The Ireland hooker, Rory Best, reached for the balm of understatement when he described his team's opponents today, the All Blacks, as "a quality unit". The team named by New Zealand's new head coach, Steve Hansen, to play at Eden Park in Auckland includes seven men who played in last year's World Cup final. It also includes three debutants and some bloke called Dan Carter at No 10. The world's best fly-half, lest it be forgotten, was absent injured when his team-mates won the world title.
Nevertheless, Best said: "We are closing the gap and we want it closed. It is a strange one from an Irish point of view as they are the only top-tier team we haven't beaten. We see ourselves as a very good team. We have done all our homework on the All Blacks but need to get our stuff right."
Ireland have not beaten New Zealand in 24 matches – although they have had the odd near miss, such as an extraordinary 24-21 defeat in Dunedin in 1992. However, they did beat Australia at Eden Park in October, 15-6 in the World Cup. Best chose to take heart from that.
"We have fond memories of nine months ago," said Best. "We are well aware that it was a different tournament, a long time ago and a different team. The only thing that has stayed the same is the venue and even that has changed a bit.
"There are lots of positives that we can take from that win but we're under no illusions that we have a completely different task ahead of us now. We would not turn up if we were not confident of winning. It is going to be a great challenge but that is what you want to do. You want to pit yourself against the best in their own back yard."
The tighthead prop Declan Fitzpatrick, one of Best's team-mates at Ulster, will have to pit himself against the best while he wins his first cap, having replaced the injured Mike Ross. New Zealand's front row, of Tony Woodcock, Andrew Hore and Owen Franks, is rather more experienced.
"Declan knows that it will be a massive step up," said Best. "But questions were posed before the Heineken Cup semi-final when we [Ulster] lost [the former All Black tighthead] John Afoa, and Declan stepped up that day. It takes a lot to ruffle Deccie. He has been through a lot to get to this place but hopefully he seizes it with both hands. He is a quality player."
Brian O'Driscoll, Ireland's captain, is certainly one of those and he is back in the centre after missing the Six Nations through injury. He and Keith Earls will be faced by Sonny Bill Williams and Conrad Smith, two of the best centres in the world. Munster's Simon Zebo is Ireland's other new cap, on the wing; Ulster's Dan Tuohy will make his first Test start in the second row.
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