Ulster duo Jacob Stockdale and Martin Moore are two of the most experienced members of the Ireland ‘A’ squad selected to play the All Blacks XV on Friday night.
For tighthead prop Moore, who won the last of his 10 Ireland caps in 2015, he has worked his way back into the Ireland reckoning through his consistent form at provincial level.
The Dubliner will be keen to make his mark off the bench at the RDS, while Stockdale has recovered from an ankle injury to don the green jersey, albeit the ‘A’ one, for the first time since playing against Japan in July 2021.
Andy Farrell says Stockdale’s start on the left wing – he will be up against the Chiefs’ Shaun Stevenson – is just reward for his strong start to the season in Ulster colours.
“We all know that Jacob’s been out injured for quite some time. There’s a few lads that have staked their place pretty well over the last 12 months, but Jacob coming back at the start of the season has shown a lot of hunger, in my eyes,” insisted the Ireland head coach.
“Looking at his performances, and I know that he’s not played for a couple of weeks, but his hunger at the start of the season, how he attacked the season, shows me the fight and the want to get his spot back.
“So, he gets the opportunity to show us how he’s going to push forward with the rest of the season.”
Moore will provide back-up to his Ulster front row colleague, Tom O’Toole, who started both of Ireland’s summer tour games against the Māori All Blacks, along with Munster’s Jeremy Loughman at loosehead.
Ulster head coach Dan McFarland has dubbed the 31-year-old Moore ‘one of the top scrummagers around in Ireland’, and his recent displays for McFarland’s men would certainly back up that view.
“With Marty, I think he’s been ever-present and consistently very good for Ulster,” acknowledged Farrell. “I think he’s been the cornerstone of the Ulster pack for the last few years, actually.
“You look at his last game, he was man-of-the-match against Munster. He’s earned the right to deserve his chance to show his worth to his peers within the squad.”
It has been a long road back to earning an Ireland recall. Moore’s rugby journey has taken him from his native Leinster in 2016 to two injury-interrupted seasons with Wasps, and then back into the Irish system with Ulster in 2018.
He was involved in Farrell’s first ever Ireland training squad three years ago, and while still aspiring to make a return to international rugby, he said last year that ‘it’s not really part of my goal-setting and objectives’.
The two-time Six Nations winner may have to reset those goals if Friday night goes well and he can work his way back into the Irish front row ranks on a regular basis.
“I didn’t expect to be in an Irish squad, if I’m honest. The opportunity to play rugby as close to top level is something special, whether it’s an interpro game, European rugby, or an ‘A’ game with Ireland,” commented Moore.
“An ‘A’ international is as close as it comes to Test match rugby. It’s something I’ll grab with both hands – and hopefully get a good hit out on Friday.”
The All Blacks XV are New Zealand Rugby’s newest team, and their inaugural matchday squad features eight capped players, including the returning Damian McKenzie who joins vice-captain TJ Perenara – the team’s elder statesman at 30 – at half-back.
There are a combined 14 representatives from the Chiefs and the Crusaders, with six of the forwards hailing from the 2022 Super Rugby Pacific champions. Head coach Leon MacDonald is expecting ‘a huge challenge from a top tier, physical Ireland ‘A’ team’.
While they have not played before as a collective, seven of the All Blacks XV squad saw action for the Māori All Blacks during the summer. Analysis of their Super Rugby exploits will also aid the Ireland ‘A’ preparations.
“We’ve got plenty of information about the opposition as individuals. The lads will be well across that. They sure know the experience that they’ve got in their side,” explained Farrell.
“The amount of caps that they’ve got with the captain (42-times capped lock Patrick Tuipulotu) there, and with (Damian) McKenzie and (TJ) Perenara, etc. We know the experience that they’ve got and what they’re going to show.
We also know that our lads watch plenty of Super Rugby, so that these lads they’re playing against on Friday night are the next cabs off the rank as far as the All Blacks side is concerned.
“Their depth is pretty deep as well, so we know that they are going to be very strong and a big step up from the Māori game.
“At the same time, our lads came in last Sunday and they’ve had a couple of training sessions. We expect them to be up to speed, so most of the concentration has been on ourselves in that regard.”
The Ireland coaches are challenging the players selected, led by captain Craig Casey, to lay down a marker and alter the pecking order as selection draws nearer for the 2023 Guinness Six Nations, and the Rugby World Cup in the longer term.
That is the case for the more experienced cohort, as well as the exciting youngsters back for more from the Emerging Ireland tour, and those who have graced the Test arena already on a handful of occasions.
There is the carrot of potential involvement against Fiji in the second Test of the Bank of Ireland Nations, with Farrell underlining: “It’s their chance to show the fight on Friday night and to show that they’re ready for the big stage.
There’s an opportunity for them to show that they’re able to handle the big stage and hopefully that transfers to a cap for a few of them.
“We get to see who is serious about wanting to be in the room, not just for the medium or long term, which some of these guys obviously are, but for the short term as well.”
The Wigan native continued: “Come the Six Nations, we want a big headache as coaching staff of making sure that we understand that we have grown the pool and it’s one of a very competitive nature regarding Six Nations selection.
“This is why we’re doing it. This is the whole point, to make sure that everyone…we’ve had 50 lads in the same room all week, they’re all looking across the room at each other and they know who the competition is.
“It doesn’t really matter whether you class yourself as a senior player or a new kid on the block, we’ll see who has got the hunger from the experience that they’ve had all week.”