THE three-test series between New Zealand and Ireland may be the headline act, but in many ways, the two games between Ireland and the Maori All Blacks maybe even more interesting, as fringe players get a rare chance to sink or swim in the green jersey.
The first of these Maoris matches takes place in Waikato on Wednesday morning, Irish time, and will serve as a tasty hors d’oeuvre to the first Test between the nations, which takes place three days later in Eden Park in Auckland.
Given the arduous nature of this five-match tour Ireland coach Andy Farrell has brought a mammoth 40-man squad to New Zealand, as Ireland build towards the 2023 World Cup in France. We can expect injuries and loss of form to force his hand in terms of selection over the three Tests, but a lot of these players were brought out mainly for the purposes of playing in these Maori matches. In saying that, you would not be surprised if certain players started the tour in this game against the Maoris and finished it playing in the second or third Tests.
A few players will line up against the Maoris who really should have seen more game time in this year’s Six Nations, with building towards the World Cup in mind. The likes of Michael Lowry, James Hume and Gavin Coombes are the obvious ones in this regards. If this trio played week in and week out for Leinster they would all be regulars for Ireland already and they really need to be given the opportunities to bolster their international rugby experience over the next twelve months.
If they can perform in this one then they will certainly enhance their prospects of being involved in the Test matches later, as given the All-Blacks have not lost at Eden Park since losing to France in 1994 it is unlikely that the first Test will be a victorious one.
Other players that will be worth keeping an eye on will be Ciaran Frawley, Jimmy O’Brien, Nick Timoney and Cian Prendergast, as all four are coming off impressive campaigns and all could potentially step up to Test level with relative ease.
The half backs will certainly be worth keeping an eye on, and the outhalf situation in particular, considering that we are still awaiting someone to truly put their hand up as Johnny Sexton’s successor in the Ireland no. 10 jersey. Harry Byrne is clearly seen as more likely to succeed Sexton, at least in the eyes of Farrell, than his brother Ross, but from what we’ve seen so far he has a long way to go to become the finished article. These Maori games will certainly tell us a lot more about Byrne as a player.
It would even be no great surprise to see Frawley get some game time at outhalf. He has played most of his rugby for Leinster this season at inside-centre but he can also play at ten and, indeed, his future may end up being as an outhalf at the highest level.
The backup Irish front row doesn’t look particularly strong and is potentially an area where Ireland will struggle. We can expect a front row that looks something like Jeremy Loughman, Dave Heffernan and Finlay Bealham, and the Maoris can be expected to go after what is potentially Ireland’s weakest link.
The Maoris will field a strong line-up, as their squad contains full New Zealand internationals such as TJ Perenara, Brad Weber, Cullen Grace, Josh Ioane and Tyrel Lomax, as well as a host of up-and-coming talent. Have no doubt about it, these two games against the Maoris will be every bit as difficult to win as the Test matches will.
It would certainly be a boost to begin the Tour with a victory, and, of course, an Irish victory would certainly have the effect of ramping up the pressure on the All Blacks for Saturday in Auckland, but the focus for Andy Farrell will probably be on finding those half a dozen players who can add real squad depth to his first team.