If Andy Farrell had dreamed of a near perfect outcome, the way Ireland’s 2022 tour of New Zealand panned out would not have been far from what he could dared to have imagined.
Most of all, his squad and travelling party of 70, which increased to 74 with four additional call-ups, stayed true to his core values and remained tight-knit in the face of two opening defeats to respond with what seemed a fanciful three straight wins at the midway point.
Coming at the end of a long, hard and ultimately anti-climactic campaign for all the provinces made that achievement even more impressive.
“Andy, are you mad?” might have been a common refrain when the Irish head coach successfully pushed through for two games against the Maori All Blacks in addition to the three Test series but in this he has been totally vindicated.
All told, only two of the original 40-man squad didn’t play a minute - namely Iain Henderson and Harry Byrne - while James Hume also went home prematurely. Jeremy Loughman, Rob Herring, Dacve Heffernan, Finlay Bealham and Mack Hansen also had concussion, injury or Covid issues, and while World Rugby’s 12-day protocol is welcome, this tour underlined that squads of 33 players will be nowhere near sufficient for the World Cup.
Yet despite the various disruptions and demands of five games in an 18-day period, Ireland were relatively fortunate, starting the same pack throughout the series. Ultimately, 13 players started all three Tests, in which just 26 players were used, which further demonstrates the value of those two Maori games given 42 players saw game time on the tour.
In addition to completing a series wins and seeing his squad grow further, Farrell had wanted this tour to “unearth four or five gems” and in the parameters of the schedule, it seems safe to say that this target was also achieved.
Many enhanced their credentials but competition will remain fierce, especially at hooker, lock, backrow and the outside backs given Rónan Kelleher, Henderson, Andrew Conway, Robert Baloucoune, Jacob Stockdale were among those ruled out of this tour.
One of only five players to play all 240 minutes of the Test series, the fullback capped off a solid tour with perhaps his best performance yet in an Irish jersey in the third Test. He oozed assurance at the back, added real value in attack, took his try very well and made a big contribution in the build-up to the decisive fourth try. Has now started 25 of Ireland’s last 26 Tests, so the role of his back-up is still up for grabs.
Helped by his relaxed temperament, the Connacht winger continues to take to Test rugby effortlessly. Recovered from Covid to play his first game for ten weeks in the second Test, kept his opposite wingers largely in check, coped with aerial targeting in third Test and showed his football skills when coming off his wing, notably that skip pass to Lowe for Keenan’s try. Has started six of Ireland’s last eight Tests, cementing his status as a starting winger in a competitive area and, with his versatility, looks a likely bet for the World Cup.
Oul’ man Earlsy keeps on trucking along. The 34-year-old demonstrated his value by taking his tally of tries to 35 with that sharp finish in the first Test, and also started both Maori games (captaining in the second one) as well as coming on for the last 11 minutes in the third Test, so wearing four different jersey numbers and taking his tally of caps to 98.
He performed strongly on both sides of the ball in the first Test, taking his try well, albeit being taken on the outside by Ardie Savea for his second try, before that head-on-hit ended his tour after an hour into the second Test. Unlucky but still quality.
An utterly dependable performer in every minute of the Tests, switching effortlessly from inside to outside centre almost halfway through the series. Finishing off the try of this tour and many others in that dream-like first half performance last Saturday was fitting reward for three big performances. Tackling was immense.
A hugely significant and emotional tour in Aki’s career and life. Enjoyed some home cooking, having his entire family see him play for the first time in nine years, captaining Ireland in the tour opener and lengthy stints off the bench in the first two Tests before giving his all in the third. Two tries too, and that gorgeous assist for Henshaw.
Another to enjoy a successful and momentous homecoming. In truth, his series was a bit of a slow burner but the value of his left boot was illustrated in the third Test, whether punting for distance or threading kicks along the line. Made a series of important carries. Another to play every minute of the series.
Yet another series to underline his enormous importance. Probably not a coincidence that Ireland’s most stressful period was immediately after losing him 30 minutes into the first Test. But when he plays 70-plus Ireland still generally win, even away to the All Blacks. Goal-kicking, decision-making, attacking orchestrator and tackling all of the highest order. Captain, player and man of the tour. Remarkable.
