Auckland gets set to play host to what on paper looks set to be a titanic struggle between two sides who find themselves at somewhat of a crossroads.
The All Blacks have seen their era of dominance halted somewhat over the past couple of seasons. Starting with their World Cup semi-final exit at the hands of England and concluding with losses to South Africa, Ireland and France capping an unusual 2021.
By most standards an 80%-win ratio would be an incredible achievement, but such is the level of expectation for the All Blacks 2021 is viewed in a different light.
Perhaps it was the manner of the defeats that have caused the Kiwi’s to rethink their approach. The three loses carried a similar theme of being outmuscled in particular at the set piece and ruck time. Rarely do the All Blacks lose back-to-back fixtures in the manner of which they did in the Autumn.
Their extended time on the road due to the covid-19 pandemic undoubtedly played a role but by all accounts, the air of invincibility that once surrounded the squad had lifted.
Unsure of their first-choice side, the return of Beauden Barrett in place of Richie Mo’unga to open the season is a direct reflection of just how well the former World Player Of The Year has played so far this season.
The rest of the All Blacks backline looks incredible powerful, fast and dynamic. In the centres Reiko Ioane has been one of the standpoint performers in this year’s Super Rugby tournament and can tear apart any defence given half a chance.
The most interesting selection however is that of Scott Barrett at blindside flanker rather than second row. This move would signal a shift towards a more physical approach as Barrett joins the ever-physical duo of captain Sam Cane and Ardie Savea.
Andy Farrell has seen his sides tour get off to a rather innocuous start. Several potential starters either didn’t get on the flight or have already returned home due to injury, leaving question marks around squad depth.
Significantly however is that Jonathan Sexton returns to the line-up to once again captain the side. At 36-years-old Sexton has been playing some fantastic rugby this season, so much so that the cap between him and any challengers for the jersey is still significant.
Backing up Sexton is Joey Carbery who will be hoping to get a run of game time in the green shirt following several injury derailed seasons since the 2019 World Cup.
The Munster flyhalf has the ability to create something from nothing and fits perfectly into Ireland’s new style of play. He will however be hyper aware of the Leinster duo of Ciaran Frawley and Harry Byrne who like Carbery offer both versatility and strong attacking games.
Several players who featured in the opening loss to Maori side once again feature with captain from that day Bundee Aki providing backline cover alongside Carbery and Conor Murray.
Most worryingly for Farrell will be the front row cover. Already missing first choice hooker Ronan Kelleher due to injury, back-up loosehead Cian Healy suffered what at the time appeared to be a season ending injury against the Maori.
In an incredible turn off events Healy has been passed fit and will provide cover from the bench alongside Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham.
Due to the tour ending injury to Ian Henderson, Kieran Treadwell is selected on the bench as second-row cover. The second row could be an area of concern for Ireland as the relatively lightweight duo of Tadhg Beirne and James Ryan are selected to start. Both players are immensely dynamic but lack the sheer power of Henderson, Beirne is also just coming back from injury and as such is rather lacking in game time.
In the backrow Peter O’Mahony returns with Jack Conan dropping to the bench whilst Caelan Doris starts at number eight. O’Mahony’s inclusion would signal that Ireland are looking to match the All Blacks at the line-out. Leinster who remains the bulk providers in terms of players, really struggled with the line-out against the Bulls in their URC semi-final loss. In O’Mahony, Ireland possess one of the best line-out jumpers in world rugby.
Action gets underway at 7.30am UK time and is available on Sky Sports.
Last Three Meetings:
Ireland 29 – New Zealand 20
New Zealand 46 – Ireland 14
Ireland 16 – New Zealand 9
All Blacks: Jordie Barrett, Sevu Reece, Rieko Ioane, Quinn Tupaea, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (captain), Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Ofa Tuungafasi, Codie Taylor, George Bower.
Bench: Samisoni Taukei’aho, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Angus Ta’avao, Pita Gus Sowakula, Dalton Papalii, Finlay Christie, Richie Mo’unga, Braydon Ennor.
Ireland: Hugo Keenan, Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe, Jonathan Sexton, Jamison Gibson-Park, Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Tadhg Furlong, Dan Sheehan, Andrew Porter
Bench: Dave Heffernan, Cian Healy, Finlay Bealham, Kieran Treadwell, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Joey Carbery, Bundee Aki