13 Nov

Ireland v All Blacks – Preview
by Tracey Nelson
13 Nov 2008

This weekend sees the All Blacks taking on Ireland in Dublin, which promises to be one of the toughest encounters on their Grand Slam tour. Infront of a crowd likely to be in excess of 73 000, the Irish side will be pumped with adrenalin and will no doubt start the game at a level of intensity over and above what the Scots fielded last week – because they are playing the All Blacks at Croke Park.

Croke Park, in Dublin, is Ireland’s largest stadium and headquarters of the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) which was founded as a nationalist organisation to promote indigenous Irish sports – in particular the All-Ireland Football Championship and the sport of Hurling. Irish sports have been played at this ground since 1884, but it wasn’t until 2006 that the first game of rugby was allowed to be played at the stadium.

Rugby, along with other non-indigneous Irish sports, had been banned from this stadium for over a century as the GAA historically has opposed other foreign sports and British ones in particular. It was only in 2006, with Ireland’s traditional rugby stadium Lansdowne Rd undergoing major reconstruction, that the GAA relented and allowed Six Nations test matches to be staged there. This will be the first and possibly last time the All Blacks will play on Croke Park, as by the next time the New Zealanders play in Ireland Lansdowne Rd will be completed.

However, the significance of Croke Park to the Irish lies deeper than just being their national stadium. On November 21st 1920 during the Irish War of Independence, in what is now remembered as Bloody Sunday, Croke Park was the scene of carnage when British Army auxiliaries entered the ground during a Dublin v Tipperary gaelic football match and shot indiscriminately into the crowd killing 14 people, once of which was the Tipperary captain Michael Hogan. The shootings were a reprisal for the assassination of 14 British Intelligence officers earlier that same day. The stand built at the ground in 1924 was named the Hogan stand in the Tipperary captain’s honour, so you can understand the depth of feeling that surrounds Croke Park in the hearts of the Irish.

The ground can hold 82 300 people but seated has a capacity of 73 500, and the playing field is a Desso GrassMaster pitch. This is a combination of natural grass and stitched synthetic fibres which makes the pitch extremely stable – so there should be no excuses for front rowers’ feet to be slipping when the scrums set this week. Likewise there should be plenty of stable footing for both backlines to show their wares.

The All Blacks are feilding arguably their strongest side as acknowledgement of the threat this Irish side are likely to pose. There is little between Conrad Smith and Richard Kahui at centre, but the selectors have chosen to maintain the Wellington midfield pairing for this test – although defensive lapses by either Smith or Nonu could cost them their next start. Kieran Read has been rewarded for his strong showing against Scotland with a place on the bench at the expense of Adam Thomson, which means So’oialo would deputise at openside should the unthinkable happen and McCaw has to leave the field.

Ireland are fielding a highly capped side, with the exception of Jamie Heaslip at halfback who is starting in his first test match. Both Brian O’Driscoll and Joe Rokocoko will be starting in their 50th test.

All Blacks: Mils Muliaina, Joe Rokocoko, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Dan Carter, Jimmy Cowan, Rodney So’oialo, Richie McCaw (c), Jerome Kaino, Ali Williams, Brad Thorn, Neemia Tialata, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodock. Reserves – Corey Flynn, John Afoa, Anthony Boric, Kieran Read, Piri Weepu, Stephen Donald, Isaia Toeava.

Ireland: Girvan Dempsey, Tommy Bowe, Brian O’Driscoll (captain), Luke Fitzgerald, Robert Kearney, Ronan O’Gara, Tomas O’Leary, Jamie Heaslip, David Wallace, Alan Quinlan, Paul O’Connell, Donncha O’Callaghan, John Hayes, Rory Best, Marcus Horan. Reserves – Jerry Flannery, Tony Buckley, Stephen Ferris, Shane Jennings, Eoin Reddan, Paddy Wallace, Keith Earls.

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