Monthly Archives: June 2012

Backward Step for Kidney

Does this man have a grand plan for Ireland? (c) Art Widak.

Declan Kidney has made four changes to the Ireland team for Saturday’s 2nd test against the All Blacks. While that’s not even a third of the team, the impression is that Kidney is looking for what the Whiff of Cordite calls “damage limitation” on Saturday. I’d love to be proven wrong, but these changes are a backward step for Ireland in my opinion. After including Zebo, Fitzpatrick and O’Mahony last week, the impression I had was that Kidney was finally looking to develop this team. It was belated, but I was encouraged.

As highlighted in that excellent Whiff of Cordite piece, this looks like a “rainy-day selection”, with the focus being on keeping the score down. So why did Kidney send out a fresh-faced team last week and look to move the ball around the pitch at pace? I may be proven wrong, but it looks as though it was a one-off experiment. So what was the point? As head coach of the national team, is Kidney not supposed to have a grand vision of how he wants his team to develop? Frankly, this ‘back to basics’ selection gives the impression that Deccie doesn’t have any concrete idea of where Ireland are going.

I for one refused to castigate the Irish performance last weekend. The opening 20 minutes encouraged me and I was hoping for more of that, done more accurately and with quicker ball. The likes of Zebo, O’Mahony and Fitzpatrick learned valuable lessons and I was hoping they could learn even more this weekend. But they’re dropped, and Trimble, D’Arcy and Ross return, with Kevin McLaughlin also included. The inclusions of D’Arcy and Trimble are the most defensive changes and are certainly a backward step. I understand that there are ‘horses for courses’ and that rain is predicted for Saturday, but does that mean the All Blacks drop Aaron Smith for the experience of Weepu, or Retallick for the solidity of Ali Williams? Not a chance.

Simon Zebo heads for the line copy

Zebo drops to the bench, with Trimble replacing him. (c) Ivan O’Riordan.

D’Arcy comes in because of the injury to Earls but it’s still not the right selection for me. D’Arcy was impressive in Leinster’s run to the Heineken Cup, but his form for Ireland for at least a year now has been poor. He’ll make his tackles and he’ll grind out a few metres in contact. But what about Darren Cave? He had a disastrous cameo at the end of the 1st test, lucky not to be yellow-carded and partly at fault for Conrad Smith’s try. Now he’s out of the squad completely, after 8 minutes of action. Why not give him another chance, send him out with a more relaxed attitude and tell him to play his game?

Kidney knows exactly what D’Arcy offers to the team. This tour had to be about developing the Irish squad. While I’m not saying Kidney should be sending out teams to get beaten, we need to give these guys experience. Cave’s confidence will surely now be crushed and he’ll question whether he’s up to this level at all. Or what about playing McFadden in his best position at 12? Simon Zebo, one missed tackle aside, did just fine on his debut, showing a glimpse of his attacking thrust. Now he’s dropped to the bench to accomodate Trimble, another player who Kidney knows all about.

Fitzpatrick was the personification of the word ‘solid’ on his first cap. He never went backwards in the scrum and he contributed a few tackles around the pitch. I would’ve allowed him to keep the starting tighthead role, even if he were to come off at half-time. It might well work out that he plays 40 minutes anyway, but let him have the opening half, when Tony Woodcock really wants to prove his point. A second consecutive start for the Ulster prop would have been great experience for Fitzpatrick, especially after Deccie complained about the lack of that exact attribute.

McLaughlin

Kevin McLaughlin is in at blindside. (c) Ken Bohane.

The inclusion of Kevin McLaughlin at blindside is at least a positive. I would temper that by suggesting that the Leinster back-row has been selected for his prowess at the lineout and his defensive hunger. He’s an excellent player and I’m a huge fan, but McLaughlin’s selection again alludes to a defensive game plan. The major plus to including him is that Sean O’Brien may be spared the mountain of defensive work he got through last Saturday. But will we see O’Brien in the right places to use his strength and power on the ball? I don’t think we have yet this season.

