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This is where Ireland's World Cup begins - in a Waikato winter rather than under a French sun

The Māori All Blacks have taken some big scalps over the years – tomorrow’s tour match is a chance for Andy Farrell to see if his untested kids can rise to the challenge of international rugby.

HAMILTON IN WINTER is rugby’s version of a Monday night in Stoke, the measuring stick people used to determine whether Arsene Wenger had unearthed the next Thierry Henry or just another Gervinho.

Stoke was a leveller. Rain fell from the skies, hate made its way down from the stands. Fans gave you verbals and shaven-headed defenders planted studs on your ankle. ‘Welcome to Stoke,’ they’d say. No visiting player ever made their name there but plenty lost their reputation.

Hamilton is that kind of town. The evenings when the sky is black and the frost leaves its bite are when the locals come out to see what the tourists from the other side of the world are made of. Ireland lost 60-0 here in 2012. Hamilton has witnessed the All Blacks score 60 points against Fiji, 57 against Argentina, 55 against Wales, 64 against Italy. It has seen the Māori All Blacks beat the British and Irish Lions.

Survive the tests Hamilton presents you with and you get to play in bigger cities with better stadiums. But if you can’t cope with the surroundings or this kind of opposition, well, then this is where your international career ends as well as starts (kick-off tomorrow 8.05am, Māori All Blacks v Ireland).  

“It’s different over here,” Farrell said. “Walking around here is not like walking down Ballsbridge where people wind the window down and tell you how good you are.

“This is proper international rugby and it’s exactly what we want at this point in time.”

irelands-captain-bundee-aki-with-head-coach-andy-farrell-during-the-press-conference Farrell and Aki share a joke in Auckland.

We all know why. There’s little for Farrell to gain by waiting 16 months to see if Ciaran Frawley, Jimmy O’Brien, James Hume, Joe McCarthy, Tom O’Toole, Craig Casey, Cian Prendergast or Jeremy Loughman can hack it in this kind of company when he can make that discovery now.

Joe Schmidt didn’t. He arrived at the 2015 World Cup with a team and came home realising he needed a squad. It looked like he’d learned his lesson by the time the 2019 tournament came around but when you think back to the previous summer’s tour, a familiar failing had played out.

Between them, half-backs John Cooney, Kieran Marmion and Ross Byrne got a combined total of five minutes on that three-test Australia trip and by the time Ireland rocked up in Japan, Johnny Sexton was cursed by injury, Conor Murray by a loss of form, and Ireland simply didn’t have ready-made replacements.

So, that’s why his successor has rolled the dice this time around, selecting over a quarter of his touring squad from the benches of Ireland’s provinces, choosing Leinster’s fourth-choice out-half, Munster’s third-choice loosehead, five uncapped rookies to start this game.

He’s dead right. There’s little point bringing these guys out here just to see them on the practice field, though, which was why it is encouraging to see Prendergast, Casey et al selected for tomorrow’s game but a little puzzling trying to figure out what’s to be learned from seeing 34-year-old Keith Earls and 32-year-old Bundee Aki.

craig-casey-during-the-training Casey gets his chance at scrum-half tomorrow.

Perhaps his thinking – with regard to Earls and Aki – was influenced by what happened in the spring of 2018 and then the calendar year of 2019. The reason Ireland were so good in that first instance was because of Devin Toner, Rory Best and Rob Kearney; the reason the team’s standards dipped a year later was because all three veterans had simultaneously grown old.

That’s the vision a coach needs to have, knowing not just when a youngster is ready to step up but also when it is time for an oldie to be ditched. Under the darkness of a New Zealand night, he’ll hope for clarity.

We have to prepare for the fact it could get ugly out here. One Test win out of three would be a success providing it isn’t accompanied by a couple of hammerings in the other games. In the grander scheme of things, tomorrow’s result may seem inconsequential but successful tours are often determined by how the dirt-trackers perform in midweek games.

“They set the tone,” says former Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan. “Win and the team room is a happy place. Everyone is laughing and joking and the Test side feeds off that vibe.”

But few teams ever manage to win against the Māori All Blacks. While Fiji did a couple of years ago, and the British and Irish Lions had 22 points to spare in 2017, you have to go back 14 years and 20 games for their previous loss. That was against Clive Woodward’s World Cup-winning England side. Their previous conquerors, Australia, also beat them twice but outside of those defeats, and a pair of losses to the 1977 and 1993 Lions, the Māori All Blacks have lost just once since 1973.

That’s eight defeats from 66 games. Along the way there have been victories over England, Ireland, Argentina, the Lions, and Scotland, as well as a draw with South Africa. This is a Test game in all but name.

