WITH MATTERS DOMESTIC now well and truly wrapped up for the provinces, attention turns to the small matter of the Irish tour to New Zealand. It may have been a heartbreaking end to a phenomenal season for Leinster but many of them will have to pick themselves up for the ultimate tour.
The Irish team ultimately flattered to deceive in the Six Nations but are capable of producing one off winning performances; Australia in the 2011 World Cup a case in point. Declan Kidney would most certainly take a 2-1 series defeat if he was offered it now, given Ireland have never beaten the All Blacks.
So, is it feasible that this Irish group bag at least one test win? It seems incredibly unlikely at this point for many reasons, but in particular the ones listed below:
Ireland are knackered
For the vast majority of this group, this season began on 6 August in a World Cup warm up match against Scotland. The June tests against the All Blacks will mark eleven months of competitive action, which has already included a draining six weeks in New Zealand during the World Cup.
Mentally, the Irish players may be able to get up for these test matches as they are very much a resilient group, but whether their bodies are able for it is another matter altogether.
Think of the exertions the Leinster players have endured over the last couple of weeks, add that to a particularly long season, throw in a long haul flight for good measure to a rain sodden New Zealand and you begin to wonder who organises these tours in the first place.
To beat the All Blacks, it is imperative to play at the highest level for the full eighty minutes; a task which seems difficult to envisage Ireland doing at this point, given the punishment their bodies have undergone over the last eleven months.
As the club season drew to its climax, you had the scenario where players played through injury in order to be available for the decisive games for their provinces. Stephen Ferris is one example and has been ruled out of the tour accordingly.
Ferris’s body badly needs a rest anyway, but he is a massive loss. The mighty Jerome Kaino named him as the best Irish player he has played against after all, and his opinion should be held in high regard.
As well as Ferris, major doubts still remain over Paul O’Connell’s fitness, who is currently undergoing rehab on his knee in London. It is possible that he will ultimately travel to New Zealand but if he doesn’t, his loss would be catastrophic for Ireland. The Munster captain has the respect of both the Irish and New Zealand players and his absence in the pack would send alarm bells ringing. A final decision will be made on Friday.
Add the slight concerns of Mike Ross and Sean O’Brien, although both should make it, to the growing list of absentees which also currently includes Tommy Bowe, Luke Fitzgerald, Felix Jones and Isaac Boss and you are nearing epidemic territory.
There are also bound to be injuries sustained in New Zealand, further depleting the squad.
Ireland’s first fifteen are good enough to give the All Blacks a real go but when you start chipping away at key personnel like Ferris and potentially O’Connell or Ross, things could get ugly.
The form guide
Aside from injuries and battered bodies, on what basis should we expect Ireland to go to New Zealand and win? This is a side that won two games in the Six Nations just gone, against Italy and Scotland.
In truth, Ireland have only played well in isolated pockets over the last year, and a clear and concise game plan is not easily identified. When Ireland are at their best, they are massively aggressive in defence and Leinster-like in attack. Witnessing this type of performance from Ireland has not been a regular occurrence in recent test matches, however.
Optimists will claim that New Zealand are vulnerable, having just won the World Cup and with a new coach in place, but a glance over their initial squad is disheartening from an Irish point of view. There is an ominous mix of stalwarts and emerging talent, who have been performing well in Super Rugby.
Whichever way you pitch it, it is extremely difficult to envisage anything other than a 3-0 series win for New Zealand. All the elements listed above coupled with home advantage for the All Blacks and the fact that Ireland have never beaten the Kiwis would suggest that the history books will not be altered on this occasion.
This Irish side have produced some special one-off performances, however, and it is within the realms of possibility that they could sneak one test match but remains wholly unlikely.
The reality is that Ireland will probably be measured not on the overall result, but more so the quality of their performances. It is essential that Kidney’s side remain competitive throughout and display some constructive play of their own.
Anything else will apply further pressure on this coaching ticket.