

Johnny Sexton landed seven penalties and converted a Paddy Wallace try, but three tries by Hosea Gear, Dwayne Sweeney and Karl Lowe left the score at 28-all when replacement Willie Ripia kicked the decisive 72nd minute penalty, so adding Ireland to the Maoris’ lengthy list of international scalps.

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).

Ireland: Jimmy O’Brien (Leinster/Naas); Jordan Larmour (Leinster/St Mary’s College), James Hume (Ulster/Banbridge), Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians, capt), Keith Earls (Munster/Young Munster); Ciaran Frawley (Leinster/Skerries), Craig Casey (Munster/Shannon); Jeremy Loughman (Munster/Garryowen), Dave Heffernan (Connacht/Buccaneers), Tom O’Toole (Ulster/Ballynahinch); Kieran Treadwell (Ulster/Ballymena), Joe McCarthy (Leinster/Dublin University); Cian Prendergast (Connacht), Nick Timoney (Ulster/Banbridge), Gavin Coombes (Munster/Young Munster).

Replacements: Niall Scannell (Dolphin/Munster), Cian Healy (Leinster/Clontarf), Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers), Ryan Baird (Leinster/Dublin University), Jack Conan (Leinster/Old Belvedere), Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen), Joey Carbery (Munster/Clontarf), Michael Lowry (Ulster/Banbridge).

Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU)

Forecast: Maori All Blacks to win.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times