Another of the Kiwi contingent to make an emotional return home and play in front of his family in a green jersey for the first time. Hit the ground running when pulling the strings for that statement opening try by Earls, only losing his way in that ten minute spell where the game was lost, but otherwise his speed to the base, decision-making, passing, running and ground covered in open play more than vindicated his decision to up sticks for Leinster at 24. Would probably be the Lions’ starting ‘9′ now.
Cut a frustrated figure during and after the first Test in light of Karl Dickson’s scrum interpretations yet still put in a huge 80-minute shift. Bounced back in last two Tests in a strong Irish scrum and showed how difficult he is to stop when taking his two tries in the second Test.
Played 204 minutes in the series, making 30 tackles and missing none. Has become one of the team’s pillars.
Kelleher’s absence heightened the importance of Sheehan’s rapid emergence as a Test match animal. Five carries in that opening Earls try set the tone. His footwork and carrying were off the charts, and though the ABs competed well in the air, his darts were good. À la Porter, put in three huge shifts too, totalling 201 minutes.
For some reason we saw less of his silken passing skills on the ball, but as usual he put in three big shifts totalling over 200 minutes in the series in an increasingly assured Irish scrum and made 34 tackles across the three Tests.
Unhappy with his own performance in the first Test, especially with his lineout calling, it says everything about his professionalism that by the third he was imperious. Also put himself about, making 37 tackles in playing every minute of the series, while offering himself as an effective carrier in the thickest of traffic.
Off the place by his own admission, if understandably after a three-and-a-half month lay-off, Beirne had a huge attacking game in the second Test and did more than anyone to repel the All Blacks in the third with a monumental defensive effort effectively featuring four turnovers. Watching Munster supporters could only lament what they have missed since January.
Can never be counted out. A colossal series by the Munster captain, playing all bar the last 14 minutes of the final Test, by which stage he’d emptied himself. Superb in the air, as usual, and brought his usual quota of passion and big plays.
Josh van der Flier
Maybe, à la Beirne, it’s the coloured headgear making him more noticeable, but most likely not. Seemed to be everywhere and usually was. Another to play every minute, there he was making a first-up tackle, carry and pass in the final endgame. His carrying having gone to a new level, there were just the 62 tackles (and one missed) by the team’s Duracell Bunny.
Relatively quiet by his own high standards in the first Test, Doris was immense in the two wins, his carrying (witness the Henshaw try), skill set and tackling (45 in the series) became increasingly influential. Long since a ‘gem’, he is still only 24 and like many has now been on three wins out of four against the ABs.
Injured for the first Test, the experienced Herring was restricted to 16 and 19-minute cameos off the bench but showed his value, for while there was an untypical crooked throw last Saturday his finish when taking three tackles to just make the line for the decisive try was impressive. Still looks like one of the three hookers for the World cup at this remove.
A late inclusion, the Connacht hooker was one of the tour’s unluckiest stories. He showed up well in starting the first Maori game but lasted only four minutes in the first Test after suffering concussion with his first carry, the new 12-day protocol effectively ruling him out of the remainder of the tour.
Looked to have suffered a serious injury at the end of the first Maori game but having been unused in the first Test he contributed two reassuring cameos in the two Test wins, not least when snaffling a turnover on the deck and with that big defensive scrum. Life in the old dog yet.
Ruled out of the first Test and then the second Maoris game. Packing down with Healy and Herring, that counter-shove under the Irish posts was a significant moment in repelling the attempted late All Blacks surge in the third Test. Interestingly, he has now played out the last ten minutes plus in four wins over the All Blacks.
Along with Carbery, the only man to play in all five games. Treadwell started both Maoris games, assuming the line-out calling in the win, and put himself about with his usual enthusiasm and athleticism in all three Tests, especially the second. A late bloomer and one of the tour’s success stories.
Like O’Mahony before him, the Lions Test number ‘8′ has readjusted without complaint to an impact role in all three Tests. Still played 60 minutes in total, adding ball-carrying impetus in a losing cause in the first Test and defensive energy and physicality in the latter two.
