Ireland may not have any debutants in their team to face New Zealand, but Saturday’s game will mark something of a step-up for Connacht duo Sean Cronin and John Muldoon.
Hooker Sean Cronin is set to make his first start for Ireland, after being capped as a replacement against Fiji and Wales, while his Connacht colleague John Muldoon will win his third cap and first against a top ten ranked team.
Of course, New Zealand are the number one side in the world, in terms of the IRB Rankings, and the fact that Ireland have never beaten the All Blacks – in 22 Test encounters between 1905 and 2008 – only adds to challenge for Brian O’Driscoll and his team-mates.
The Ireland captain has donned the green jersey on seven occasions against the Kiwis, and once for the British & Irish Lions in an ill-fated 2005 clash.
O’Driscoll has gone close to claiming that elusive first win four times – all on New Zealand soil. There was a 15-6 defeat in Dunedin in 2002, the 34-23 and 27-17 losses in Hamilton and Auckland respectively four years ago and then, in 2008, the All Blacks outlasted the Irish for a 21-11 win in freezing conditions in Wellington.
Injuries have hampered both sides in the build-up to Saturday’s Test in New Plymouth (kick-off 7.35pm local time/8.35am Irish time), with the likes of Ali Williams, Mils Muliaina, Ma’a Nonu, Andrew Hore and Sitiveni Sivivatu sidelined for the All Blacks.
“You could say exactly the same about ourselves,” said O’Driscoll, with players of the calibre of Paul O’Connell, Rory Best, Keith Earls and Stephen Ferris, amongst others, not available to the Irish management.
“A vast number of guys have dropped out of our tour as well, so it depends what way you look at it.
“Every time I’ve played the All Blacks it’s been very, very tough. You have to bring your ‘A’ game if you want to live with them, and it will be no different this weekend.”
The 101-times capped centre will emphasise to his side the need to grasp this latest opportunity to beat the All Blacks with both hands, with relative newcomers Cronin and Muldoon foremost in his mind.
“This is their opportunity to shine, and they bring that spark that some of us old-timers need,” he explained.
“It’s exciting times for the likes of Sean Cronin and John Muldoon who get their starts after big seasons (with Connacht), and with a bit of luck they’ll take their opportunities.”
Two years ago, when the sides met in a one-off Test at the Westpac Stadium, O’Driscoll had to reflect on a ‘hugely disappointing’ result. He said after the 10-point defeat: “We came so close but we don’t seem to be able to finish these games.
“We were well in the game after 60 minutes but we couldn’t finish it off.”
This has been something of a pattern for Ireland in recent years. The first Test in 2006 also stands out in terms of the men in green being pipped at the post – they were nine minutes away from breaking their duck against the All Blacks, but some vital kicks from Luke McAlister and a late try from Troy Flavell gave the hosts a smash-and-grab win.
O’Driscoll will certainly demand a big finish from his side this weekend, adding: “Any time we have pushed them somewhat close, they’ve gotten over and probably won that last 20 minutes.
“There’s no point trying to hang in there with them because it just takes a breakaway score and all of a sudden you’re trying to chase the game. You’ve got to try and go after it and that’s exactly what we’ll do.”