I always make a big effort to look at the positives before each Ireland game. Kidney hasn’t done a good job with Ireland in the last few years, but I’m always willing to believe that coaches, just as players and people in general, can change. However, it looks like that just isn’t the case in this situation. Even if Ireland make it scrappy and limit New Zealand to just a few scores in the rain, what value is there in that? I want to see an Irish team that is confident and skillful enough to go out and look to beat every team they face.  I believe we have the players to do that, if we can develop the team in the right way.

What do you think of the changes Kidney has made? Can Ireland stay close to the All Blacks on Saturday or will it only get worse? Do you agree or disagree with what I’ve written? Please leave a comment with your views.

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Photos courtesy: Art Widak, Ivan O’Riordan, Ken Bohane.

All Blacks Watch: 1st Test Reaction

ALL BLACKS

The New Zealand press have understandably put the All Blacks on a high, high pedestal. (c) Chris Zielecki.

So we’ve all had time to digest and dissect the Irish performance, listen to a few excuses from Kidney and suggest where Ireland can improve. So what’s the reaction been to that 1st test in New Zealand? Unsurprisingly, most of the focus has been on the excellence of the All Blacks. While the Irish press have been quick to laud the clinical world champions, the New Zealanders haven’t spent too much time looking at the Irish display.

There has been a general and widespread satisfaction with the All Blacks’ performance. The impact of debutants Julian Savea, Aaron Smith and Brodie Retallick has been repeatedly highlighted. Savea’s hattrick made him an obvious inclusion in the headlines, with even his own mother reckoning he “did really well.” Smith’s mum “cried her eyes out” as he ran out to win his first cap. Meanwhile, the Otago Daily Times felt that “it all seemed a bit easy” for the beastly Savea.

Toby Robson pointed out that most players “struggle to adjust to the increased speed and physicality of test match rugby”. While most of Ireland’s new faces certainly struggled to catch their breath at times, Robson felt that the new All Blacks had no such problems. Aaron Smith solidified Robson’s suggestion when he claimed that “I’ll definitely be keen for faster ball. It would be cool to speed the game up even more.”

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The thought of Smith firing even quicker ball out to the imperious Dan Carter is a scary thought for Irish fans. One potential saviour may be the poor weather predicted for Christchurch this weekend. Tony Smith wrote that the possible cold and wet could “come to Ireland’s aid”. Ireland competed aggressively at the breakdown last Saturday and did well to slow the All Blacks’ ball at certain stages. In the same piece, All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster admitted, “We had trouble in certain parts of the game at getting rid of their tackler at their first arrival.” He was clearly referring to Sean O’Brien, and the Tullow man will need to put in a similar performance on Saturday.

The display of Dan Carter at outhalf was hard to ignore, and the New Zealand media did nothing of the sort. Wynne Gray of the New Zealand Herald wrote that Carter had “taunted the Irish with his array of skills” and that’s hard to argue with. At times it appeared that Ireland couldn’t even get a hand on Carter as he floated around the pitch. Apparently the outhalf feels that he wasn’t really part of last year’s World Cup success. Writing for stuff.co.nzMarc Hinton claimed that this was sad, “but not bad.” Ominously for Ireland, Hinton feels that Carter is now “a man on a mission”.

Let’s be honest, the All Blacks were a joy to watch, regardless of the fact that they were hammering Ireland. It’s a joy that the players themselves say is starting to come through within the squad. Ali Williams has pointed out that the squad have a “refreshing new mindset” after winning the World Cup. He admitted that having that monkey off their backs meant the All Blacks could be more focused on the “here and now, rather than in front.” Meanwhile, Isreal Dagg spoke about how much “fun” the All Blacks backline had against Ireland.

Dan Carter with The Cup

Carter came in for plenty of well-deserved praise. (c) Geof Wilson.

The critics agree. Toby Robson feels that this New Zealand side “could be fun.” He also made the valid point that while “Ireland’s players were tense and poker faced, the All Blacks, including those on debut, were relaxed and smiling, even early in the test.” It’s difficult to disagree with that. While the New Zealanders looked chilled, the Irish were uptight, particularly the new additions to the side. As the Whiff of Cordite lads pointed out, Darren Cave “looked like he had seen a ghost”.

