By Sarah Mockford, Rugby World Features Editor
IRELAND HAVE never beaten New Zealand but they have a chance to change the history books in Auckland on Saturday.
Both Declan Kidney and Steve Hansen have selected new caps in their sides for the first match of this month’s three-Test series. It will be played at Eden Park – venue of Ireland’s famous win over Australia at last year’s World Cup – but the All Blacks seem to be everyone’s pick as winners. So is that prediction right?
Centres of attention
Brian O’Driscoll returns to the Test arena for the first time since RWC 2011 and will be up against an exciting All Blacks midfield pairing in Conrad Smith and Sonny Bill Williams. Smith will be sure to pick plenty of lines off his centre partner as he tries to get on the end of those magic offloads from Williams.
Keith Earls is teaming up with O’Driscoll and his gliding running style could cause New Zealand problems in defence, but of more importance will be his ability to stop the powerful Williams before he gets across the gain-line. It could be that O’Driscoll steps across to tackle Williams rather than leave it to his smaller centre partner.
Simon Zebo and Declan Fitzpatrick make their Ireland debuts at wing and prop respectively while the All Blacks have named three new caps: wing Julian Savea, scrum-half Aaron Smith and lock Brodie Retallick.
Tony Woodcock is sure to target Fitzpatrick at scrum time and the All Blacks should have the edge up front given that Ireland are not only missing first-choice tighthead Mike Ross but also the bulk of Paul O’Connell and Stephen Ferris behind. Ireland might try to even things out by putting pressure on Retallick at the lineout with their bruising locks Dan Tuohy and Donnacha Ryan.
Ireland have picked an exciting back-line full of pace and creativity, but they could rue the lack of an out-an-out openside because without quality ball those talents will go to waste. Everyone knows about the breakdown skills of Richie McCaw and he’ll be looking to slow down, if not turn over, Irish ball at the contact area, so it could be a long day for the Irish back row.
New Zealand are looking for an aggressive, hard-hitting game from Victor Vito at six while Kieran Read should carry his impressive Crusaders form onto the Test stage with a powerful running display. If he can make that initial burst across the gain-line, then the likes of Williams, Savea and Israel Dagg could spell danger for O’Driscoll & Co.
In the words of O’Driscoll: “Some time an Ireland team will beat the All Blacks before the world implodes.” However, as much as I’d like to predict that first Irish win, I can’t see beyond New Zealand. It’s their first game since being crowned world champions while Ireland have been unable to transfer their provincial sides’ form to the international competitions. So I’m saying New Zealand by 12 points.
New Zealand v Ireland, Saturday 9 June, 8.35am BST, Eden Park, Live on Sky Sports 2
NEW ZEALAND: Israel Dagg; Zac Guildford, Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams, Julian Savea; Daniel Carter, Aaron Smith; Tony Woodcock, Andrew Hore, Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Victor Vito, Richie McCaw (captain), Kieran Read.
Replacements: Hikawera Elliot, Ben Franks, Ali Williams, Adam Thomson, Piri Weepu, Aaron Cruden, Ben Smith.
IRELAND: Rob Kearney; Fergus McFadden, Brian O’Driscoll (captain), Keith Earls, Simon Zebo; Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; Cian Healy, Rory Best, Declan Fitzpatrick, Dan Tuohy, Donnacha Ryan, Peter O’Mahony, Sean O’Brien, Jamie Heaslip.
Replacements: Sean Cronin, Ronan Loughney, Donncha O’Callaghan, Kevin McLaughlin, Eoin Reddan, Ronan O’Gara, Darren Cave.