After missing out on tours to Australia and Fiji the last two summers, Ireland head coach Andy Farrell is delighted that his players will get to experience Test rugby in New Zealand in the coming days.
Touring a country with such a rich rugby heritage is so vital in the development of international players, not just for the five potential debutants in the Irish ranks.
Almost half of Farrell’s 40-man squad – 18 players to be exact – are embarking on their first summer tour at this level, and for the majority of the touring party, the two midweek games are also a novel addition.
Ireland’s 2012 tour to New Zealand was centred on a three-Test series in Auckland, Christchurch and Hamilton respectively, while two years previously, they had tour fixtures against New Zealand, the Māori All Blacks and Australia.
Current captain Jonathan Sexton is the lone survivor from that 31-28 defeat to the Māori team in Rotorua, and the excitement is building for the sides’ much-anticipated rematch in Hamilton on Wednesday night.
The tour opener could produce some fireworks, as the history-laden Māori All Blacks – co-captained by Brad Weber and TJ Perenara – face Six Nations opposition for the first time since the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour.
It may be an ‘Ireland XV’ and not a Test clash, but head coach Farrell emphasised how important this opening game is as players look to stake a claim for inclusion in Saturday’s series opener.
“We know what the game means to the Māori All Blacks. We also know what it means to ourselves as well,” he said, speaking at North Harbour Stadium as Ireland trained for the first time since their arrival.
“I suppose some of our guys who have not been capped, it will be a big occasion for them – it’s as near to a Test match – and that’s why we’re here. That’s why we’ve brought such a big squad, to give people an opportunity.
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“On this tour, because of the two Māori games, everyone will play which is great. That is why we brought a big squad of 40. Everyone will play.
“We’re certainly openminded enough to see how people perform in those two Māori games and leave places up for grabs in the Test spots.
“We embrace this tour together, we’re certainly not two sides. We’re one team trying to do the best we can together.”
Due to the impact of Covid-19, Ireland have not played in the southern hemisphere since the 2019 Rugby World Cup, with eight of their most recent Tests since last July taking place at the Aviva Stadium.
A veteran of numerous tours as a player and coach, including stints as the Lions defence coach in 2013 (Australia) and 2017 (New Zealand), Farrell is well versed is getting the best out of a touring side.
We’ve missed it, this group we should have gone to Australia and Fiji in the last few years. We’ve some guys on 20 or so caps that have never toured before.
“So it’s pretty important that we get away together, enjoy each other’s company but also test ourselves against the best team in the world.
“It’s unbelievably tough to come over here and be successful. We’ve got a group of 40 that come’s out here. Some have not toured before, some have had a lack of game-time opportunity.
“Some guys are playing against the Māori team on Wednesday night and they’ve been dying for a chance to play in big games. It doesn’t get any bigger for them.”
The Wigan man added: “It’s a great challenge all round, and then players being out of their comfort zone, five or six of them backing for a Test match on Saturday against the All Blacks. It doesn’t get more challenging, but at the same time it’s where we want to be.
“We want to be at a stage where, a year out from the World Cup or so, we want to find out more about ourselves and that’s the perfect place to be.”
The first Test is looming large on the horizon, as Farrell’s men look to back up last November’s 29-20 win in Dublin and claim Ireland’s first ever victory over the All Blacks on New Zealand soil.
However, New Zealand boast a formidable 46-match unbeaten record at Eden Park, the venue for Saturday’s opening Test, where they have not lost an international encounter since 1994.
Acknowledging that his charges will have to lift their game to an even higher level than last autumn, Farrell admitted: “Every time you put the Irish shirt on, there’s an element of nerves and hope that we can perform and be as good as we were (against them last year).
In reality, the boys know that that’s not going to be good enough this time around neither. We know what we’re coming up against. It’s a different kettle of fish, Eden Park first up.
“We know how special that place is to the All Blacks. It’s great for us, though. We want to see ourselves under extreme pressure and how we deal with that. So therefore, it’s good all round.
“Challenges are there to make us better, make us stronger, and we’ve got to be ready to meet those head on.”