So what are the New Zealanders predicting for the 2nd test? Well, it’s not good news. Steve Hansen has indicated he won’t be making big changes to the starting team (Although Nonu looks set to start ahead of SBW). In the NZ Herald, Chris Rattue thinks Declan Kidney’s side “are in for one helluva hiding in the second test, and heaven help them in the third.” While many of us Irish supporters were encouraged by certain aspects of the Irish display in the 1st test, Rattue thought Ireland were a  “decidedly inferior team playing wild rugby”. Finally, assistant coach Ian Foster is promising more from the All Blacks in the 2nd test. None of this bodes well for Ireland, but at least we’re having the craic!

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Photos courtesy: Chris Zielecki, Geof Wilson.

The Exiled Irish: Transfers Update

Tim Ryan has left Italy to join the Dragons in the PRO12. (c) Daniela Pasquetti.

If you missed the recent Exiled Irish series, it basically involved highlighting some of the Irish players who are contracted outside Ireland. Here’s the original pieces if you need to catch up:

The Exiled Irish: Four Success Stories                The Exiled Irish: Youth XV Backline

The Exiled Irish: Youth XV Pack                                 The Exiled Irish: Allez Les Verts

The Exiled Irish: Stand Up For the Ulster Men              The Exiled Irish: Italia

In the last few weeks, a number of the players featured in these pieces have secured transfers which may take their careers to the next level. Let’s catch up with the players who have made moves ahead of next season.

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Shane Monahan

While the Rotherham Titans season finished their season with a poor Championship play-off effort (1 win in 6 games), Monahan notched two tries in that mini-series. The 25-year-old scored a total of 11 tries in 26 starts after joining from Connacht at the start of the season. His prolific form and physical presence on the wing (he also played 4 games at outside centre) has earned the Leinster Academy graduate a move to Premiership side Gloucester. The South-Western side have big ambitions, with others like Ben Morgan, Billy Twelvetrees, Jimmy Cowan and coach Nigel Davies set to join the club.

Gloucester do have strong options out wide, with Monahan set to compete with the likes of Charlie Sharples, Jonny May, Olly Morgan and James Simpson-Daniel for a place in the back-three. Still, this move can only be a positive one for the Irish man. Hopefully he gets plenty of opportunities to show his power and finishing ability. Monahan’s decision to take a risk by moving to the Championship last season looks like it may have paid off.

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Tim Ryan

After brief stints with Toulon in the Top 14 and Newcastle in the Premiership, Ryan spent this season with Italian Super 10 side Cavalieri Prato. The tighthead prop was first-choice (starting 13 games) as Cavalieri finished top of the regular season table. However, Ryan didn’t feature in the play-off stages as the Tuscan side were beaten by the Paul Griffen-led Calvisano in the two-legged final. It’s unclear whether Ryan was injured or simply not chosen due to his impending transfer to the Dragons. After those 13 league starts, as well as 6 Amlin Cup appearances, the 27-year-old has been signed by the Welsh PRO12 region.

Crucially, Ryan has secured a two-year deal which will allow him time to settle into the higher standard of the PRO12. Converted into a prop from the backrow as an 18-year-old, the question marks about Ryan during his four years with Munster were around his scrummaging. It will be interesting to see if his travels have improved that aspect of his game. His ball-carrying has always been explosive. Irish eyes will be watching the Dragons a little more closely next season.

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Jason Harris-Wright

Harris-Wright (wearing scrumcap) in action for Bristol this season. (c) Linda G.

Harris-Wright would have been McIlwaine’s team mate at Bristol next season but for his move back to Ireland to join Connacht. The hooker only joined the Championship team in November, leaving Leinster in the hope of getting more game time. The 24-year-old was rated highly enough to have made 11 appearances for Leinster, but the signing of Sean Cronin meant opportunities would have been limited. Unfortunately, Harris-Wright’s time at Bristol was disrupted by injuries, restricting him to 5 starts and a total of 11 appearance.

More encouragingly, Harris-Wright was first-choice at Bristol when fit, and he started both legs of their promotion play-off semi-final loss to the Cornish Pirates. Eric Elwood and Dan McFarland at Connacht will be well aware of what Harris-Wright offers. Having played in the back-row, the Dublin man is a strong ball-carrier, and his set-piece play is generally very reliable. Connacht certainly needed an extra hooker to complement Ethienne Reynecke and Adrian Flavin. If Harris-Wright can stay fit, there’s no reason he shouldn’t see plenty of action.

