No less than his counterpart Ian Foster, as well as everyone else with a part to play in Saturday’s showdown at the Aviva Stadium between Ireland and New Zealand and all those fortunate enough to have tickets, Andy Farrell was in full ‘bring it on’ mode after both head coaches unveiled their strongest possible hand.
After recalling Iain Henderson to the second row and promoting Rob Herring’s world-class darts as an insurance policy against the best defensive lineout in the world, Farrell described it as “a privilege” to be tested by the best, and akin to Foster spoke of how much Ireland will learn about themselves this week.
In classic Farrell style he declared: “What a time to be alive, like, to be an Irish rugby player and have the opportunity to play in front of a full house against the best team in the world. This is where you want to be.”
This being the first of four meetings in the season, his squad are excited rather than fearful.
“Why would you not? We get to play them four times and this is the first one and this is the place to be: Saturday afternoon at the Aviva. If you’re an Irish rugby player, this is the place to be. It’s an opportunity. Go and give it your best shot.”
The presence of the All Blacks, no less than Ronaldo last night, has assuredly helped to ensure a second full house in three days, with the haka also ensuring that an Irish crowd will be seated before kick-off.
In times past Irish sides have either marched to halfway, when encouraged to do so by Willie Anderson, or lied up in a figure of eight, in honour of Anthony Foley prior to the somewhat overdue first win in Chicago at the 29th attempt.
“First of all, I think it brings fantastic theatre to our game,” said Farrell of the haka.
“I love watching it. It’s not just the New Zealand haka. It’s the other hakas that you see around the world as well. Our boys love watching it and it adds to the atmosphere of the game straight from the start and I suppose the adrenaline is pumping through everyone’s veins. But some of our lads are very experienced at standing up there and making sure that they have the right thoughts going through their heads.
“As for what we do [in response] I’ll leave it up to the players. We have a leadership group who’ll do the appropriate thing and the respectful thing.”
While the Chicago win was by five tries to four, and the Aviva one three years ago by one try to nil, Farrell was neither inclined to prefer a high-scoring shoot-out or a more attritional, taut affair.
“We’ve got to play all sorts of ways because we know that they can. You saw against Wales a couple of weeks ago, they took it to Wales in the middle with the pick and go. The forwards were nice and dynamic and [Ardie] Savea was hard to stop.
“They did that on the first Test of the Lions tour in Auckland – they played a similar type of game. Then they played an expansive game, a more traditional style of game for them in the quarter-final. So we’re expecting all of that. We’re expecting a blend of that. That’s why they’re the best team in the world – because they’re able to mix it up.”
In any event, unlike Japan last week, the All Blacks are sure to have their moments, whether out of nothing or the product of sustained pressure.
“Well, we always talk about being next moment focused and that’s what you have to be at this level. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into the mental side of the game and making sure that we don’t get too emotional.
“I thought that our blend of how we played the game last week was pretty impressive. We certainly made mistakes but we didn’t get affected by that, and there’s certainly going to be errors at the weekend and we know for a fact that New Zealand are going to have a purple patch. It’s how we settle down and get back on track from that is going to be key and [we get] enough purples patches ourselves.”
Ultimately though, in Farrell’s view, nothing changes.
“Like all games,” he said, “they’re won up front. The set-piece battle is absolutely huge and their setpiece is pretty good, and we back our set-piece against anyone as well so that will tell its own story along the way.
“We all know that they play a quick, expansive game and that sometimes gets in the way of what they’re really about. Their game understanding is very good, they don’t overplay a lot. I think they’ve learned some lessons along the way, they’re very mature in how they play the game and they want to play off your mistakes. They’re very quick and accurate at delivering that type of game.
“Having said all that, it’s about us this week. It’s about us making sure that we take our game towards them. We pay them all the respect in the world because they 100 per cent deserve it but it’s about us. Where are we at? Are we brave enough to take our game towards them? And we’ll see.”
IRELAND v New Zealand: Hugo Keenan (Leinster), Andrew Conway (Munster), Garry Ringrose (Leinster), Bundee Aki (Connacht), James Lowe (Leinster); Johnny Sexton (Leinster, capt), Jamison Gibson Park (Leinster); Andrew Porter (Leinster), Rónan Kelleher (Leinster), Tadhg Furlong (Leinster); Iain Henderson (Ulster), James Ryan (Leinster); Caelan Doris (Leinster), Josh van der Flier (Leinster), Jack Conan (Leinster).
Replacements: Rob Herring (Ulster), Cian Healy (Leinster), Finlay Bealham (Connacht), Tadhg Beirne (Munster), Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Conor Murray (Munster), Joey Carbery (Munster), Keith Earls (Munster).