And yet you sense Ireland isn’t the only rugby country at a crossroads. Here in New Zealand there is a genuine fear the All Blacks have stagnated since the last World Cup, that the departure of the South African franchises from Super Rugby has diluted the quality of the competition; that three defeats out of five to Ireland is evidence of a gradual decline.

Tom Taylor is a former All Black. The 33-year-old took the journey so many of his contemporaries have made when the clock began to wind down on his career and he realised there wasn’t enough money banked for a rainy day.

Europe called first, then Japan, where he plays his club rugby alongside seven fellow Kiwis, as well as Japan’s New Zealand born captain, Michael Leitch.

“Personally, I feel like we’re going a little bit backwards,” Taylor said. “We’re losing our talent too soon. You know, some of that talent (such as James Lowe, Jamison Gibson-Park and Bundee Aki) is really excelling overseas and in European competitions.

“Some of the best players in the teams are Kiwi guys that maybe didn’t get their shot, or left early.”

He fears it is affecting the All Blacks: “They need to do things differently; they can’t just rely on what they used to do. They have got to be more innovative, try new tactics, because the same thing isn’t working anymore.”

It’s why Ian Foster was as keen as Farrell on these Māori All Blacks versus Ireland games. This is where they see if those lacking experience are capable of moving up and if those with it, namely TJ Perenara and fellow All Blacks Brad Weber and Tyrel Lomax, are on the way down.

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All week, Māori coach Clayton McMillan has been making all the right noises about Ireland, and you sense there is a sincerity to his words, that respect has been earned.

But it is just as easily lost. We’ve only sporadically seen the best of Joey Carbery since his ankle injury in 2019; we’ve yet to see anything of Ciaran Frawley, Loughman, Cian Prendergast in an Ireland shirt; we haven’t seen Aki or Mack Hansen at all in two months while the last sighting of Munster’s Casey and Gavin Coombes was with their heads bowed in defeat in Belfast.

Are they able to turn it on on Wednesday? For their sake, they need to, because even though it is nearly a year and a half away, in reality, Ireland’s World Cup begins now, not in Bordeaux, but here, halfway across the world in Waikato.

Ireland

15. Jimmy O’Brien (Leinster/Naas) uncapped
14. Jordan Larmour (Leinster/St Mary’s College) 30 caps
13. James Hume (Ulster/Banbridge) 3 caps
12. Bundee Aki (Connacht/Galwegians) 37 caps captain
11. Keith Earls (Munster/Young Munster) 96 caps
10. Ciaran Frawley (Leinster/Skerries) uncapped
9. Craig Casey (Munster/Shannon) 5 caps

1. Jeremy Loughman (Munster/Garryowen) uncapped
2. Dave Heffernan (Connacht/Buccaneers) 6 caps
3. Tom O’Toole (Ulster/Ballynahinch) 2 caps
4. Joe McCarthy (Leinster/Dublin) uncapped
5. Kieran Treadwell (Ulster/Ballymena) 5 caps
6. Cian Prendergast (Connacht) uncapped
7. Nick Timoney (Ulster/Banbridge) 2 caps
8. Gavin Coombes (Munster/Young Munster) 2 caps

Replacements:

16. Niall Scannell (Dolphin/Munster) 20 caps
17. Cian Healy (Leinster/Clontarf) 116 caps
18. Finlay Bealham (Connacht/Buccaneers) 23 caps
19. Ryan Baird (Leinster/Dublin University) 8 caps
20. Jack Conan (Leinster/Old Belvedere) 27 caps
21. Conor Murray (Munster/Garryowen) 96 caps
22. Joey Carbery (Munster/Clontarf) 32 caps
23. Michael Lowry (Ulster/Banbridge) 1 cap

Māori All Blacks

15. Zarn Sullivan
14. Shaun Stevenson
13. Billy Proctor 
12. Rameka Poihipi
11. Connor Garden-Bachop
10. Josh Ioane
9. Brad Weber (co-captain)

1. Ollie Norris
2. Kurt Eklund
3. Tyrel Lomax
4. Josh Dickson
5. Isaia Walker-Leawere
6. Cameron Suafoa
7. Billy Harmon
8. Cullen Grace

Replacements:

16. Tyrone Thompson
17. Tamaiti Williams
18. Jermaine Ainsley
19. Maanaki Selby-Rickit
20. TK Howden
21. TJ Perenara (co-captain)
22. Ruben Love
23. Bailyn Sullivan

About the author:

Garry Doyle  / reports from Hamilton

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