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David McIlwaine

Lots of people who read the Youth XV Backline piece were particularly excited about the potential of McIlwaine after viewing his highlight reel. While it’s always foolish to judge a player on a YouTube video, the fact that he made 8 appearances for Ulster before joining the Doncaster Knights at the start of the season suggests that the 22-year-old has plenty of ability. The signing of Jared Payne meant McIlwaine was unlikely to see much action at fullback this season. As it turned out, the season-long injury to the New Zealander may have allowed McIlwaine to showcase his exciting attacking game.

Still, the move to Doncaster has been a success for the ex-Ireland U18 & U19 international. The fullback started 17 games and scored 3 tries. He even took over place-kicking duties for part of the season, knocking over 12 conversions and 19 penalties. McIlwaine’s consistent form earned him a move to fellow Championship side Bristol. They finished top of the regular season table, but failed in the promotion play-offs. With no teams relegated from the Premiership, Bristol look likely to push hard again for promotion next season. McIlwaine will play a key role, and it’s very likely that we’ll see him playing Premiership rugby in the next few years.

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Exiles Round-Up

Elsewhere, 22-year-old No.8 Michael Noone, once of Leinster, has left the Doncaster Knights to join fellow Championship outfit Rotherham Titans. His job there will be replace Robin Copeland, the Championship Player of the Season and now with the Cardiff Blues. Also leaving the Knights are Irish trio Michael Heaney, Royce Burke-Flynn and Gareth Quinn-McDonagh. Quinn-McDonagh is back in Ireland and will play with Ulster Bank League side Young Munster, but it’s unclear where the other two will be playing their rugby next season. All three saw plenty of game time at Doncaster this year.

Joining the Exiled Irish for next season will be Eamonn Sheridan, who will hook up with Noone at Rotherham. The talented centre is 23, and at 6’4″ and 17 stone is very physically strong. The Irish underage international can offload too, and should be a big success in the Championship. His development at Leinster last season was halted by a bad leg break, so he will be eager to impress from the off.

Another young Irish prospect on his way to the Titans is James McKinney. The Ulster man is still only 21, but the emergence of Paddy Jackson has convinced him to leave his home province. The outhalf has two Junior World Championships under his belt and made 2 appearances for Ulster this season. He has plenty of playmaking talent and is accurate off the tee. His development at Rotherham will be fascinating.

Jeremy Staunton slots a penalty during his Wasps days. (c) Chris Brown.

 Jeremy Staunton, once of Munster, is reluctantly leaving the Leicester Tigers. It’s still uncertain where, or if, he will be playing next season. The Limerick man is now 32. Read this superb piece on Staunton by the Demented Mole.

David McGowan, who has spent the last number of years with French Pro D2 side La Rochelle has decided to retire after some serious injuries in the last couple of seasons.

Rory O’Kane, who contributes plenty of interesting comments here on The Touchline, brought it to my attention that Dave Ryan, once with Munster, has been training with the USA national team.  Now in Italy with Lazio, it would be great to see Ryan playing international rugby. Rory also pointed out that Tommy Seymour, once of Ulster and now with the Warriors, is also eligible to play for the USA. He was an Irish international at U19 level and started 14 games for the Warriors this season, including 4 in the H-Cup. The winger scored 3 tries. in those appearances. One to watch.

Another one worth keeping an eye on is Jamie Smithwho Tim Ryan will be linking up with at the Dragons. Smith is a versatile 23-year-old outside back. He joined the Welsh region at the start of this season on a three-year deal, having made 15 appearances for Ulster as well as being named their Young Player of the year in 2009. Unfortunately, the Irish U19 international has had an injury hit season, limiting him to 2 starts in the PRO12. Having recently undergone surgery, the hope would be that he’s back in action next season, showcasing his pace and running threat.

If anyone has any other info on Irish players playing outside Ireland and their transfer movements, please leave a comment below. It’s important that we keep up to date with how our young players are doing abroad. Do you think the moves highlighted in this piece will be successful? Are Sheridan and McKinney right to move away?

