By DUNCAN JOHNSTONE - Stuff
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw says he has never had an easy game against Ireland and expects nothing to change when the two sides clash in New Plymouth on Saturday night.
McCaw will be playing his 81st test and his ninth against the Irish.
The men in green hold special memories for McCaw who made his test debut against Ireland in Dublin in 2001, helping secure a 40-29 win.
But the All Blacks trailed 21-7 early in the second half and only got home on the back of a strong final quarter.
That has been a regular pattern for McCaw's tangles with the Irish as he has helped the All Blacks maintain a remarkable unbeaten run over 22 tests dating back to 1905.
There have been some tight tussles in McCaw's time - 15-6 in Dunedin in 2002, 34-23 in Hamilton followed by 27-17 at Auckland in 2006 and 21-11 in the big freeze in Wellington two years ago.
While the Irish tour here on the back of a mixed Six Nations and disappointing loss to the British Barbarians last weekend - complicated by injuries - they have nothing but respect from McCaw.
"I've never had an easy one against them," McCaw declared in New Plymouth.
"It's always been a match where you have had to play well to get the result you wanted.
"They are a physical side, especially up front. They have a lot of guys who have played a lot of tests together now and all it takes is a bit of belief to get a bit of momentum. They have had that and they will come here thinking that they can perform as well as they have done.
"I don't think they will do too much different from what has worked for them in the past ... it will take a while to get on top."
McCaw felt the Irish were a good measuring stick for the 2010 All Blacks and he was happy to hit them so early in the test season.
"You are straight into it and you have to perform. That's what you want - you don't want to go into a game against a team you should put 50 or 60 on.
"Ireland are a team that we are going to have to perform against to win. I can see we have that attitude from the first few days of training which is great."
McCaw will go head to head with Irish openside David Wallace.
The All Blacks confirmed that No 8 Kieran Read would be the cover for McCaw at flanker if there were any injuries. Victor Vito would come off the bench to play at the back of the scrum leaving Jerome Kaino at blindside.
Vito's versatility and general skills have given him an early edge over Otago loose forward Adam Thomson who will have to wait till the tests against Wales to get his chance in the ultra-competitive No 6 jersey.
The coaches suggested Thomson still needed to refine his skills at the tackle ball situations, an area that has troubled his All Blacks career in the past and one of constant adjustment as rugby continues to tweak the rulings at the breakdowns.