Ireland go into Saturday morning’s first Test against the All Blacks 11-point underdogs as they seek a first-ever win on New Zealand soil.
The hosts boast a formidable unbeaten record at Eden Park, which goes back 46 Tests to 1994.
Here we look at three areas which may decide the outcome.
Half-back wits – Beauden Barrett in Johnny Sexton
It’s the battle of the 2016/17 and 2018 World Rugby players of the year as the experienced duo go head to head again.
It’s safe to say that if Ireland are to get that first win over the All Blacks in New Zealand then 36-year-old Sexton will need to edge this contest.
That, naturally, comes down to how the packs fare and if the in-form Jamison Gibson-Park gets the silver service it allows him and Sexton to dictate the play.
“He’s been a great player for a number of years now and he’s a key part of their game, so I’ll be looking forward to that,” said 31-year-old Barrett of the match-up.
This will be Sexton’s 15th time to play against the All Blacks and he’s one of just three players (Tadhg Furlong and Conor Murray) in the match-day squad to have tasted victory here against New Zealand, that win coming with the Lions in 2017.
Wing men – Leicester Fainga’anuku in Keith Earls
Off the back of a winning season with the Crusaders, Fainga’anuku is set to become All Black number 1,201.
The 22-year-old, joint top try-scorer in Super Rugby this season, stands 6’2 “and weighs in at just over 17 stone.
“I’ve been really impressed with Leicester’s preparation,” said scrum-half and room-mate Aaron Smith. “He’s been doing his homework, asking good questions, and he’s earned his spot.
“In New Zealand that 11 jersey is always sacred in the All Blacks. He’s such a powerful runner, sees the game well, and you can see it in their eyes … the nerves, the excitement.”
And standing in his way is Keith Earls, who played the full 80 minutes on Wednesday and whose flank was targeted by the Maoris to some degree of success.
Experience-wise, there’s no comparison with Earls in line for cap number 97. At 5’10 “and 13st 7lbs, he’ll need all his know-how to marshal the young gun.
Had Mack Hansen (Covid-19) was available, it’s unlikely the Munster man would find himself starting but the 34-year-old has never shirked a challenge.
Back row rows
Ian Foster has handed the 6 shirt to Scott Barrett, who will line out at the blindside for the first time since losing the World Cup semi-final to England. In fact, of his 48 caps, that match was his only start in the back row, with the 111kg man usually preferred in the second row.
Captain and openside Sam Cane (77 caps) and Ardie Savea (59 caps) at 8 make up an imposing back row that actually weighs in 4kgs lighter than the Irish set.
Combined the All Blacks trio have 184 caps, while Peter O’Mahony, Josh van der Flier and Caelan Doris have 141.
“Three top quality players, obviously Barrett we haven’t seen too much of him at six recently. He’s a big man,” said Doris, man of the match in last November’s 29-20 victory in Dublin.
“I’m sure confidence will be high. [We] probably weren’t expecting to see him at six. It’ll be exciting going up against him.
“Obviously Cane as well, squad captain, quality player, really good poacher. Nuisance at the breakdown. Ardie Savea is pretty much an all-rounder. He’s been at the top of his game for the last number of years as one of the best back rows in the world. “
O’Mahony was captain for the first Lions Test here in 2017 before dropping out of the squad for the next two games. He made major contributions in the two Dublin victories over New Zealand and has seen off three-time Lions starter Jack Conan for a back-row berth.
Van der Flier, meanwhile, is in the form of his life and was recently named European player of the season.
The breakdown battle is a mouth-watering prospect.
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