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 Photos courtesy: Daniela Pasquetti, Linda G, Chris Brown.

All Blacks Far Too Clinical

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Ireland started this game well and enjoyed the better of the opening 20 minutes. Their attacking play was very encouraging after some of the stodge served up in recent years. Sexton looked to put width on the ball and got his backline running from depth. The outhalf also added a few well-judged kicks in behind the All Blacks to mix play up. Ireland managed to create several openings (see Keith Earls at 22.05 in vid) but crucially didn’t take any of these half-chances.

The All Blacks were uncharacteristically sloppy during that period and indeed, after the opening quarter, the handling errors were 5-0 in Ireland’s favour. But the hosts recovered in supreme fashion. Savea’s massive hit on Kearney in the 18th minute (27.00) allowed Carter to stroke over a gorgeous penalty from half-way to make it 9-3 on the scoreboard. With that, the All Blacks started to take control. A sustained period of pressure inside the Irish 22 ultimately led to the game’s first try.

Ireland actually managed to repel the original attack and O’Brien won one of many Irish penalties at the breakdown. That phase of defending clearly tired the Irish as first Sexton got very little distance on the penalty and then Murray’s poor box kick was clinically punished by the All Blacks. The scrumhalf’s kick went from Ireland’s 22 to the NZ 10 metre line, far too long. The Irish chase could perhaps have been better, but Murray’s kick is the dream scenario for a counter-attack.

Reddan

Reddan needs to start next Saturday. (c) Nigel Snell.

The All Blacks recognised the situation immediately. They were ruthless in taking the opportunity. Earls and McFadden should have done better with the switch between Conrad Smith and SBW, but it was clearly advantage to the attacking team in that situation. Smith took out two defenders, then so too did Williams with his offload. Carter actually had three options to give the scoring pass. A sniff of a try and every single one of the All Blacks snapped into action. Clinical. (Starts at 34.35).

That was actually Murray’s second overly-long kick of the game. Check out 21.40 for a similar kick earlier in the game. This weakness in Murray’s game is something I’ve mentioned before. Munster conceded a strikingly similar try against Northampton earlier this season. Overall, the kicks summed up a poor display from the scrumhalf. Before the game, I backed him to provide speedier service than usual but it didn’t happen. Reddan must start next Saturday, especially if Ireland look to spread the ball again. All Blacks’ debutant Aaron Smith showed Ireland exactly what they were missing with his crisp delivery. Smith has since claimed he wants to speed the game up even more next weekend.

The 2nd All Blacks try also originated from an Irish mistake. In the 34th minute, Ireland knocked a penalty into the corner 5 metres from the NZ tryline. An efficient lineout followed and then Murray hit O’Driscoll on a flat line. The captain threw a poorly judged offload and the All Blacks countered the length of the field. After the match, O’Driscoll spoke about the need for Ireland to be more patient in attack. I’ve no doubt he was talking about himself. It was a superb opportunity for Ireland to score before the break, completely wasted. (Starts at 43.57).

Sexton

Sexton had a positive game. (c) Ken Bohane.

3 minutes after O’Driscoll’s offload attempt, Savea bashed over Kearney in the left-hand corner. While Israel Dagg showed decent footwork and a nice pass to put Savea down the touchline, the try really showed that Fergus McFadden is not an international-level winger, defensively at least. He’s a centre and should play there from now on. Essentially, the situation was a three-on-three and there was no need for McFadden to bite in. NZ exposed him badly, taking two phases in close after the lineout and then attacking down the blindside in McFadden’s channel. (Starts at 48.06).

So Ireland went from an attacking situation where they could have reduced a 16-3 deficit just before the break, to going in 23-3 down at half-time. This was further compounded by conceding within 5 minutes of the second-half. There’s a strange similarity here between Ireland’s rugby and football teams this weekend. Trapattoni’s men conceded in the 43rd and 48th minutes, while Kidney’s side let in scores in the 37th and 43rd minutes. Both 5-minute spells proved to be decisive in the games. Something in the Irish psyche?

