New Zealand v Ireland: Biggest one-off win of them all the prize on offer at Eden Park fortress

It’s been 48 matches and 28 years since New Zealand last lost at Eden Park

  • New Zealand v Ireland, first Test
  • Venue: Eden Park, Auckland.
  • Kick-off: Saturday, 7.05pm local time/8.05am Irish
  • On TV: Live on Sky Sports

The more Ireland break new landmarks against the almighty All Blacks, the more it seems that the bar keeps rising. So it is that after the historic win in Chicago, then the first win on home soil and then backing that up with last November’s nerveless, compelling, utterly deserved victory, a third in the last five clashes, comes something else together.

There is nothing especially intimidating or claustrophobically smothering about Eden Park. It’s the biggest, most open rugby ground in New Zealand. Yet Eden Park has become the most impenetrable fortress in the history of test rugby, and one ventures unmatched in most other sports as well. It’s been 48 matches and 28 years since New Zealand last lost here, against France.

That the All Blacks have opted to host the first Test here is evidence in itself of how desperate they are to avenge that 29-20 loss last November, a wound compounded by losing to France as well a week later, and so start this eagerly awaited series with a win.

There was a curiously low turnout last Wednesday in Hamilton and, relatively speaking, by the media for Ian Foster’s Zoom call and the All Blacks’ media day in their five-star hotel on the viaduct on Thursday. Yet by all accounts it’s a measure of the respect which Irish rugby now commands that this is the most eagerly awaited rugby series in New Zealand since the Lions visited in 2017.

Although the forecast is promising more rain, ala Wednesday, in another break with the unseasonal sunny and warm temperatures, there’s a sense of something special brewing as this near 50,000 sell-out first Test looms into view.

No doubt thousands of green-clad ex-pats will descend on Auckland, as they did on a rainy night in Eden Park in 2011 when Ireland shook the World Cup by beating Australia. They’ll do so with greater belief than ever that this Irish team might well be capable of something sensational, perhaps the biggest one-off win of them all.

The All Blacks are historically and traditionally regarded as undercooked and vulnerable in their first international of the year. Against that, they have been seething for over seven months, and as they showed admittedly a week after a helpful warm-up win by 78-0 over Samoa in 2017 when beating the Lions, they’re also well capable of hitting the ground running in the long-awaited first Test of a targeted series.

There have been a few distractions this week, most obviously the Covid outbreak in the All Blacks which saw Greg Feek became their fifth coach to be struck down with the virus. But as Munster’s experience against Wasps last December demonstrated, a pared down coaching ticket and all manner of off-field disruptions can have a clarifying and unifying effect too. Sometimes less is more, and Beauden Barrett spoke on Thursday of “simplifying our game”. And this from the rugby country which invented KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid).

In the fallout, Joe Schmidt has had what is probably a relatively minor input, which didn’t prevent him from visiting the Irish squad’s hotel for a coffee on Wednesday.

Amazingly, although Ed Byrne is the latest frontrow re-enforcement to be summoned, the indications are that Cian Healy may well be able to provide cover on the bench after all, as he did when Ireland beat the All Blacks last November.

Farrell admitted that was Ireland’s best performance of the season, but that they will need to be better again.

“We was good that night but we wasn’t perfect. We came in 10-5 down at half-time, having the run of play and we didn’t get ahead of ourselves. It was nice and composed and that’s what the All Blacks have been pretty good at over the last decade or so.

“Again, there’s going to be patches where things are going to go their way. We expect that. How we deal with that is pretty important. Yeah, it was a decent performance, but I don’t think it’s going to be good enough this weekend.”

In particular, Farrell said Ireland would need to be more accurate in taking opportunities. “Like I’ve always said every time you play against the All Blacks, you’ve got to score points. If you get the opportunity, you’ve got to be clinical.”

This Irish team might well have a better chance of causing an upset than the callow midweek side had of overcoming a fired-up Maori All Blacks. True, while it’s one thing to keep next moment focused and roll with the punches at an animated Aviva, to keep working off the ball for Johnny Sexton to keep the team attacking in waves, to keep executing clear-outs, to keep probing for chinks in the black line. It’s another altogether to do it hereabouts.

The All Blacks are down a few themselves, and in addition to the missing Anton Lienert-Brown, David Havili and Will Jordan look particular losses. Ireland aren’t far away from being at full throttle in personnel, albeit Ronan Kelleher, Iain Henderson and Mack Hansen would strengthen their hand.

Will Andy Farrell, Paul O’Connell et al revive and inspire Andrew Porter, Tadhg Furlong, James Ryan and the benched Jack Conan, who didn’t end the season scaling their normal heights? Will the starting frontrow and Sexton stay healthy? Will Karl Dickson stay cool?

If the answers to all, or most, of the above are in the affirmative Ireland could be in the hunt. This could be interesting.

New Zealand: Jordie Barrett (Hurricanes); Sevu Reece (Crusaders, Tasman), Reiko Ioane (Blues), Quinn Tupaea (Chiefs), Leicester Fainga’anuku (Crusaders); Beauden Barrett (Blues), Aaron Smith (Highlanders); George Bower (Crusaders), Codie Taylor (Crusaders)), Ofa Tu’ungafasi (Blues), Brodie Retallick (Chiefs), Samuel Whitelock (Crusaders), Scott Barrett (Crusaders), Sam Cane (Chiefs, capt), Ardie Savea (Hurricanes).

Replacements: Samisoni Taukei’aho (Chiefs), Karl Tu’inukuafe (Blues), Angus Ta’avao (Chiefs), Pita Gus Sowakula (Chiefs), Dalton Papalii (Blues), Finlay Christie (Blues), Richie Mo’unga (Crusaders), Braydon Ennor (Crusaders).

Ireland: Hugo Keenan (Leinster/UCD), Keith Earls (Munster/Young Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster/UCD), Robbie Henshaw (Leinster/Buccaneers), James Lowe (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster/St Mary’s College, capt), Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster/UCD), Dan Sheehan (Leinster/Lansdowne), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster/Clontarf), James Ryan (Leinster/UCD), Tadhg Beirne (Munster/Lansdowne), Peter O’Mahony (Munster/Cork Constitution), Josh van der Flier (Leinster/UCD), Caelan Doris (Leinster/St Mary’s College).

Replacements: Dave Heffernan (Connacht/Buccaneers), Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers), Cian Healy (Leinster/Clontarf), Kieran Treadwell (Ulster/Ballymena), Jack Conan (Leinster/Old Belvedere), Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen), Joey Carbery (Munster/Clontarf), Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians).

Referee: Karl Dickson (RFU)

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times