Preview: All Blacks vs Ireland
World champions New Zealand will kick-off their 2012 international campaign against Ireland at Eden Park on Saturday as they begin their preparations for the newly-expanded four-nation Rugby Championship later in the year.
Everyone’s eyes will be on how the All Blacks fare, with a new coach and a glitter of new faces in their line-up, knowing that they now have even greater pressure to perform well in their first Test since last year’s World Cup.
It is not as if new coach Steve Hansen hasn’t had enough time to settle, being Graham Henry’s deputy for eight years before succeeding him.
Amongst the new faces, Wellington winger Julian Savea will get his debut, in place of injured regulars Cory Jane and Richard Kahui, with Brodie Retallick becoming the newly designated lock, replacing retired Brad Thorn, and Aaron Smith taking over from Piri Weepu at scrumhalf.
Attention will be given to All Blacks captain Richie McCaw, who was out for a significant period of this year’s Super Rugby competition because of injury, so his fitness may not be at 100 percent.
The Irish have shown they can match the big three from the Southern Hemisphere, after defeating Australia at last year’s World Cup, and looking at how Scotland defeated Australia, they will take inspiration in facing up to their Kiwi counterparts physically.
Being a forwards-dominated side, their beef up front is slightly reduced with the injury of Mike Ross, with replacement Declan Fitzpatrick taking over as one of two newcomers to the side.
Simon Zebo is the other debutant, coming in at wing, whilst regular number 10 Ronan O’Gara will play from the bench, with Jonathan Sexton the preferred flyhalf for the tourists.
Brian O’Driscoll also comes back to captain the side after being sidelined with an injury that ruled him out of the entire Six Nations Championship.
Key Battle: Julian Savea vs. Simon Zebo. Two debutants on the wing will make for some excitement, with both trying to prove their worth at Test level.
Zebo, at 22, is the youngest member of the Irish, and the Munster speedster has made a great impression in the Heineken Cup, as has Julian Savea, who has scored some amazing solo-tries so far in Super Rugby.
Last Meeting: New Zealand 38-18 Ireland (Dublin).
Prediction: New Zealand should overcome any 2012 nerves and take this one. The Irish will hold out for the first 40 minutes in a tight half, but the All Blacks will step into a higher gear in the second half and win by 15–20 points.
Saturday 9 June: New Zealand vs. Ireland, Auckland (09:35)
New Zealand: 15 Israel Dagg, 14 Zac Guildford, 13 Conrad Smith, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Julian Savea, 10 Daniel Carter, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Richie McCaw (captain), 6 Victor Vito, 5 Samuel Whitelock, 4 Brodie Retallick, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Andrew Hore, 1 Tony Woodcock.
Replacements: 16 Hikawera Elliot, 17 Ben Franks, 18 Ali Williams, 19 Adam Thomson, 20 Piri Weepu, 21 Aaron Cruden, 22 Ben Smith.
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Fergus McFadden, 13 Brian O'Driscoll (captain), 12 Keith Earls, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Sean O'Brien, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 5 Donnacha Ryan, 4 Dan Touhy, 3 Declan Fitzpatrick, 2 Rory Best, 1 Cian Healy.
Replacements: 16 Sean Cronin, 17 Ronan Loughney, 18 Donncha O'Callaghan, 19 Kevin McLaughlin, 20 Eoin Reddan, 21 Ronan O'Gara, 22 Darren Cave.