Savea’s hattrick try just after half-time was the killer blow. Once again, the All Blacks’ possession stemmed from an Irish error. Attacking down the short side, o’Driscoll left a pass behind Earls and NZ won a lineout. Again, the All Blacks immediately recognised the opportunity. While it wasn’t quite a quick lineout, the ball came out of touch sppedily. Sonny Bill banged it up the middle, then Earls got too narrow in defence, allowing Retallick to offload. In that kind of space, Carter, Dagg and Savea are lethal. Simon Zebo should have done better with his covering tackle, but the damage was done earlier. (Starts 58.35).

This guy’s pretty good eh? (c) Adidas Italy.

With Carter kicking accurately from the tee that was 30-3 and Ireland done and dusted. They managed a consolation score after good work from Rory Best. McFadden got the chance to show his pace but it was an opportunistic try rather than a cleverly constructed score. (Starts 1.06.15). Thomson crossed for the All Blacks’ in the 55th minute immediately after the impressive Declan Fitzpatrick left the field. Ireland’s scrum went backwards and with Heaslip’s head down trying to scrummage, the space was there for Read to offload. (1.14.14).

The All Blacks became less clinical after that score, which meant that Ireland were spared more punishment on the scoreboard. They didn’t score again until the 78th minute, when Conrad Smith straightened his line in between two inexperienced players, Darren Cave and Zebo. One of the two should have got a hit in on Smith, but both made bad reads and the classy New Zealander went through untouched. Both players will have learned from it, and hopefully they get a chance to improve next weekend.

So positives for Ireland? I was really impressed with Fitzpatrick on his debut. He certainly dealt with the considerable challenge of Tony Woodcock, and Ireland’s scrum was really solid until his departure. Hopefully, his glutes are ready for next weekend and he can get at least another 40 minutes in. Interestingly, Ireland dominated at the breakdown, winning lots of turnovers. The first 20 minutes was encouraging from Ireland. If they can be inspired by the All Blacks’ clinical finishing, we should see a few more scores on Saturday.

Still, the All Blacks will get stronger too. They are playing with a bit more freedom now that the World Cup monkey is off their backs. They are on a different level to Ireland, and it would be a miracle to beat them in the next two tests. However, there’s still value to be taken from the games. More of the attacking intent, cut out the unforced mistakes and see guys like Tuohy, Zebo, Fitzpatrick and Cave learn lessons from the step-up.

What did you make of the game? What changes would you make for next weekend? Who did well and who did poorly in your opinion? As always, any comments are welcome!

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Photos courtesy: Ken Bohane, Nigel Snell, Adidas Italy.

All Blacks Watch: The Debutants

(c) Aftab Uzzaman.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has named three uncapped players in his team to take on Ireland in the 1st Test tomorrow. None of the selections are very surprising, with Brodie Retallick, Aaron Smith and Julian Savea all deserving their chance. So how have they earned their first caps for the best international team in the world? Let’s take a closer look at each player and the form they carry into this series.

Second-row Brodie Retallick turned 21 only a week ago. He was an integral part of the New Zealand Under 20s side who claimed a 4th successive Junior World Championship title last year. From there, the 121kg lock went straight into an ITM Championship (the level below the likes of Canterbury, where new Munster coach Rob Penney had so much success) campaign with Hawke’s Bay. Retallick played a key role as the ‘Magpies’ earned promotion to the ITM Premiership, coincidentally beating Aaron Smith’s Manawatu side in the final.

In Ireland, lack of size and strength is very often an issue with our young second-rows. That’s never been a problem for the freakish Retallick. In fact, he has actually dropped weight since his school days, where he tipped the scales at 126kg. That made him hard to get off the ground at the lineout but he has since shed a few kgs and is now superb in the air. He’s also the tallest player in New Zealand rugby at almost 6’9′. His physical readiness meant Retallick went straight into the Chiefs’ first XV in this year’s Super Rugby campaign.

Retallick takes a switch off SBW at Chiefs’ training. (c) One Arm Photography.

The Chiefs sit top of the overall table coming into this break for the international tours. Retallick has been important to the Chiefs’ success. His work at the lineout has been impressive and his engine is huge. The 21-year-old is exceptionally fit. He recently beat Brad Thorn’s long-standing beep test record for a tight-five forward in New Zealand. That highlights Retallick’s impressive work ethic. He’s 6th in the Super Rugby tackling charts, with 169 in just 12 games.

