Day the crowd dared to sense a magical day
It was rugby’s version of McGuigan going toe-to-toe with Pedrosa
One hundred and twenty two Test matches later and rugby’s greatest ever flanker, arguably the most influential All Black of all time, is one of just two survivors from the all too brief tremor that occurred on November 17th, 2001.
Two minutes into the second half Brian O’Driscoll glided outside Andrew Merhtens, enticing Anton Oliver and Doug Howlett into a gang tackle before a one-handed offload gifted Denis Hickie the easiest of his 29 international tries.
It was the same Havelock Square corner that Gordon Hamilton frightened the life out of Australia in 1991 and Mick Galwey met his sister in 1993. With the foundations of the old ground still shaking, David Humphreys skewered the conversion but Ireland had galloped into a commanding 21-7 lead.
Glutton for punishment
Humphreys was magnificent and fragile all in the same game, kicking wonderfully from hand while an inside dummy to the glutton for punishment that was Keith Wood after just 11 minutes allowed him put Kevin Maggs under the posts.
“I made damn sure whenever Lomu got the ball I was right beside him so I could jump on his back and wait for the cavalry to arrive,” said Horgan.
The perfect mix of boot, bullock and skill, the crowd dared to sense a magical day was upon them.
This was the day the spell would finally be broken; it was rugby’s version of McGuigan going toe-to-toe with Pedrosa.
Humphreys ensured Ireland’s jab landed with regular venom to leave it 16-7 at the turn.
Then came O’Driscoll’s uppercut.
What followed was a chillingly clinical response.
The dream quickly transcended into blackness.
Before Lomu swatted him aside for the defining try, Humphreys landed a drop goal to make it 24-19. There were 19 minutes remaining.
It was more than enough for the All Blacks, who tightened the screw, then tightened it a little more.
The attrition told as Horgan was followed off the field by John Hayes.
“They’ve just slipped into auto-pilot,” said Philip Matthews in the commentary box of the Irish players.
The young McCaw and Byron Kelleher swarmed, clearing and creating, as it eventually finished 40-29.
The dying kick of the Irish maul shunted Gary Longwell over to restore pride but little else.
We hadn’t won too much as a group of players back then so I don’t know how much belief there was that we could beat New Zealand. In contrast, they are always 100 per cent certain that they are destined to win against us. But it was a young touring team . . . beforehand Gatland wrote out the names of both sides and we had way more caps. So it wasn’t as daunting.
There isn’t an arrogance with New Zealand players, that’s more South Africa, but if you are an All Black you are keenly aware of the history and what it means to wear the jersey. So losing to Ireland is not really an option.
We weren’t as well conditioned as we could have been, but we stopped playing as well that day ... the stress levels just begin to build up.
You’ve got nothing to lose at the start of the game against them so you try stuff. But after building a lead, all of a sudden it starts to dawn on fellas they have a chance to beat the All Blacks. The discipline is to keep on trying things, to keep on attacking, because once you go into your shell against New Zealand ... they sense that and speed up the game.
In 2001, they weren’t ready for our ingenuity and skill level as they had never experienced that before from an Irish side. It’s harder to catch them on the hop nowadays.
It was probably as good a position any Irish team has had to beat the All Blacks. It was certainly the biggest lead. A bit like a horse race, maybe we got out in front too early.
Looking back now, Irish rugby wasn’t at the level of organisation or skill as New Zealand. You could argue that we are still not.
To give you an idea what I mean, seven years after that game I was walking past my old school St Mary’s College when I saw an under-13s match. For a ruck in the middle pitch both teams had full defensive systems in place, the pillars either side and players spread out correctly. When we played the All Blacks in 2001 we didn’t even have that. Mike Ford hadn’t been appointed as the first Irish defensive coach yet. Matt Williams had just returned from Australia with defensive systems picked up from Rugby League for Leinster.
For Chris Jack’s try, he picked from the ruck near our line and Peter Stringer was the only defender in his path. That wouldn’t happen now. Not even at under-13s.
So, we were as good as we thought we were but still had such a long way to go. The gap can still be there as the All Blacks have also improved.
It was a huge honour to lead the haka. Being part Maori was a factor in that. I think I put my hand up to do it. I was pretty worried about that and was practising full on all that week, trying to get it right because I knew mates and family back home would be critiquing it. The rhythm wasn’t quite there, it was a little fast.
But that was a big deal.
I certainly remember the ferocity and intensity Ireland brought. The details are a little scratchy now but we were under the pump at half-time. Some stern words were needed. I remember thinking afterwards, “Phew” as we were a young team and only getting some things together under John Mitchell.
I knew Richie McCaw from Canterbury, where he had made quite an impression in his first year at NPC level. It was his ability to get around the pitch, he was so fit, he turned up everywhere. He was just manic and he knew what he was doing.
Most games I played for Ireland merge into one, but that game stands out. We had a huge chance to win . . . It was a highlight of my career to face the haka but also one of the biggest disappointments because just after half- time, when Denis scored his try, we all had a feeling that it was a chance to make history and finally beat the All Blacks.
Unfortunately, Jonah Lomu had a massive impact on proceedings, causing mayhem, and they proved their greatness by coming back and winning comfortably.
It was a huge opportunity for us but one we weren’t ready to take. The team probably wasn’t mature enough to close out a game we should have won from the position we got into.
If Ireland got into a similar commanding lead on Sunday can they hold out? I think so. They are now a very experienced team. I would be much more confident now. They are a joy to watch.
IRELAND: G Dempsey (Terenure); S Horgan (Lansdowne); M Mullins (Young Munster, 59min), B O’Driscoll (Blackrock), K Maggs (Bath), D Hickie (St Mary’s); D Humphreys (Dungannon), P Stringer (Shannon); P Clohessy (Young Munster), K Wood (Harlequins), J Hayes (Shannon); Byrne (St Mary’s, 54), M Galwey (Shannon); Longwell (Ballymena 59), M O’Kelly (St Mary’s), E Miller (Terenure), D Wallace (Garryowen), AFoley (Shannon).
NEW ZEALAND: L MacDonald (Canterbury); D Howlett (Auckland), T Umaga (Wellington), A Mauger (Canterbury), K Lomu (Wellington); A Mehrtens (Canterbury), B Kelleher (Otago); G Feek (Canterbury); D Hewett (Canterbury, 63), A Oliver (Otago, capt), G Somerville, C Jack, N Maxwell , R Thorne, R McCaw, S Robertson (all Canterbury).
Referee: A Watson (S Africa).