All Blacks loss at Aviva Stadium, November 2018. Photo, INPHO
It couldn’t have come sooner. The Irish are here in time for Matariki and a three test series against the All Blacks. It’s a timely change from the long-as inaugural Super Rugby Pacific ho-hum of a season. The rugby has been mediocre in many respects and outright boring at times.
My, how things have changed. Ten years ago, the Irish were easy beats when they last toured in 2012. The All Blacks scored 124 points in the three-test series and Ireland managed a measly 29 points in all three games.
Ten years later and it’s the All Blacks who are on the back foot. They have lost three times to Ireland in the last five test matches between the two sides. No one could have prophesied the turn in fortunes, not even a rugby psychic if there was one.
I was fortunate enough to be at Aviva Stadium in Dublin to watch an Irish victory in November 2018. The All Blacks lost again last year, in the same venue, the last time the two sides met.
I saw then the passion of the Irish. Not only the players, the fans too. There were 50,000 Irish playing the AB’s that night. The passion of the crowd is such that there is no anthem singer when Ireland plays.
The nationalism and voice of the fans sends a vocal blast into the stratosphere with the sound of Amhran na blhFiann, the Soldier’s Song and you can hear the players sing their anthem with deep pride. The stadium is a cauldron of Irish fervour for the entire game, stirring the players on.
Which is why there is so much interest in the upcoming series and the selection of the first All Blacks team of the year. Who will be named in Ian Foster’s side? The answer to that question is immaterial. It is whether the available pool of players contains the talent to match Ireland, in particular, the fowards. I am not convinced that is the case any more.
The likely bunch will not strike much fear in any Irish heart. The names that have come to the surface after a long Super Rugby season are run of the mill players, none that stands out, particularly in the front row.
All Blacks dominance of years past was built on a solid foundation of unmovable men in the front row. They are the cornerstone of the tight-five and the team. Now those players are found in other teams, including Ireland.
Don’t get me wrong, AB’s coach Ian Foster will pick a good side, deserving players, the best of the lot. I’m just not convinced we have that many world class tight-five players of All Blacks teams a decade ago, and earlier.
There are name players in Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett in the locks, and Ardie Savea on the flank. They are not the front five and Whitelock and Retallick are not at their peak.
Sure, we have world-class backs in Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga, Will Jordan and Rieko Ioane but rugby is won up front.
Or has the sky truly fallen and the All Blacks are now perpetual mortals?
The answer might just be far too obvious.
My likely team
Props: Nepo Laulala, Ethan de Groot, Ofa Tuungafasi, George Bower, Tamaiti Williams
Hookers: Codie Taylor, Dane Coles, Samisoni Taukei’aho
Locks: Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett, Josh Lord
Loose Forwards: Ardie Savea, Marino Mikaele-Tu’u, Akira Ioane, Hoskins Sotutu, Dalton Papalii
Halfbacks: Aaron Smith, Folau Fakatava, Finlay Christie
First-fives: Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga, Stephen Perofeta
Midfielders: Jack Goodhue, Rieko Ioane, Quinn Tupaea, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, David Havili
Outside Backs: Sevu Reece, Jodie Barrett, Will Jordan, Caleb Clarke, George Bridge
Two to be selected, one prop and a loose-forward.
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