How the tour to New Zealand is really daunting for Andy Farrell's Ireland
Take it from me, there is no other rugby tour that remotely compares to a trip to the Land of the Long White Cloud.
I toured New Zealand with both Ireland (1992) and the Lions (1993).
Talk about being full on, you are just in a rugby bubble for the duration of the tour.
Any person you meet, in a restaurant, in a hotel lobby, in a bar, while out for a walk, wants to talk about nothing else but rugby.
It's like living in Kilkenny on the eve of an All-Ireland Hurling final, except this will go on for the full four weeks that Ireland's players are in New Zealand.
They've two games against the Maoris, which coach Andy Farrell will surely use to blood some of our reserve talent.
And 'blood' it may be, because let me tell the lads playing against the Maoris, that these matches will be as close to Test rugby as they will ever get until they actually play at that highest level.
The Maoris are a proud, proud team and whoever gets the call to play for them will know that taking down the tourists will get the attention of the All Black management.
These two games will be the 180' opposite of an easy midweek Tour match.
Then there are the three Tests. It has not gone unnoticed by our hosts that Ireland have beaten them in three of our last five meetings.
They might well have won a fourth too, with a stronger referee than the one who let our visitors to the Aviva Stadium in 2016 away with a number of cheap shots.
Of course this tour takes place against the background of the World Cup that is now barely 14 months away.
After these three matches against the Kiwis, Ireland have only three November internationals in 2022 and the five Six Nations matches in 2023 before Farrell will have to settle on his squad for that tournament.
Where, as I've written so many times, Ireland, if we get out of our Pool, will surely play New Zealand or France in the quarter-final, the World Cup match we can never win.
That's a daunting task for which we must prepare to our level best, but before it we take on these five huge games.
There's no such thing as a bad All Black team. But equally this Kiwi class of 2022 is not the class of 2011 or 2015, who won World Cups with all-time greats like Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Ma'a Nonu aboard.
New Zealand didn't win the 2019 World Cup, because they were physically bullied by England in the semi-final.
They took note of that and have got bigger in the pack and in the back-line, but maybe not faster.
That has to be a worry for Ireland. We've a big pack, with top-notch props, athletic second-rows and dynamic back-rows.
But still, France beat us up for long stretches of the Six Nations match this year.
And you don't need reminding what happened to Leinster and Ulster in the closing phases of this year's European and URC Cups - their packs could not hold out to get the job done.
We've got to do better and New Zealand are just the team to put us to the test - remember we've never won an international against them on their patch, and we've taken some horrible beatings.
Remember too it is now the depths of winter Down Under. I've been in Wellington three times in my life, on those two Tours and as a host on another Lions Tour.
And every day I've spent around the city it was at least one of cold, wet or windy, and sometimes two of them.
One night it was all three. That was for the Test match with Ireland in 1992, and it was the coldest I've ever been in my life. The nearest I have ever come to hypothermia.
So this is not a tour where we'll be flinging the ball about on drying spring ground.
This tour will be about a battle, about rolling your sleeves up and getting stuck in against a team with a point to prove against us.
Andy Farrell has lots of things to think about. Does he start Joey Carbery instead of Johnny Sexton at out-half in at least one Test?
To let Joey get the experience of playing Test match rugby, from the start, against the All Blacks?
Remember 2015, we had to play a World Cup quarter-final without Sexton, for whom an inexperienced Ian Madigan had to step in against Argentina. It didn't end well.
What about our depth at prop behind Andrew Porter and Tadhg Furlong? Once fit that pair start, but how strong is the back-up? And if they are not fit?
Hugo Keenan is our first choice full-back, but who replaces him, if he gets hurt?
They are just some of the issues Farrell has to contend with over the next four weeks while winning seriously competitive rugby matches.
The year didn't end well for Ireland's provinces, not one of them picked up a piece of silverware.
Now all of the players have to get back up on the horse.
Some guys will rise to the challenge of playing in New Zealand and they will be pencilled in for a place in the World Cup squad.
Some won't and they will drift out of Farrell's thoughts,sadly for them, and others will come in.
Even one win in a Test match, would make this Tour a success. It would be something we've never done before.
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