Ireland v New Zealand. Or Underdogs v Down Underdogs
Against the All Blacks, it’s David v Goliath. The problem is that Goliath thinks he’s David too
Dog days: Brian O’Driscoll after the Australia match last Saturday. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
Here we go again. Another trip to Lansdowne Road to sit, half-frozen, while hoping, hoping, losing hope, maybe finding it again, that Ireland will beat the All Blacks. Or, at least, that we’ll lose by only three points, having been robbed in the last minute by some technicality in the scrum law that doesn’t even exist yet.
And here we go again. Underdogs once more. Written off. Nothing to lose. It’s a recurring theme in the national narrative. It’s been the recurring line of the build-up. Here’s Brian O’Driscoll: “No one gives us a chance, which is a good place to be.”
Hold on, that quote’s from last year, when we were thumped in the first test in New Zealand.
Here he is this week. “No one will give us a chance, but I’m the eternal optimist, so I still believe we can beat them . . . Everyone will write us off, but I’m okay with that.”
This is where we are most comfortable and, supposedly, most dangerous. Backs against the wall. Pride teetering on the edge of a cliff. Anecdotally, instinctively, somewhat evidentially, we know Irish teams thrive on being underdogs, much as we know they struggle when expected to win.
Last year, after humiliation in the first test, Ireland came within a whisker of beating the All Blacks in the second. That’s how it works. But we also know that it works only once. We got walloped in the third test, because we’d had our chance and it was gone.
When Dublin’s hurlers beat Kilkenny in the Leinster semi-final replay this year, the surprise wasn’t just that they’d won but that they’d done it at the second attempt. Underdogs are not supposed to do that.
Underdogs get all the fun lines, though. Favourites do not stand in changing rooms in the minutes before a match while the captain bellows a rousing speech along the lines of “Everyone expects us to win, so let’s go out there and show them they’re right.”
Instead they must dampen expectations and talk up their opponents – while their opponents have it both ways: they write themselves off so as to talk themselves up. A week of self-deprecation doubles as motivational mantra. They create a narrative in which they can emerge as heroes, but not losers, because they are already written off as losers.
Still, its psychological powers must be used sparingly. Here’s John Muldoon of Connacht before a recent match against Saracens. “Nobody is giving us a chance, so it is a great opportunity for us to go out as underdogs, as we have hundreds of times before.”
Familiar stuff, and they nearly won that game, but the “hundreds of times” line perhaps offers a clue to the province’s more regular problem. As the former Argentine captain Augustin Pichot put it this week: “The underdog thing, it looks well in the press leading up, it looks well in the changing room at some stages. But if you construct that all the time, you’re not good enough.”
On a national level, being a small country in the shadow of a giant helps fuel the underdog attutude. “It’s part of our identity as a nation: we’re a small country, our identity is tied up in our sport and we do very, very well at it on all scales,” the sports-psychology professor Gary Hermansson has said. “The difficulty is that when the pressure goes on, and expectations are high from us as a nation . . . We tend to struggle a little bit.”
Which is all sound, except that he was talking about not Ireland but New Zealand.
He was discussing Kiwi sporting attitudes in the aftermath of the America’s Cup team blowing an 8-1 lead against the US. But those who view New Zealand’s all-conquering strength in rugby as breeding a concomitant arrogance overlook the power of the underlying underdog spirit that runs through the New Zealand psyche.
A small island(s) country overshadowed by a neighbour, it has a deep-rooted inferiority complex that is very familiar to the Irish. Its dominance of rugby matters to an extraordinary degree; its national mood is bound with the success of the All Blacks in a way equivalent to county moods during championship weekends here.
That pressure crippled the All Blacks in several World Cups before they finally, and through great fortune, dragged themselves over the line in 2011. But their perennial favouritism, followed by inevitable collapse, arguably saw them enter tournaments as both David and Goliath.
Tomorrow the All Blacks play Ireland while carrying the pressure of knowing they can become the first team in the professional era to win every match in a year. We know who’s David and who’s Goliath.
Yet much of the drive behind the All Blacks’ greatness is that they enter the field as Goliath but come from a nation that still sees itself as David. Very occasionally, though, that is also their weakness. We can only hope it’s one of those occasions. This underdog would like that day it has been promised.