This is where Ireland’s World Cup begins – in a Waikato winter rather than under a French sun

This is where Ireland’s World Cup begins – in a Waikato winter rather than under a French sun

HAMILTON IN WINTER is rugby’s version of a Monday night in Stoke, the measuring stick people used to determine whether Arsene Wenger had unearthed the next Thierry Henry or just another Gervinho.

Stoke was a leveller. Rain fell from the skies, hate made its way down from the stands. Fans gave you verbals and shaven-headed defenders planted studs on your ankle. ‘Welcome to Stoke,’ they’d say. No visiting player ever made their name there but plenty lost their reputation.

Hamilton is that kind of town. The evenings when the sky is black and the frost leaves its bite are when the locals come out to see what the tourists from the other side of the world are made of. Ireland lost 60-0 here in 2012. Hamilton has witnessed the All Blacks score 60 points against Fiji, 57 against Argentina, 55 against Wales, 64 against Italy. It has seen the Māori All Blacks beat the British and Irish Lions.

Survive the tests Hamilton presents you with and you get to play in bigger cities with better stadiums. But if you can’t cope with the surroundings or this kind of opposition, well, then this is where your international career ends as well as starts (kick-off tomorrow 8.05am, Māori All Blacks v Ireland).  

“It’s different over here,” Farrell said. “Walking around here is not like walking down Ballsbridge where people wind the window down and tell you how good you are.

“This is proper international rugby and it’s exactly what we want at this point in time.”

Farrell and Aki share a joke in Auckland.

We all know why. There’s little for Farrell to gain by waiting 16 months to see if Ciaran Frawley, Jimmy O’Brien, James Hume, Joe McCarthy, Tom O’Toole, Craig Casey, Cian Prendergast or Jeremy Loughman can hack it in this kind of company when he can make that discovery now.

Joe Schmidt didn’t. He arrived at the 2015 World Cup with a team and came home realising he needed a squad. It looked like he’d learned his lesson by the time the 2019 tournament came around but when you think back to the previous summer’s tour, a familiar failing had played out.

Between them, half-backs John Cooney, Kieran Marmion and Ross Byrne got a combined total of five minutes on that three-test Australia trip and by the time Ireland rocked up in Japan, Johnny Sexton was cursed by injury, Conor Murray by a loss of form, and Ireland simply didn’t have ready-made replacements.

So, that’s why his successor has rolled the dice this time around, selecting over a quarter of his touring squad from the benches of Ireland’s provinces, choosing Leinster’s fourth-choice out-half, Munster’s third-choice loosehead

…. to be continued
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