Ireland head coach Andy Farrell said they are ‘in the same boat’ as New Zealand, as Covid-19 cases and injuries impact both camps ahead of this weekend’s series opener in Auckland.
The 2022 Triple Crown winners suffered a big blow with the news of Iain Henderson’s tour-ending injury. He did ‘significant damage’ to his left knee in training last Saturday, scan results have confirmed.
Henderson is due to fly home in the next day or two for further medical consultation. The Ireland management do not have any immediate plans to call up a replacement.
Mack Hansen is isolating following a positive Covid test, while All Blacks coaches Ian Foster, John Plumtree and Scott McLeod, along with backs David Havili, Jack Goodhue and Will Jordan, have also been forced into isolation.
Speaking about the build-up to the first Test, Farrell said: “We’re in the same boat ourselves, we’ve one (Covid) case. We could have a few more cases by the end of the week, we don’t know. This is the way of the world, isn’t it?
“The motto of the tour is definitely ‘being adaptable’. When you look at our situation, it’s not far off what’s happening with the All Blacks, anyway.
“Our preparation is completely different to what it would normally be. We’re training with a squad of 23 guys who are getting ready for the Māori game, and then we’ve got 13 or 14 guys that are getting ready for a Test match.
“The Test match boys are not training with the subs, etc. We’re waiting to see how the Wednesday night game goes, who is going to get picked to take the field in the 23 for the Test match…
“We picked that on purpose because we want to be adaptable, we want to put ourselves under pressure, and I’m sure that the All Blacks are thinking the same.”
For tomorrow’s eagerly-awaited fixture against the Māori All Blacks in Hamilton, Farrell has included the uncapped quintet of Jimmy O’Brien, Ciaran Frawley, Jeremy Loughman, Joe McCarthy and Cian Prendergast in the starting XV.
Captain Bundee Aki, Jordan Larmour and Keith Earls provide the experience from kick-off – Earls’ haul of 96 caps is more than the rest of the team combined (92) – and veterans Cian Healy and Conor Murray are on bench duty.
Munster’s Niall Scannell, flown in to provide cover at hooker, is listed among the replacements, who back up an exciting starting line-up that has nine players aged between 21 and 25.
The game will provide a good marker for individual form and pecking order, and while they have had a short window in which to prepare, Farrell is hoping his young guns can hit the ground running.
“It’s huge, it’s everything to these players that are taking the field on Wednesday. It’s the biggest game of their lives. It is,” commented the Wigan man.
I know there’s a three-game series coming up, but these two Māori games and what we’re trying to build and how we’re trying to put people under pressure and see how they come through that, is just as important.
“We know we’re up against a very strong Māori side, that’s exactly what we came over here for with the size of squad that we’ve got.”
Meanwhile, Joe Schmidt is an intriguing addition to the All Blacks set-up this week, the former Ireland head coach stepping in to assist at training after Covid had sidelined Foster and two of his deputies.
Schmidt, who was a part-time support coach with the Auckland Blues during this season’s Super Rugby Pacific competition, was already set to come on board after the Ireland series as New Zealand’s independent selector, replacing Grant Fox.
Foster confirmed: “Joe will come in for Tuesday and Thursday’s trainings this week, and we’re really grateful to have his help.
“We’ve planned for this kind of disruption and we’ve got back up plans and people on standby. Joe was one of those people we could call on.”
Farrell worked as Ireland defence coach under Schmidt between 2016 and 2019 and dismissed talk of a potential coaching battle between the pair.
“I don’t know if it’s head-to-head (between us), I’m sure Fozzie (Foster) will be around somewhere. I think Joe’s just there helping out, being an extra pair of hands. I’m sure that he’s just fitting into the system.
“I’m supposed to be meeting him for a coffee on Thursday, but I don’t know if that’s out of the question now or not! We’ll soon see,” he added.