O'Sullivan optimistic as Irish look for first win in New Zealand

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The Independent Online

Ireland have never won in New Zealand - they have played there only five times, perhaps because one draw and 12 losses at home have rather put them off the idea - but their coach, Eddie O'Sullivan, was in an oddly optimistic mood as he previewed today's first Test of two, in Hamilton.

"We've turned around our game," O'Sullivan said. "We went from the team that kicked most in the Six Nations in 2005 to the team that kicked the least in 2006."

That 2006 team took a Triple Crown, beating the world champions at Twickenham along the way, and finished up regretting a rather hare-brained approach to their first match, against France.

"In the first 50 minutes we played in Paris when we forced our game, we made a lot of mistakes," O'Sullivan said. "That was a salient moment for us."

Most of the players who experienced that match are in New Zealand and the Ulster flanker Neil Best, filling in for the injured Simon Easterby, is the only newcomer to the starting side. With experimental selections kept on the bench - Ulster's prop Bryan Young and scrum-half Isaac Boss, a Kiwi by birth, are uncapped - Brian O'Driscoll leads a strong side against the team which ended his British Lions tour rather rudely last summer.

The All Blacks have a more experimental air, with key players like the brick-outhouse blind-side Jerry Collins, the gleefully antagonistic scrum-half Piri Weepu and some outside-half or other called Dan Carter left out. Their coach, Graham Henry, however, can pick from unequalled reserves of talent.

"He's been very smart in his selections," said O'Sullivan. "He's got a few young, exciting players in there."

One less young and rather terrifying player lurks on the bench - Troy Flavell, who was last seen spreading Richard Hill's nose all over his face at Twickenham in 2003.

In Durban, Sale's apparently indestructible flanker Jason White leads his country against a strong South Africa side. Scotland are looking for a first victory in the Republic.

"The Springboks are a set-piece orientated side and they'll try to scrum us out of it," said White, who was knocked senseless against Wasps a few weeks ago, only to wake up and carry on regardless. "The timing of the game is good for us as we are at the end of a very positive season."

Too true - the Scots do not often beat the English and the French in the same year and under their persuasive coach Frank Hadden they are a revitalised bunch. "We have had a tremendous week's training and we have adjusted to the conditions," White said. "We have no option but to front up."

Quite - winning Six Nations skirmishes at Murrayfield is one thing, beating the Springboks on their own turf is entirely another.

Today's Test teams

* Ireland (v New Zealand, Hamilton): G Murphy (Leicester); S Horgan, B O'Driscoll (capt), G D'Arcy (all Leinster), A Trimble (Ulster); R O'Gara, P Stringer; M Horan, J Flannery, J Hayes, D O'Callaghan, P O'Connell (all Munster), N Best (Ulster), D Wallace, D Leamy (both Munster). Replacements: R Best, B Young (both Ulster), M O'Driscoll (Munster), K Gleeson (Leinster), I Boss (Ulster), D Hickie, G Dempsey (both Leinster).

* New Zealand: M Muliaina; D Howlett (both Auckland), M Nonu (Wellington), A Mauger (Canterbury), J Rokocoko (A'land); L McAlister (N Harbour), B Kelleher (Waikato); C Dermody (Southland), K Mealamu (A'and), C Hayman (Otago), C Jack (C'bury), G Rawlinson (N Harbour), M Holah (Waikato), R McCaw (Ca'bury, capt), R So'oialo (W'ton). Replacements: A Oliver (Otago), N Tialata (W'ton), T Flavell, J Kaino (both A'land), J Cowan (S'land), D Hill (Waikato), S Hamilton (C'bury).

* Scotland (v South Africa, Durban): H Southwell; C Paterson , M Di Rollo (all Edinburgh), A Henderson (Glasgow), S Lamont (Northampton); D Parks (G'gow), M Blair (E'burgh); G Kerr (Leeds), S Lawson (G'gow), B Douglas (Borders), N Hines (Perpignan), S Murray (E'burgh), J White (Sale, capt), D Macfadyen (G'gow), A Hogg (E'burgh). Replacements: D Hall, C Smith, A Kellock (all E'burgh), J Petrie (G'gow), K Brown (Borders), S Pinder (G'gow); G Ross (Leeds) or S Webster (E'burgh).

* South Africa: P Montgomery (Natal); B Paulse (Clermont), J Fourie (Lions), J de Villiers (Western Province), A Snyman (Leeds); J van der Westhuyzen, F du Preez (both Blue Bulls); O du Randt (Free State), J Smit (Natal, capt), E Andrews (WP), D Rossouw, V Matfield(both Blue Bulls), S Burger (WP), J Smith (FS), J van Niekerk (WP). Replacements: H Shimange (WP), L Sephaka (Lions), J Muller (WP), P Wannenburg (Blue Bulls), E Januarie (Lions), W Olivier (Blue Bulls), G du Toit (WP).