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.”