Andy Farrell says his experimental Ireland side face the “biggest game of their lives” after selecting five uncapped players to take on the Maori All Blacks.
Leinster’s Ciaran Frawley will start at fly-half, with provincial team-mate Jimmy O’Brien at full-back in a team captained by New Zealand-born centre Bundee Aki.
Munster prop Jeremy Loughman, Leinster lock Joe McCarthy and Connacht flanker Cian Prendergast are the other international rookies included.
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Wednesday’s match in Hamilton marks the start of Ireland’s summer tour, with the first of three Tests against New Zealand coming on Saturday in Auckland.
The Irish will also play the Maori team for a second time on July 12 in Wellington.
Speaking of the significance of the tour opener, head coach Farrell said: “It’s huge. It’s everything to these players that are taking the field on Wednesday, it is the biggest game of their lives. It is.
“I know there is a three-game series coming up but these two Maori games for us and what we’re trying to build and how we’re trying to put people under pressure and see how they come through, that is just as important.
“If I can say it that way, I think that speaks it all really.”
Farrell’s plans for the All Blacks have already taken a hit due to Ulster lock Iain Henderson being ruled out of the entire series with a knee issue sustained in training.
Injury has also deprived him of hooker Rob Herring for the opening two matches of the tour, while wing Mack Hansen is currently unavailable after contracting Covid-19.
“We’ve one case and we could have a few more cases by the end of the week, we don’t know,” said Farrell.
🗣️ "It's everything to these players who are taking the field on Wednesday. The biggest game of their lives."
Head Coach Andy Farrell spoke to media in Auckland on Tuesday after naming his Ireland team to face the Māori All Blacks 🟢#TeamOfUs | #MABvIREAdvertisement
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“This is the way of the world, isn’t it? The motto of the tour is definitely being adaptable.”
New Zealand’s plans have been more severely affected by coronavirus.
Head coach Ian Foster and his assistants John Plumtree and Scott McLeod have been forced to isolate following positive tests, in addition to centres David Havili and Jack Goodhue.
Former Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt has been called up to help prepare the All Blacks for the sold-out weekend clash at Eden Park, with the disruption potentially denying Farrell a planned catch-up with his predecessor.
“I’m not sure it’s head to head – I’m sure Fozzy (Foster) will be around somewhere,” Farrell said of coming up against Schmidt.
“Joe is just there helping out being an extra pair of hands and I’m sure just fitting into the system.
“I’m supposed to be meeting him for a coffee on Thursday – I don’t know whether that’s out the question now.
“What can he bring? He’s coming into a system that he probably doesn’t know as well. It’s not his system.
“I’m sure he’s just bringing his one-to-one expertise and giving advice to the coaches and that’s pretty profound, so I’m sure they’ll all try and learn something from him.”
Native Kiwi Aki is one of only three players with more than six caps in Ireland’s maiden starting XV, alongside Jordan Larmour (30) and Keith Earls (96).
Wings Larmour and Earls will line up either side of newcomer O’Brien, while Aki will pair with James Hume in midfield and Frawley will form a half-back partnership with Craig Casey.
Hooker Dave Heffernan, who has played six Test matches, is the most-experienced international in a forward pack containing just 17 caps combined.
He will be joined in the front row by loosehead Loughman and tighthead Tom O’Toole, with McCarthy partnering Kieran Treadwell in the lock positions, and Gavin Coombes in the centre of the back row, in between blindside Prendergast and openside Nick Timoney.