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COVID strikes down All Blacks again

Powerhouse wing Leicester Fainga’anuku will make his All Blacks debut after being named Thursday in the side to start the first Test against Ireland as Covid struck down another New Zealand coach.

Canterbury Crusaders standout Fainga’anuku will start on New Zealand’s left wing at Eden Park in Auckland on Saturday, while another uncapped Pacific Islands-born player, bruising Waikato Chiefs forward Pita Gus Sowakula, will be on the bench.

Ireland coach Andy Farrell named all four of his New Zealand-born players in the match-day 23 for the opening Test of a three-match series.

Jamison Gibson-Park will start at scrum-half with James Lowe on the wing while Joey Carbery and Bundee Aki, who captained Ireland against the Maori All Blacks on Wednesday, are on the bench.

They are joined in the replacements by Cian Healy, despite the veteran prop limping off during the 32-17 defeat in Hamilton.

Powerhouse wing Leicester Fainga’anuku will make his All Blacks debut after being named Thursday in the side to start the first Test against Ireland as Covid struck down another New Zealand coach. Picture: Flickr

Veteran fly-half Johnny Sexton will captain the side in his 106th international.

All Blacks scrum guru Greg Feek on Thursday became the seventh member of the New Zealand coaching or playing staff to test positive for Covid-19 tis week.

Head coach Ian Foster, who also tested positive and has been in isolation along with assistants John Plumtree and Scott McLeod, conceded that the disrupted build-up had not been ideal.

“Clearly it’s been intriguing but it is what it is,” said Foster, who could be cleared to rejoin the team on Saturday.

“We’re excited with the team we’re putting out there and it doesn’t change that there’s a statement that we want to make on the first Test of the year,” he said via video link.

Second-row forward Scott Barrett was a surprise choice at blindside flanker, after niggles to Akira Ioane and Dalton Papalii.

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Barrett’s last start in the unfamiliar role came in the 2019 World Cup semi-final defeat to England where he was replaced at half-time, leading to widespread criticism.

“I don’t spend too long thinking about the 2019 game,” Foster said. “This one, we’re very clear about the strategy.

‘Unbelievably hard’

“He’s bringing a bruising defence and a ball-carrying art to his game now. He’s probably our most dynamic lock ball-carrier at the moment so we can probably utilise that a little bit at six.”

The powerful 22-year-old Fainga’anuku replaces Will Jordan, who is one of three players with Covid, along with Jack Goodhue and David Havili.

Farrell said the All Blacks can cope with the disruption better than any international team, pointing to the quality of the Maori performance in outclassing his midweek side.

“They could pick four teams in New Zealand and they’ll be unbelievably hard to compete against,” said Farrell, who stressed his team will need to perform better than when beating New Zealand in Dublin last November.

“We’re under no illusions what we’re up against,” said Farrell.

“Any type of performance that we’ve had before, where we’ve managed to get over the line, that won’t do this weekend. I’m sure about that.

“Hopefully you put the package together and the opposition have a bit of an off-day at the same time.”

New Zealand on Thursday called up Auckland Blues wing Mark Telea and Wellington Hurricanes prop Tyrel Lomax as cover for Jordan and Laulala.

New Zealand (15-1): Jordie Barrett; Sevu Reece, Reiko Ioane, Quinn Tupaea, Leicester Fainga’anuku; Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (capt), Scott Barrett; Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick; Ofa Tuungafasi, Codie Taylor, George Bower.

Replacements: Samisoni Taukei’aho, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Angus Ta’avao, Pita Gus Sowakula, Dalton Papalii, Finlay Christie, Richie Mo’unga, Braydon Ennor.

Ireland (15-1): Hugo Keenan; Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Robbie Henshaw, James Lowe; Johnny Sexton (capt), Jamison Gibson-Park; Caelan Doris, Josh van der Flier, Peter O’Mahony; James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne; Tadhg Furlong, Dan Sheehan, Andrew Porter.

Replacements: Dave Heffernan, Finlay Bealham, Cian Healy, Kieran Treadwell, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Joey Carbery, Bundee Aki.

© Agence France-Presse

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