Ireland series shapes as hardest start to an All Black season in ages

You can accuse Ian Foster of a lot of things, but being boring isn't one of them - at least when it came to naming a team this week to face Ireland.

With a Covid-hit squad meaning he couldn't even be in camp, the All Blacks coach has raised pretty much every set of rugby eyebrows sky high in what is shaping up to be an extremely interesting test match.

Which it was going to be anyway, to be fair. The result of the last time these two sides met has been talked about ever since fulltime in Dublin last November. The 29-20 scoreline doesn't do the Irish effort anywhere near enough justice, with a highly mobile forward pack clicking together to have the All Blacks on the backfoot, while the sharp backs and seemingly ageless Johnny Sexton exploited every chance they got.

It was Ireland's third win over the All Blacks in five games. Afterwards, Foster conceded that it had been their most convincing. Then, to make matters worse, the All Blacks were thrashed again the next weekend in Paris.

The All Blacks losing is one thing. The All Blacks losing two in a row is another. The All Blacks being completely outplayed in consecutive tests is something else entirely because you don't need too many fingers to count how many times it's ever happened. So that's another unwanted milestone for Foster's side, but the redemption story starts at Eden Park on Saturday night.

Barrett switch a head scratcher

Or, at least, it's supposed to. Foster has sprung a plot twist in the first chapter with a couple of curious selections: Scott Barrett at blindside and Braydon Ennor from out in the cold to sitting on the bench. Barrett's only other test start on the side of the scrum was infamously in the World Cup semifinal loss to England, a move that saw Sam Cane watching on in jersey 20. Given the plethora of talent at his disposal like Akira Ioane, Hoskins Sotutu and Pita Gus Sowakula, picking a guy who is a lock first and foremost is a real head scratcher.

Perhaps it shows that Foster is doing something to combat whatever the Irish are bringing in. Targeting their scrum is a solid plan and Barrett's experience in the engine room would add some firepower to that facet of the game. But the counterpoint is that the last time the All Blacks made a reactionary selection, it didn't work, in fact it was the same player. Why the All Blacks are even worrying about who another team is picking is somewhat worrying in itself.

Ennor's selection at least makes more sense, in that he is well suited to cover wing and midfield, but it's hard to really think he deserves it over Stephen Perofeta - given that the Blues fullback was initially picked in the squad presumably for that bench role. Furthermore, they have utility cover on the field anyway in Leicester Fainga'anuku.

On top of all this, Foster has literally been having to phone it in all week thanks to Covid-19. All of this means the most disjointed buildup to a season opening test match since the Baby Blacks in 1986.

But the issue is, it's not going to get any easier for quite a while. This is a very good opponent, who have come down here with the attitude that they can very much be the first Ireland team to not only win a test match, but a series in New Zealand. After that, the action moves to South Africa for the first time in four years, to face a world champion Springbok side who, along with the Irish and French, can look back at the last time they played the All Blacks and smile.

How many of these first five tests do the All Blacks win and lose? It's been impossible to find anyone who sees them 5-0 when they come home from South Africa, with the general consensus being that they will be doing well to keep it to 3-2.

That is, in All Black terms, an extremely bleak outlook. Foster, along with the capacity crowd that will flood into Eden Park, will be hoping that his roll of the dice doesn't turn into snake eyes.