Ireland’s horrible history to continue against the All Blacks
From the blindside: Alan Quinlan column
Gary Longwell of Ireland gets up close and personal in Timaru in 2002
When you retire from sport, you look back. It’s only natural. You look back on what you achieved, of course, but you can’t help also looking back at what you weren’t able to achieve. Every Irish rugby player in history has ended their career with one thing in common – none of us have beaten the All Blacks. It doesn’t matter if we’ve one cap or over a 100, none of us have been able to do it.
People look for loads of different reasons for it but on one level, it’s very, very simple. You never play a poor New Zealand team. You might get a game against one where a few players are having an off day but you never find them vulnerable as a collective.
They are the one sure thing in rugby, guaranteed not to hand you the game.
Funny enough, the odd time you find them slightly off their game generally comes when you play them in New Zealand. Ireland have come close a few times in the past two decades or so and on each occasion where we nearly pulled off a result, we were on tour. Dunedin in 1992 and 2002, Hamilton in 2006.
I’m not sure exactly why that would be the case but I suppose if ever an All Blacks team is going to have a small bit of complacency about them, it will be when they’re playing at home against a team they’ve never lost to.
I was there in 2002 and 2006 and while Ireland played very well both days and were gutted not to come away with the win, New Zealand probably felt like they had taken us a bit lightly.
It must be tempting for them. They’re always aware we’ve never beaten them. I’ve always found them very sound off the pitch and very respectful but you can see that somewhere in their minds is the certainty that comes with never losing against us.
Weather the storm
You just know for a fact that they have this mindset that Ireland will throw the kitchen sink at them and as long as they weather the storm, they’ll take care of the result in the end. It might piss us off but until we beat them, who are we to argue?
The fact we’ve never beaten them isn’t what you’d call an elephant in the room. By that I mean, it’s not something players avoid talking about in the build-up to games against them. Every Irish player knows our record is terrible against them and nobody hides from it. It certainly concentrates the mind – you’re in no doubt if you go out to play them and you’re not completely tuned in, then it could end up being a pretty ugly scoreline.
My first experience of them was on that 2002 tour. I had got injured in a warm-up game so I was on crutches for the first test in Dunedin and I was a bit intimidated, to be honest. Maybe it was because I had a bit of time to think about it, knowing I wouldn’t be involved.
But it all just seemed like such a huge step up from anything I had done before. New Zealand rugby just had this aura about it as far as I was concerned. I remember that night seeing Jonah Lomu walk into the stadium and it suddenly became very real what we were about to face. It was intimidating and nerve-racking and I wasn’t even playing in the match.
In the dressingroom though, Keith Wood had a completely different take on things. I’ll never forget it. He was just so excited to be there, to have this chance to do something no Irish team had ever done before. He was walking around to fellas and buzzing with determination to go out and take this opportunity.
I remember watching him and seeing exactly why he was such a great captain and a great leader. By the time he was finished talking, I was totally fired up. Any bit of me that had felt intimidated was gone and I wanted to throw away the crutches there and then and get a jersey on me.
Ireland were really unlucky not to win that night – it was the famous game with the yellow ball – and by the time I got on the pitch the following week, I was so revved up I got a yellow card within a minute of coming off the bench. We lost 40-8, having conceded a handful of tries when I was in the bin.
However close Ireland have come over the years, the lesson handed out by Woody in the dressingroom that night in Dunedin has always stayed with me. Ireland’s record against the All Blacks can’t be treated like some unspoken bogeyman. It’s always mentioned within the camp and it should be mentioned. It has to be the carrot dangling there every time you play them. Beat them and you’ll always have that against your name.
Doing it this time around will be tougher than ever. They will be looking to go through their tour unbeaten and certainly won’t be in the least bit intimidated by the atmosphere in the Aviva. Anyone who watched them against South Africa a couple of weeks ago in a genuinely menacing -atmosphere will know it doesn’t bother them in the slightest. They go out with the attitude of “We’re the All Blacks, you can’t intimidate us”.
Some day an Irish team will beat them. And when they do it once, I don’t think it will take a huge amount of time before they do it again. There’s a big psychological hurdle to jump there and whatever Ireland team manages to do it will then have that in their locker every time they meet them.
But they have to do it first. And the one thing we can be sure of is the All Blacks won’t give it to them on a plate. That’s what will make it so satisfying when it happens.
2002 Tour: A long way down
The tour in 2002 was tough from the start. Actually, even from before the start because the Munster players went into it on the back of losing the Heineken Cup final. The journey there was about as long a one as you could take. Dublin to London. London to Singapore. Singapore to Auckland. Auckland to Christchurch. And finally a three-hour bus journey from Christchurch to the fairly remote town of Timaru.
We played a divisional side a few days later but what stuck with me most was the schools game that was being played on the pitch in Timaru as a curtain-raiser to our game. I remember standing there watching these 18-year-olds who were light years more developed than the 18-year-olds back in Ireland, both in terms of physique and in terms of the standard of their rugby. The intensity of it was miles above anything you would have seen in the schools game back home. I was blown away.
Later on in our game, I got injured after 20 minutes when Gary Longwell fell on me awkwardly and I strained the medial ligaments in my knee. Standing on crutches, full sure that my tour was over, I felt a long way from home that night. If you’re not careful, New Zealand can do that to you. It wasn’t until Woody’s speech in the dressingroom the following week that I got a better sense of how you might go about beating them.