'Let's 'get physical' with Ireland
SPOTLIGHT: Captain Sam Cane says a galvanised New Zealand plan to hit Ireland with brutal, no-frills rugby, as the All Blacks try to lay down a marker for next year's World Cup. Faltering form, an unpopular coaching team and, this week, a COVID outbreak, have the rugby-mad nation questioning whether the All Blacks could lose their perfect home record against Ireland or even the three-Test series. Ireland is close to full strength and goes into Saturday's opener at Eden Park brimming with players who were pivotal in their three wins over New Zealand in their last five meetings - including a deserved 29-20 triumph in Dublin last November. A runners-up finish in the Six Nations and another compelling club season from Leinster, who provide the bulk of the Irish Test side, have many believing Andy Farrell's team can make history. The series has must-watch status in New Zealand, where the pandemic has played havoc with top-flight fixtures for two years. Some believe COVID-19's stultifying impact explains the All Blacks' inconsistency over that period, culminating in successive drubbings - first in Dublin and then to France in Paris - to round out nearly three months on the road late last year. Challenging year Other critics feel head coach Ian Foster has been lucky to keep his post and that Canterbury Crusaders mentor Scott Robertson, who has just secured another Super Rugby crown, should have taken over after New Zealand were ambushed by England in the 2019 World Cup semifinals. Foster was among those who tested positive for COVID this week, along with two of his assistant coaches and three of his players. Cane says the setback has brought the players tighter together and stiffened a resolve to leave 2021 behind. "I suppose you could say almost every series or every game or campaign has real importance, but I think there's certainly that stone in your shoe or rock under the beach towel sort of feeling because of how we finished last year," he said. "It was certainly a challenging year on many fronts, but we've come back pretty determined and are really looking forward to this campaign." Cane hinted the Crusaders laid out the blueprint for winning big games two weeks ago, also at Eden Park, when they overwhelmed the Auckland Blues up front in the final of Super Rugby Pacific. Any prospect of the All Blacks playing expansive rugby, as they have historically done in early-season series against lesser opponents, looks set to be shelved. (Continue below ...) 'Smart footy' "It's no secret Test rugby is about dominating collisions and winning small inches and moments like that, so we'll focus on that, playing smart footy and having a strong defence, a defence that can create pressure and create turnovers," Cane said. "We've got a real experienced leadership group now when you look around, and one that I really trust immensely, guys in the forward pack, the likes of (locks) Brodie Retallick and Sammy Whitelock, are taking charge of things there." Former Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has stepped in to help fill the New Zealand coaching void, adding another layer of intrigue. Farrell says he believes Schmidt won't have enough time to influence the All Blacks hugely and that an isolating Foster will maintain firm control of the team's direction. Ireland's first tour of New Zealand in a decade provides Farrell with what he describes as the perfect World Cup acid test. He has brought 40 players on a tour which features two midweek games against the strong Maori All Blacks and says the intensity is just what his players need to truly gauge their progress. "We know what we're coming up against. We know that it's a different kettle of fish. Eden Park first up, we know how special that place is to the All Blacks. It's great for us too," he said. "We want to see ourselves under extreme pressure and how we deal with that so therefore it's good all round."