Iain Henderson’s tour is over effectively before it began after the 30-year-old Ulster captain suffered a knee injury during the Irish squad’s training session in Auckland’s North Harbour Stadium last Saturday. Henderson has been ruled out of the remainder of Ireland’s five-match tour although the extent of the damage and his period of rehabilitation has still to be ascertained.
This latest blow completes an unfortunate season for the 63-times capped Henderson, who started the November wins over the All Blacks and Argentina, but since when he has only started Ireland’s concluding Six nations game against Scotland, having previously played off the bench away to France and England.
Whereas Niall Scannell has arrived as additional cover at hooker after being summoned from his holidays in Portugal after Rob Herring was ruled out of the opening two games of Ireland’s tour, no secondrow replacement has, as yet, been called up.
Scannell arrived in Auckland in time to take part in the Irish squad’s Tuesday training session with the help of some borrowed boots and, pending the arrival of his kit bag from Limerick, has been named on the bench for Ireland’s tour opener against the Maori All Blacks in Hamilton’s FMG Stadium on Wednesday (kick-off 7.05pm local time/8.05am Irish).
Bundee Aki will captain a side featuring all five uncapped players who were named in the 40-man squad, namely Jimmy O’Brien at fullback, Ciaran Frawley, interestingly named at outhalf, Jeremy Loughman, Joe McCarthy and Cian Prendergast.
Ireland’s pack has just four Test starts between them and as another seven players have cap hauls in single fingers. Keith Earls, Aki and even Jordan Larmour, provide the experience.
Admittedly, there is a smattering of experience on the bench, where Scannell is joined by Cian Healy, Finlay Bealham, Jack Conan, Conor Murray and Joey Carbery, as well as Ryan Baird and the once-capped Michael Lowry.
There’s a fair degree of rustiness in this team’s ranks, for the Connacht trio of Aki, Dave Heffernan and Prendergast, plus Ulster’s Lowry, haven’t played for six weeks. Yet Andy Farrell hasn’t shied away from underlining the importance of this tour opener.
“It’s huge. It’s everything to these players who are taking to the field tomorrow. It’s the biggest game of their lives, you know? It is.
“I know there is a three-game Series coming up but these two Maori games for us in terms of what we’re trying to build and how we are trying to put people under pressure and see how they come that is just as important. I can say it that way. I think that speaks for it all really.”
While Ireland have had their disruptions, including Mack Hansen testing positive for Covid, the Crusaders fullback Will Jordan has become the latest member of the All Blacks’ squad to be struck down with the virus on Tuesday.
This takes the number of confirmed Covid cases in their ranks to six after head coach Ian Foster, forwards coach John Plumtree and defence coach Scott McLeod, as well as the Crusaders midfielders David Havili and Jack Goodhue, were diagnosed on Monday.
Jordan was expected to start on the right wing in Saturday’s first Test against Ireland at a sold-out Eden Park. His absence is likely to create an opening for one of his Crusaders teammates, Sevu Reece or the uncapped Leicester Fainga’anuku.
The Crusaders outhalf Richie Mo’unga was also absent from Tuesday training with a tummy bug, but should be fit for the first Test. If not, Blues playmaker Stephen Perofeta could be called in for his Test debut off the bench.
No less than the noises coming from the All Blacks camp, Farrell played down the potential impact of these disruptions, and hinted that Hansen may yet not be the only case in their squad.
“Ah, it is what it is, you know? We are in the same boat ourselves. We have one case and we could have a few more cases by the end of the week, we don’t know.
“This is the way of the world, isn’t it? The motto of the tour is definitely being adaptable. I mean, when you look at our situation, it’s not far off what’s happening with the All Blacks anyway.
“We know our preparation is completely different to what it would normally be. We are training with a squad of 23 guys who are getting ready for a Maori game and then we’ve got 13 or 14 guys who are getting ready for a Test match.
“So, the Test match boys are not training with the subs etc. We are waiting to see how the Wednesday night game goes, who is going to get picked to take to the field in the 23 for the Test match.
“We picked that on purpose because we want to be adaptable. We want to put ourselves under pressure. I am sure the All Blacks are thinking the same.”
The Irish head coach was also sanguine about involvement of his former Irish boss Joe Schmidt in the All Blacks’ preparations this week. When asked by a Kiwi reporter for his thoughts on going head-to-head with Schmidt, he said: “Ah, I don’t know if it’s head-to-head. I am sure Fozzy (Foster) will be around somewhere. I think Joe is just helping out by being an extra pair of hands. I am sure that Joe is just fitting into the system.
“I am supposed to be meeting him for a coffee on Thursday. I don’t know whether that’s out of the question or not, but we’ll soon see,” said Farrell with a broad smile, which was again his reaction when asked what Schmidt might bring to the All Blacks’ mix this week?
“I mean, what can he bring? He’s coming into a system that he probably doesn’t know as well. It’s not his system, is it?
“So, I’m sure he is just bringing his one-to-one expertise and advice to the coaches etc, and that’s pretty profound isn’t it? I am sure they will all try learn something off him.”
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.