Ireland v New Zealand, Aviva Stadium, Saturday, 3.30pm - Live on RTÉ 2 and Channel 4.
Of all the eve-of-match preparations to be disrupted by a virtually unique Covid scare in Irish rugby over the past year and three-quarters, it had to be this one.
A potential positive case having been revealed prior to Friday’s Captain’s Run, which prevented two isolated players from taking part, subsequent PCR testing on the entire Ireland squad and management team produced no positive Covid results.
“The individual who produced a positive test has subsequently had two PCR tests at two separate labs, returning negative results on both,” said an IRFU statement on Friday night, as a result of which both the player and the identified close contact have been cleared by public health authorities and tournament organisers to take their places in the squad.
Not that the game had been in danger of not taking place as scheduled, but the relief within the Irish camp will be palpable, and a grand sense of occasion is guaranteed.
While last week was a landmark day for certain individuals, today is a collective celebration; the return of the All Blacks, the biggest draw in the world game, the first full house here in 543 days, no AIL programme and a fair forecast.
The pre-match pageantry will also ensure 50,000-plus are ready to roar from the off, but Andy Farrell has admitted that it's also the responsibility of his team to bring the home fans into the game."We've got to make our big moments."
Indeed, when taking the game to New Zealand in Chicago or withstanding an initial siege in Dublin three years ago, Ireland drew belief from big plays early on with their energy and line speed, forcing errors. The same was true when racing into a 19-0 lead in 2013.
Against that, all the early moments went against Ireland in the World Cup quarter-final two years ago; Jacob Stockdale knocking on an attempted intercept, so meaning a 3-0 deficit instead of a 7-0 lead, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose clashing heads and by the time both were back on the pitch it was a 17-0 deficit. And plenty more besides.
History has shown us that Ireland don’t beat the All Blacks very often, but that if there is an opportune time it would appear to be November.
Who knows, while much more match-hardened, the All Blacks may be running a little empty again. They’ve been away from home since the end of August.
Then again the vast bulk of today’s match-day squad were excused duty against the USA and Italy, with Wales and now Ireland and France specifically in mind. Gone are the days when the All Blacks spoke in platitudes about Ireland’s grit and only knew Brian O’Driscoll by name. But with that new-found respect has maybe come a little discomfiture as well.
When Wales had the temerity to come within a score of the All Blacks entering the final quarter, they were blown away in a blizzard of high-tempo offloading, running lines and four tries in a 13-minute spell.
Therein lies a reminder, were it needed, that the All Blacks can surgically dissect a side that falters in any way, or is forced to play catch-up. Ireland know this as well anyone, witness the last meeting in Tokyo.
While that will leave its scars, it’s striking to note that 12/13 of this match-day squad know what it’s like to beat the All Blacks – quite a break with history.
Against that, six of this side have never played a team from the Rugby Championship, much less the All Blacks, and five of them, along with two of the replacements, have never played in front of a full house at the Aviva Stadium.
Yet the mix of proven Test match animals along with an infusion of relatively new, dynamic players looked the part in the dismantling of Japan. Andrew Porter’s return to loosehead, Ronan Kelleher’s coming of age, and Tadhg Furlong, Beirne and Jack Conan all playing like bona fide Lions has added another dimension to this Irish team.
Although it’s the same All Blacks tight five as in Tokyo, and the Brodie Retallick/Sam Whitelock combination has no peers, these Irish forwards look to be well primed. As the interlinking between back and forwards demonstrated last week, they’re skilful as well as powerful.
Granted, this is different gravy. More of the same intent and ambition would be great, but against the All Blacks accuracy is paramount. The way they come alive, realign and attack off turnovers is incomparable. They’re often at their most dangerous when the opposition have the ball.
Also, it’s worth noting that in three defeats by the All Blacks this year, the Wallabies coughed up five intercept tries, and Beauden Barrett picked off a couple against Wales a fortnight ago.
As Johnny Sexton said this week, winning is the most important thing. He's right too. There won't be 18 offloads and 11 clean breaks today, and unwavering line speed and tackle execution will be more important. In the electric Will Jordan, James Lowe might be exposed to his supreme defensive test today.
While Ireland were rewarded for their ambition in Chicago when persistently opting for the corner in scoring five tries to four, two years later the victory was every bit as commendable even though it was founded on a monumental defensive effort, sustained intensity in possession and one brilliantly conceived and executed strike play.
South Africa did show a little more ambition against New Zealand in their two Rugby Championship meetings than they did against the Lions – relatively speaking.
Yet in pushing the All Blacks to a 19-17 win courtesy of Jordie Barrett’s 78th-minute penalty in Townsville before beating them a week later on the Gold Coast with a couple of superb tries, the Boks’ line speed, big tackling and a profitable return from high kicks was critical.
Still, New Zealand don’t often do successive defeats and, more than anything, the All Blacks’ capacity to score tries out of seemingly nothing, in a flash, may separate the sides again.
But this Ireland will give it a good rattle anyway.
IRELAND: Hugo Keenan (Leinster); Andrew Conway (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), James Lowe (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Rónan Kelleher (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Iain Henderson (Ulster), James Ryan (Leinster); Caelan Doris (Leinster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster).
Replacements: Rob Herring (Ulster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Tadhg Beirne (Munster), Peter O'Mahony (Munster), Conor Murray (Munster), Joey Carbery (Munster), Keith Earls (Munster).
NEW ZEALAND: Jordie Barrett; Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sevu Reece; Beauden Barrett, TJ Perenara; Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Nepo Laulala; Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick; Ethan Blackadder, Dalton Papali'i, Ardie Savea.
Replacements: Dane Coles, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Tyrel Lomax, Tupou Vaa'i, Akira Ioane, Finlay Christie, Richie Mo'unga, David Havili.