As with O’Mahony and Conan, Ireland’s greatest scrumhalf has also adapted to an endgame role. Named on the bench in all five games, and unused in both Maori games, being restricted to just 28 minutes in the series which has rather typified his season. Still something very reassuring about having him to seen out games.
Like Treadwell, played all five games, albeit all five off the bench for a total of 89 minutes. He actually played very well in the second half of the first Test (which was 14-all). His class and versatility remain important in the match day squad, just his misfortune to be backing up the team’s most important player and captain.
Two big shifts in both of the Maori games and played the last dozen minutes of the first Test. Overall another step forward and his career remains on an upward graph. Liked for his skill set, his scrummaging is improving and the investment is bearing fruit.
Started both Maori games and after his loose kicking from fullback in the first was highlighted by the home side’s counter-attacking game, he performed more impressively in the second one on the wing. His versatility is admired and could prove valuable, but needs a big season with Leinster.
A mixed bag after a strong end of season return from injury with Leinster. Started both Maori games and took his two tries sharply in the second but was yellow carded and saw the electric Reuben Love counter for a try off his loose kick. Hasn’t played a Test since Japan in July 2021. Wing is in an area which will become even more competitive but Larmour still provides something different.
Unluckily restricted to the first 50 minutes against the Maori before suffering a tour-ending groin injury. A quality all-round player, it would have been interesting to see how he might have gone in the second Maori game.
After just one outing all season at ‘10′ for Leinster, he looked both assured and unfamiliar with the outhalf role in the first Maori game but again showed more than a hint of Sexton in the second. One of the unearthed jewels but how much time will he have at ‘10′ with Leinster next season?
Sharp to the breakdown and in his passing in both 80-minute outings against the Maori, his kicking and carrying game also went up a notch in the second of them. Has cemented his place as one of Ireland’s three scrumhalves.
Opportunity knocked and appeared to have passed him by when concussed in the first Maori game but returned to put in a good hour-long shift in the second, catching the eye with that dummy and a neat transfer. In keeping with what they want from their forwards, Farrell and co clearly like his skill set but still needs to prove his scrummaging.
Still only 20 and made his Leinster debut last January, McCarthy gave away too many penalties but did play 80 minutes in both Maori games, and put himself about - putting in a whopping 33 tackles. Overall, probably one of the jewels.
Akin to McCarthy, his enthusiasm needs to be tempered, especially when chasing lost causes at the breakdown. Also conceded too many penalties and a yellow card but otherwise played every minute against the Maori, putting in a big shift in the first, and was name-checked by Farrell last Saturday.
Didn’t have too many chances to show his undoubted pace but put in two big 80-minute defensive performances against the Maori, scoring a try and winning some key turnovers in the win. Overall then, a success, and cemented his status as the next in line at ‘7′.
Played all but a minute of the two Maori games and after a Covid and injury-affected season with Munster, his performances were a timely reminder of his potent carrying and link play. Also put in 35 tackles, albeit he missed a few, and showed he could mix with Super Rugby players and a future All Black opposite him, scoring tries in both games.
Limited to two replacement appearances against the Maori (amounting to 51 minutes), at face value this was a low-key tour for a back five forward whose athleticism is undoubtedly admired by Farrell, particularly compared to Treadwell.
After that eye-catching two-try debut in the Six Nations against Italy, this was also a low-key tour for the electric Ulsterman, who played the last half-hour in the first Maori game and 70 minutes in the second.
Chuffed to be called up late from his hols for the first time since the 2019 World Cup, the Munster hooker played the last half-hour of the first Maori game jet-lagged before putting in a solid 80-minute shift in the win over the Maori.
Another late call-up, Byrne was restricted to just the last quarter of the second Maori game although that was better than not making the tour at all.
The former Leinster and Irish tighthead was brought in as a late addition for the second Maori game. Having last played for Taranaki in November, Bent came on for the last five minutes, so donning the Irish jersey for one last time, and for the first time since winning his fifth cap against Scotland in August 2015.
No-one knows better than McCloskey the logjam in the Irish midfield. A late call-up after the departure of his Ulster midfield mate Hume, he put in a typically big-carrying, hard-tackling and industrious 80 minutes in the win over the Maori, sealed by his contender for pass of the tour with that left to right assist for Larmour’s second try.