Another of the lock’s strengths has been his work at the breakdown. Not in the sense of steals, but rather his effectiveness in cleaning out rucks during the Chiefs’ attack. Encouragingly, Retallick turned in perhaps his poorest display of the season in the Chiefs’ last match, a thrilling 41-34 win over the Blues. The 21-year-old forced a few offloads and passes and generally looked a little uncomfortable. From an Irish point of view, hopefully the added pressure of an All Blacks jersey results in something similar on Saturday.

Aaron Smith takes over in the 9 jersey. World Cup scrumhalf Piri Weepu has been struggling badly for fitness and form, but is still included on the bench. Smith is one of a number of exciting young 9s coming through in New Zealand at the moment, with TJ Perenara and Tawera Kerr-Barlow both unlucky to miss out. Smith’s form for the Highlanders means he is deserving of this chance though. His swift and accurate passing has been eye-catching, and much appreciated by the All Blacks selectors.

(c) Highlanders Rugby.

Back in 2008, Smith came off the bench for the New Zealand U20s as they beat England 38-3 in the final of the first-ever Junior World Championship. Following that success, he spent three seasons playing ITM rugby for Manawatu, pushing his way into the Highlanders Super Rugby squad last year, making 3 starts. However, it was the 23-year-old’s form in Manawatu’s run to that Championship final at the tail end of 2011 which really saw Smith announce himself. That convinced Highlanders coach to give Smith the starting role ahead of All Black Jimmy Cowan this year.

Smith has admitted that his focus at the start of this season had been getting starts for the Highlanders, and hadn’t even entertained the notion of an All Blacks cap. His superb performances have been one of the unchanging factors of an inconsistent Highlanders side this season. It seems like an idiotic thing to say about a scrumhalf but you’d be surprised how many don’t do it well – Smith’s main strength is his beautiful passing. He generally doesn’t offer as threatening running game that Perenara or Kerr-Barlow do. In terms of positives for Ireland, Smith is relatively inexperienced, and by his own admission, never expected to be where he will be on Saturday.

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The third new cap is left wing Julian Savea of the Hurricanes. The 21-year-old has been marked out as an All Black for some time now. In 2009, at the age of 18 and fresh out of school he played for the New Zealand Sevens team. The following year his 8 tries helped the NZ U20s to the JWC and saw him named 2010’s IRB Junior Player of the Year. A brilliant ITM Cup campaign for Wellington followed, with Savea scoring 8 tries in 12 games. A full All Blacks call-up would surely have followed sooner than now, but for a poor 2011 season.

The 6’3″ winger progressed to start 7 games for the Hurricanes but was generally quiet and didn’t manage to score a Super Rugby try. An ineffective ITM campaign followed with Wellington and the buzz around Savea died a little. However, this season has seen that buzz reach new heights thanks to his spectacular form for the Hurricanes. 7 tries in 11 games doesn’t tell the whole story. When you see that he’s in the Top 10 for metres gained (817), has made 4 try assists and 8 clean line-breaks you start to get the idea.

(c) Hurricanes Rugby.

At around 105kg, Savea is a big unit. He uses his power to great effect and regularly boshes defenders into the ground (1.14 and 2.07 in the vid below are becoming typical). However, he has neat footwork and general skills too. His Hurricanes teammate Beauden Barret has called Savea’s attacking arsenal the “triple threat“. So any signs of respite for Ireland? While the Hurricanes’ attacking game has lit up Super Rugby (they’re comfortably the top-scorers despite sitting 6th), their defence has been very poor (2nd worst in the table). Savea has been part of that weak defence, and is certainly more interested in attacking. Despite the fact that he’s a big unit, if Ireland can send some traffic down his wing, they may get some change out of the youngster.

The fact that the All Blacks have included three uncapped players does not mean that they’re putting out a weakened or experimental team. The rookies Smith, Retallick and Savea have each earned the chance to wear the famous black jersey. Still, it’s natural that Ireland will view their inexperience as a chink in the armour.

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Photos courtesy: One Arm Photography, Aftab Uzzaman.