Barbarians head coach Robbie Deans will go head to head with compatriot Joe Schmidt at Thomond Park on Thursday night believing his invitational side are set to face genuine World Cup contenders.
It may be a non-Test match against an Irish XV whose squad will be missing its normal Munster contingent, including national captain Paul O’Connell, due to their Pro12 final against Glasgow Warriors on Saturday, as well as some fellow key first-team frontliners from the other provinces.
Yet, former All Blacks full-back and Australia head coach Deans is not expecting his all-star outfit to come up against a weakened Irish side, but a group of players eager to impress ahead of this autumn’s World Cup.
“Ireland have developed some good depth in recent times and I’m not sure who Joe will have us lining up against, but whoever it is will have ambitions of being in the mix come October and we know we’re going to be constantly up against it,” Deans told the Irish Examiner in a phone interview conducted before he was linked with the current Leinster vacancy.
“They’re a good team and a highly-motivated group. Joe’s done very well and not only in the outcomes. You can see it in the growth of their game, the quality of the player pool, and they’ve been genuinely competitive against both northern- and southern-hemisphere teams.
“They were unlucky not to tip over the All Blacks and Joe and his players will go into the World Cup genuinely believing there’s no-one they can’t beat and I don’t know that that’s necessarily been the case for a long time. So they’re travelling well and they’ve got the experience required as well, because experienced teams go well in World Cups.”
Deans, currently coaching in Japan with the Panasonic Wild Knights, believes his fellow Kiwi has produced a genuine tournament favourite for what he predicts will be a wide-open World Cup in England with his native New Zealand no longer carrying an air of invincibility.
“They’re genuinely right there,”
said Deans, 55, who is relishing his brief tenure at the helm of the Barbarians as they celebrate their 125th anniversary with games against Ireland and England this weekend.
“It’s something I haven’t had the opportunity to do as a coach and it’s an honour to be included in the Barbarians concept. It’s still a very important one and it’s great to be involved. We get thrown together and are asked to make the most of it, but I’m sure the players are as excited as I am at being involved and, in a World Cup year, it has even more meaning. It’s not just the Irish players, there’s a few players in our squad who aspire to be involved in the World Cup and everyone has a chance to make the most of it. You don’t want to die wondering, so to speak.
“And the Irish combination will be very intent on playing some rugby themselves, as it’s an important part of their preparation towards the World Cup, so it’s a fascinating challenge. And conditions should be good for the game, certainly better than the last time I was there!”
Ah yes, Deans’s last visit was one of those never-to-be-forgotten nights at Thomond Park, not least for the appalling wind and ice-cold rain falling on Munster and Australia in November 2010 as the Wallabies came out second best to the Irish province and its climate in a 15-6 tour defeat.
From the comfort of his Japanese home and five years on, Deans laughs at the memory.
“Unbelievable, is the only way to describe that. I’ve seen some remarkable weather and my last first-class game as a player was at the southern tip of the South Island in the midst of a southerly gale off the Antarctic. I thought that was something else but, to be fair, Munster usurped it.
“So, I’m looking forward to experiencing some of your ‘great’ weather.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved