Steve Hansen and his All Blacks arrived in Dublin on Sunday night expecting to face Conor Murray in a contest with Ireland he believes will be a battle to be the best in the world.
A day after Ireland boss Joe Schmidt said it was “highly unlikely” Murray would play his first game since June this Saturday against New Zealand, the world champions’ head coach said he was convinced the scrum-half will be lining up against his team in a sell-out contest between the numbers one and two-ranked Test teams in rugby.
The 29-year-old Munster number nine has twice enjoyed victory over the All Blacks, when Ireland won for the first time in Chicago in 2016 and seven months later for the British and Irish Lions in the second Test in Wellington.
Yet has not played since helped the national team to a series win over the Wallabies on June 23 and though he joined the part of the Ireland training squad based at Carton House two weeks ago, Schmidt said on Saturday that any decision for Murray to play would be the layers alone.
“It’s not the injury,” Schmidt said following the 28-17 victory over Argentina. “It’s really how ready Conor is and how fully fit he is. It is tough to throw him into a game of this magnitude, so it’s highly unlikely that he will be involved.”
Hansen believes Murray will be itching to play and having arrived in Dublin following the All Black’s 16-15 win over England at Twickenham on Saturday, the World Cup-winning coach said of Ireland: “They’re a good team. Tactically they’re smart, they’re good in the air, I’m assuming Conor Murray will play, they have a good spine. He and Sexton are two of the best players in the world, so they'll drive them around the park good.”
Asked if it was a risk to select a player who had not played a minute of rugby since June, Hansen referenced Brodie Retallick, the All Blacks lock laid off with injury from August to October but who played against England at the weekend.
"Brodie Retallick hadn't played too much either, so.... big players will get up and if they think they're right to play then let them play. They're competitors, Conor Murray's a real competitor. If he says he's right to play, let him play."
Mind games or not, and there is a sense the All Blacks coach is almost goading Murray to play, Hansen believes this is his side’s most significant game of the season, a clash between the top two-ranked teams in rugby.
"Well, it's one and two so whoever wins will be the best team in the world, regardless of rankings that's what people will take out of it. It will be a goodie.
“We don't have to talk about it because there's enough experience in the group to know that this is the type of game where they don't get any bigger.
“We talked about last week being a big game, and 80,000 people in the stadium and England only being beaten once in the last 16 or 17 games at home, and Ireland haven't been beaten too often at home either and they're the number two side in the world.
“So you don't get to play one and two that often, we're in two different hemispheres, so when they do come about they become pretty big games.”
Asked what he liked about Ireland, Hansen replied: “Well, they win. There is a lot to like about that. They’ve built a game that suits them, they’ve got a lot of depth. They’ve lost O’Brien yesterday and the fella comes on and plays just as good. So they’ll be a strong side.
“I think the last few times we've played Ireland they've been good Test matches, was it in '13 we won after the bell, in Chicago they won and we had to work really hard the next time.
“So I think there's a fierce rivalry there and both packs will want to dominate and it's about getting all that stuff right and seeing who comes out on top.”