Just under four years ago, Jamie Heaslip, Jerome Kaino and Luke McAlister were each nominated for the IRB Under-21 Player of the Year award following their efforts in the 2004 U-21 World Championship. Two of those players will be on the Westpac Stadium pitch this Saturday as Ireland and New Zealand go head-to-head.
Donning their respective team’s number 8 jersey, Jamie Heaslip and Jerome Kaino, the award winner from 2004, will take each other on in just one of a number of fascinating individual match-ups for Saturday’s Test match.
The Wellington encounter will see Heaslip make his fifth successive start for Ireland and his first appearance against New Zealand at senior level.
Undaunted by the prospect, the Leinster back rower is eager to test his mettle against one of the top teams in world rugby.
“I don’t think I’ve won against a Kiwi side at whatever level. I’m really looking forward to the challenge, trying to become the first Irish side to beat them,” he told RTE Radio’s Michael Corcoran.
“To do that, we’ve got to have our heads focused and know our jobs. We’ve only really got the squad together this week but we’re in good fettle and will be well prepared.”
Although agreeing that the pressure is off Ireland following their disappointing Six Nations campaign, Heaslip recognises that collectively the squad have a point to prove on this tour Down Under.
“No one really expects us to win (this weekend). No one is expecting big things from us. Maybe that’s unfair considering the quality we have in the side, Munster won the Heineken Cup and ourselves at Leinster, we won the Magners League.
“There’s two cups back in Ireland. We want to come down here and show people how and why we got those two cups. I’m sure the Ulster boys have a point to prove as well.
“We’re all down here to prove a point and show that we are winners and hopefully that will come through on Saturday,” he said.
Asked what he feels will be the key areas for Ireland’s 21st clash with the All Blacks, Heaslip singled out the set pieces and the breakdown.
“Set pieces are going to be crucial, ruck time is going to be crucial. A team that gets good quick ball is always going to cause problems, we’ve got to get our backs good quick ball and slow down New Zealand’s ball as well,” the Kildare man admitted.
“We’ve got to win all our set piece ball nice and cleanly. I think they’re the essential things.
“I think the team that makes the least mistakes on the night will win. Both ourselves and New Zealand are capable of punishing teams that make mistakes and that’s the crucial thing.”
Heaslip showed his form by dotting down twice in Ireland’s 39-14 win over the Barbarians in Gloucester last week. But with the New Zealand players, who played under the Experimental Law Variations in the Super 14, having to readjust to the old laws on Saturday, what effect will that have on the game?
“I think we kinda got a little bit of a taster against the Baa Baas last week, against a few of the South Hemisphere boys. They’re just wanting to run it more which is grand,” Heaslip explained.
“I think it might be a little bit different at ruck time, I don’t know. I think in general they’re used to running it a lot more. Whatever happens, it will be a fast, open game I feel.”
Facing a haka is always a special moment in an Ireland player’s career, just ask Willie Anderson! Heaslip has experienced a haka on a couple of occasions before at underage and ‘A’ levels and will be honoured to do so again as a senior international.
“I’ve come up against the haka twice before. It’s a pretty impressive thing in fairness. It’s a great tradition in New Zealand rugby and world rugby.
“With all the different people giving out about having too many anthems, the fact that they can keep it and do it before games is great.
“It’s an honour to stand up in front of it because it’s a tradition that goes back many years. To face it at the top level now is a moment I’m going to cherish and I’m looking forward to it.”
* Ireland fans will be able to listen to live commentary of Saturday’s Test match from Wellington on RTE Radio (LW 252 and Radio 1 Extra), with Michael Corcoran in the commentator’s chair. Former All Black Ian Jones will be the co-commentator.
Former Ireland internationals John Kelly and Conor McGuinness will be the panellists for RTE’s ‘International Rugby Special’, which will be presented by Damien O’Meara. The programme begins at 8.10am on Saturday morning.