Andy Farrell believes Ireland’s forthcoming tour of New Zealand will provide the “ultimate” test and serve as vital preparation for next year’s World Cup.
Head coach Farrell is eager to take his in-form team out of their comfort zone and on Tuesday named a 40-man selection for next month’s three-match series against the formidable All Blacks.
Ireland have impressed for much of the past 18 months, winning 12 of their last 13 fixtures, including a pulsating defeat of Ian Foster’s Kiwis in Dublin in the autumn.
Yet many of Farrell’s squad, which includes five uncapped players, are yet to experience international rugby outside Europe after the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancellation of a 2020 trip to Australia and last year’s proposed visit to Fiji.
With the countdown to the 2023 World Cup in France well under way, the Englishman is keen to build experience and is braced for a major examination of recent progress.
“Any good performance that you’ve seen over the last two years, we need to be better than that,” Farrell said of the upcoming trip.
“It’s different over there and that’s why touring for these lads is some important. We’ve missed it.
“We’ve lads on 20-plus caps who’ve never toured. Walking around Auckland or Wellington or Dunedin, it’s not like walking down Ballsbridge (area of Dublin which is home to the Aviva Stadium) and people winding the window down and saying how good you are.
“This is completely different; this is proper international rugby that doesn’t get any better and it’s exactly what we want at this moment in time.
“We’re so excited about taking this squad to probably the hardest place in world rugby to go to and finding out about ourselves.
“This is the ultimate, isn’t it? We’re talking about building towards a World Cup and what you want to do in those type of circumstances is test yourself against the best.”
Ireland will play Test matches on July 2, 9 and 16 in Auckland, Dunedin and Wellington respectively, with midweek clashes against the Maori All Blacks scheduled for June 29 and July 12.
The Irish have never beaten the All Blacks on New Zealand soil but have won three of the past five meetings between the countries.
Influential fly-half Johnny Sexton will captain the squad, which includes Test newcomers Ciaran Frawley, Joe McCarthy, Jimmy O’Brien, Jeremy Loughman and Cian Prendergast.
Robert Baloucoune, Andrew Conway, Chris Farrell and Ronan Kelleher were ruled out of contention by injury.
Speaking of Ulster wing Baloucoune, Farrell said: “He’s a few things going on in his hip that are muscular, it’s not structural damage, which is a good thing but the injury is set to be four to six weeks.
“Gutted for him, absolutely. We’re gutted for ourselves as coaches as well because this is the type of tour that’s made for people like Rob to show his worth on the big stage.
“This is the start of our World Cup campaign and we want players like Rob involved in that process.”
Farrell also insisted he has no concerns about how the Irish provinces finished the club season, nor their perceived struggles with powerful packs.
Leinster suffered a last-gasp loss to La Rochelle in the Champions Cup final at the end of May and then, like Ulster, tasted defeat in the United Rugby Championship semi-finals just last weekend.
Munster made it as far as the quarter-finals of both competitions, while Connacht failed to make the URC playoffs.
Farrell said: “A lot gets said about Ireland and are they playing like Munster? Are they playing like Leinster? Are they playing like Ulster? Etcetera.
“We’re Ireland, we’re our own team, you know? We play our own way and we’ve come up against big teams before and been unbelievably physical.
“I think we’ve done pretty well of late in that type of scenario, so no, it doesn’t affect us at all.”