Foster hopes to shake COVID-19 and be ready for Ireland test

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·4-min read
FILE - New Zealand All Blacks head coach Ian Foster watches his players warmup ahead of the international rugby union match between Ireland and New Zealand, at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Nov. 13, 2021. All Blacks head coach Foster, assistant John Plumtree and two leading players have tested positive for COVID-19, Monday, June 27, 2002, which is severely disrupting the team's preparation for Saturday's first rugby test against Ireland. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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Head coach Ian Foster is confident he will be present at Auckland's Eden Park on Saturday when the All Blacks take on Ireland in the first of three rugby tests, a match which might be pivotal to his own career.

Foster has had little hands-on involvement with the All Blacks test preparation after testing positive for COVID-19 earlier this week. He has been isolating at home for several days, as have his assistants John Plumtree, Scott McLeod and Greg Feek, who also tested positive.

The All Blacks lineup Foster named on Thursday also has been partially shaped by the COVID outbreak among the squad. Winger Will Jordan and midfielders David Havili and Jack Goodhue were unavailable for selection after contracting the virus.

The All Blacks scarcely can afford such disruption to their build-up to a test against a team which has beaten them in three of their last five meetings, including 29-20 in their most-recent meeting last November — though never in New Zealand.

Saturday’s match shapes as an important one for Foster personally. Public confidence in his coaching ability already was low before New Zealand lost the last two tests of its northern hemisphere tour last year to Ireland and France.

Another loss on Saturday, which would end New Zealand’s almost 30-year winning streak in Auckland, likely will add urgency to the debate over whether Foster is the right man to lead New Zealand to the World Cup in France next year.

Foster’s first priority will to rejoin his team. He said he was felling “a bit dusty” earlier in the week but has been much improved in recent days.

“I’m looking forward to joining the team on Saturday morning,” he said.

The loss of three players to COVID forced Foster to make some changes to his intended starting XV for Saturday’s match. In the absence of Jordan, a prolific try-scorer, the All Blacks have switched Sevu Reece from the left to the right wing and handed Leicester Fainga’anuku a test debut on the left wing.

Foster’s boldest call wasn’t forced on him by COVID. He has chosen the Crusaders lock Scott Barrett on the blindside flank in a move which seems to give the All Blacks height and bulk to match the large Ireland pack.

Foster suggested regular blindside Akira Ioane has a foot injury but the selection of Barrett seems an attempt to address an obvious problem. All Blacks fans with long memories have pointed out Barrett has started at No. 6 only one previously in his 48-test career and on that occasion England beat New Zealand in a 2019 World Cup semifinal.

“I didn’t spend too long thinking about the 2019 game,” Foster said. “We took some lessons from that. It’s something we’ve talked to Scott before about. Apart from his set piece acumen he’s bringing a bruising defense and ball carrying."

Ireland had a hiccup in the first match of its New Zealand tour, losing 32-17 to the New Zealand Maori in Hamilton. A young and inexperienced Ireland team couldn’t recover from a slow start which saw the Maori score four tries and led 32-10 at halftime.

Head coach Andy Farrell is confident that loss won’t affect the morale of the test side, few of whom were involved in Wednesday’s match.

“I know they have one or two injuries, and so do we, but at the same time they could pick four teams in New Zealand and they’d be unbelievably hard to compete against,” Farrell said. “We’re under no illusions what we’re up against at the weekend."

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Lineups:

New Zealand: Jordie Barrett, Sevu Reece, Rieko Ioane, Quinn Tupaea, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (captain), Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Ofa Tuungafasi, Codie Taylor, George Bower. Reserves: Samisoni Taukei’aho, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Angus Ta’avao, Pita Gus Sowakula, Dalton Papalii, Finlay Christie, Richie Mo’unga, Braydon Ennor.

Ireland: Hugo Keenan, Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe, Johnny Sexton (captain), Jamison Gibson Park; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahoney, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Tadgh Furlong, Dan Sheehan, Andrew Porter. Reserves: Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Cian Healy, Kieran Treadwell, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Joey Carbery, Bundee Aki.

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