The absence of captain Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, Denis Hickie and Alan Quinlan, in addition to further injury doubts over Shane Horgan and Simon Easterby, have drastically reduced Ireland’s prospects of a first-ever win over New Zealand who ominously crushed Wales by 41-3 last weekend in the first match of their tour of Britain and Ireland.
Notwithstanding Ireland’s injury woes, New Zealand are clearly on the up as they build towards the 2007 World Cup, while Ireland’s stock has slipped somewhat in the past season. Although coach Eddie O’Sullivan has managed to close the gap on the southern hemisphere with victories in Dublin over both Australia and South Africa, Saturday’s opposition remain in a league of their own.
Their 3-0 series whitewash of the Lions last summer was evidence enough of New Zealand’s quality, and there was a further reminder as they humiliated current European champions Wales with some truly awesome rugby.
In mitigation, Ireland do have proven game-breakers in Geordan Murphy and Gordon D’Arcy, while Ronan O’Gara is in good form at the moment, however, the forwards do not appear to have anything like enough bulk and ferocity to live with his New Zealand side.
Their coach Graham Henry has suggested that he might not field all his top players on Saturday — that might be Ireland’s only hope.
MUNSTER WIN IN CARDIFF
Meanwhile, Munster consolidated their position at the top of the Celtic League with an impressive 18-16 win away to Cardiff. With both sides missing most of their regular starting line-ups due to international duty, Munster were in control for the most part with Paul Burke putting them ahead with five penalties.
Although Cardiff crossed for a try in the closing stages to close the gap, Jeremy Manning, who had taken over the kicking duties from Burke, had already a penalty of his own.
Leinster slipped to fourth in the table when they disappointingly lost to Edinburgh by 27-13 at Donnybrook. Although Leinster led by 13-10 at the break, they failed to score during the second half as the Scots dominated.
Two penalties by stand-in out-half Brian O’Meara, who was playing his 100th game for the province, and a converted try by Keith Gleeson meant that Leinster were looking good at the changeover, however, they failed to keep up the momentum from that moment on.
There was also disappointment for Ulster who went down by 20-12 to reigning champions the Ospreys in Belfast where Paul Steinmetz kicked four penalties for the losers, while Connacht were no match for Glasgow who ran out comfortable winners by 30-15. Andrew Farley and Conor McPhillips scored tries for Connacht, but they were comprehensively outplayed.