The 2010 test season begins for the All Blacks hosting an Irish team that will be keen to stamp their authority in a year where they have seen all symbols of their status stripped from them in the space of a few months.
Though still full of members of the modern “golden age,” the loss of the Six Nations, Heineken Cup, and Magners League title from last year could well be indicative that a strong Ireland team may be entering a rebuilding phase.
While the side under coach Declan Kidney had finally fulfilled the promise shown with numerous triple crowns and Six Nations runner’s up gongs, there is still a nagging doubt that they are incapable of matching it with the world’s best.
While a draw with the Wallabies and a 20-15 win over a tired Springboks were notable late last year, two big questions remain.
Can Kidney coax enough out of his veteran core and continue to introduce promising talent via a strong Irish rugby system to challenge for a World Cup, and can they beat the one nation that they have never tasted success against in 105 years?
While the Springboks may have usurped the All Blacks as the premier nation in the South last year, the New Zealanders' unbeaten record against the Irish still shows their remarkable pedigree, no matter what their condition or who is named in their test XV.
But while six straight test wins and a four-match clean sweep of Europe helped ease the pain of conceding the Tri Nations to the South Africans in 2009, this is an All Blacks team that has seen a paradigm shift of the usual “mid World Cup status quo.”
While 2008—13 wins from 15 matches—was a stunning riposte from a side stinging from their defeat to France in the World Cup, last year saw the side and nation shocked by the strategies imposed by their old foes from the republic.
This led to question marks such as lack of basic skills, the absence of higher level rugby tactical nous, and inability to adjust a match day strategy.
These were then amplified during a mixed Super 14, where the usually high performing New Zealand outfits struggled.
A host of injuries to front liners—including Ali Williams (Achilles), Isaia Toeava (hip), Sitiveni Sivivatu (shoulder), Ma'a Nonu (knee), Stephen Donald (shoulder), Mike Delany (shoulder), Jason Eaton (knee), Mils Muliaina (knee), Andrew Hore (elbow), and Richard Kahui (sternum)—have meant that the All Blacks have undergone forced and radical change.
Six debutants have been ushered into their match day squad, but this has meant that while there is potential weakness in lack of experience, there is the prospect of unpredictability and excitement.
Ireland, while boasting world class talent who will long wear the green of their country—such as Tommy Bowe and Jamie Heaslip—will approach New Plymouth in quite the opposite mould.
They are filled with veterans, who may have far more familiarity on the test stage than their opposition, but players who even at their peak have not troubled All Black sides before.
Injuries have not helped either, but after 22 test matches with no success, an Ireland team with six matches played this year while the All Blacks have been dormant, will have no better chance to end what is a remarkable losing sequence.
While the All Blacks have new faces all over the park, they are intermingled with experience and some of the best—albeit with mixed recent form—players in world rugby.
It is still a side boasting 555 test caps, and an operation that boasts the typical attacking threats expected of a team clad in black.
Indeed, this is the potential issue for Ireland, who have never looked settled against a team hell bent on unleashing runners at every opportunity.
But for all the possible surprises and strike power of New Zealand, the Irish back division has the class to match them. Up front though is a different story.
While there are the usual question marks over their lineout, a constant chameleon with the All Blacks, there is no such thing as a pushover New Zealand pack, and five Crusaders up front led by the peerless Richie McCaw will ensure that the Ireland forwards will need to play their “A” game.
Even under Kidney—a renowned forwards mentor with Munster—Ireland have never truly shaken away the demons horrendously revealed up front in 2007, and if the All Blacks dominate in this fact it could be the visitors 23rd straight defeat.
Still, while the All Blacks home advantage and presence of previous Irish tormentors such as McCaw and Dan Carter gives them the edge, the spectre of average Super 14 form and the first test of the season means that a grizzled Ireland could record a special piece of rugby history.
15 Israel Dagg, 14 Cory Jane, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Benson Stanley, 11 Joe Rokocoko, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Jimmy Cowan, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (c), 6 Jerome Kaino, 5 Anthony Boric, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Keven Mealamu, 1 Ben Franks. Replacements: 16 Aled de Malmanche, 17 Neemia Tialata, 18 Sam Whitelock, 19 Victor Vito, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Aaron Cruden, 22 Zac Guildford.
15-Robert Kearney, 14-Tommy Bowe, 13-Brian O'Driscoll (captain), 12-Gordon D'Arcy, 11-Andrew Trimble, 10-Ronan O'Gara, 9-Tomas O'Leary; 8-Jamie Heaslip, 7-David Wallace, 6-John Muldoon, 5-Mick O'Driscoll, 4-Donncha O'Callaghan, 3-John Hayes, 2-Sean Cronin, 1-Cian Healy. Replacements: 16-John Fogarty, 17-Tony Buckley, 18-Dan Tuohy, 19-Shane Jennings, 20-Eoin Reddan, 21-Jonathan Sexton, 22-Geordan Murphy.