The memories of end of season trips to the Southern Hemisphere have proven hard wired for Irish rugby supporters, with 1992 a particular reference point for the Mole. Perhaps in that light, I see shadows where none exist but the overseas’ view of Irish rugby 16 years into professionalism and six European Cups later still tends toward “great passion at the start; contain for one hour; run out of steam; pints of the black stuff”.
The 1992 tour saw Ireland almost pull off one of the greatest shocks of all time as a patched up national team played out of their skins before losing 24-21. That was followed a week later by a 59-6 annihilation that was depressingly predictable. The build up to the tour had seen a number of prominent players withdraw from the trip due to work commitments. Some of the withdrawals didn’t seem that convincing back then and little has changed my opinion in the interim two decades.
How different was then and now? The Mole remembers an anecdote about a member of the backline swapping his kit with NZ centre Eroni Clarke after the second test. Clarke couldn’t get the Irish player’s knicks past his thighs – these Kiwis were a different breed, rugby supermen! What chance had we?! Ireland were whitewashed in the 1992 Five Nations, beaten 38-9 by England and 44-12 by France. The All Ireland League had just started in 1991 and had been heartily embraced throughout the country, particularly in Munster. However, the step up to the international game proved hard for many and Irish international results didn’t noticeably improve until Warren Gatland took over, by which stage Ulster had won a European Cup and Munster had reached their first final.
What does this have to do with a dead rubber third test? The Mole is looking for a big performance and hopefully a result against a team we’ve never beaten. Irish teams have always had it in them to produce a big performance and the occasionally condescending attitude of opponents sometimes helps. There’s still a “doff the cap” attitude to bloody New Zealand in Ireland. They’re not the All Blacks, they’re bloody New Zealand – let’s just re-emphasise that one and thank Matty for broadcasting it. If Ireland don’t produce a big performance then serious question marks remain about Kidney’s ability to develop the national team past it’s stout’n’spuds stereotype.
Kidney is on record about the differences between test matches and all other games. Hearing Richie McCaw echo those sentiments last week reinforced those arguments. What are the differences? The Mole is of the opinion that weaknesses get exploited more ruthlessly the higher up you go – that is, it’s more about avoiding risk than chasing reward. Ireland’s selection looks solid and should be able to replicate last week’s tempo and physicality. If they can, then a Carter-less, Read-less NZ are there to be shot at. At some stage we need to believe we can win this fixture.
The second test reminded the Mole of the game against France in Paris this year: quick line speed, aggressive defence and some opportunism. NZ weren’t provided with loose kicks and ruck ball on a plate. There was comment before the game that Kidney had selected a team to keep the score down. Turned out that worked alright – avoidance of risk. It still raises questions about selection, particularly about some sacred cows. For example, Tommy Bowe is a great try scorer but he’s a poor tackler, as is Rob Kearney. Paul O’Connell is totemic, but he’s a liability as a primary ball carrier.
Fergus McFadden’s “dog” was praised by O’Driscoll in his interview with Thornley and Ireland’s captain was explicit about its importance “I just think there’s a switch that changes when you go out on the pitch and pull a green jersey on. I’ve talked to Rog about it, and you can see it in him. It’s the desire, and you can see it in guys that don’t. And the guys that have it are the ones you want beside you. It’s the ones that have that dog in them. I love that mentality, and it’s infectious. You want to play harder for someone like that.”
Another memory of 1992 is the anecdote about John Kirwan and Neville Furlong of UCG. Furlong was an army man, provided the opportunity to travel by the withdrawal of more established names. Furlong had marked Kirwan, a giant of NZ rugby at the time, when Auckland had hosed Ireland 62-7 before the first test and had to depart with an injury. During the second test the two were matched again and Kirwan took no time in reminding Furlong of their respective pedigrees. Injury struck Furlong again but he stuck at his task and found himself on the end of a move that delivered Ireland’s only try. Limping back to the halfway line, Furlong questioned Kirwan, “Hey Kirwan, call yourself the best winger in the world? You couldn’t even tackle a cripple.” And years later at the end of his career, Kirwan still remembered it!
For all the talk of tactics and technique, is it not the dog that in large part decides who wins? Can Ireland provide the “dog” necessary to beat New Zealand? If they can, will a re-invigorated coaching ticket return to their sacred cows? Or will they be able to bottle that feeling? Lots going on in a dead rubber. We should play these guys more often…