Matt Williams: Ireland’s running game and physicality can unsettle New Zealand

The All Blacks are filthy, dirty and angry at Ireland for beating them in Dublin last November

The Maori people named it Aotearoa. Which loosely translated means the ‘”land of the long white cloud”. In 1642 Dutch sea Capt Able Tasman landed there and the name Nieuw Zeeland was printed on to Dutch maps of the time. No matter what we call it, it’s a stunning place.

Whether it is surfing the powerful waves on the volcanic black sandy shores of Ngarunui Beach on the North Island or tasting the gorgeous Pinot Noir wines grown in the magnificent Gibbston valley in the shadow of the Southern Alps, this land of enormous beauty will rock whatever the adventure is you are seeking. I love the place.

Of course, all that changes if you go there to play rugby. Then all the welcome mats are pulled, yesterday’s leftovers are served up as dinner and you are as popular as the rats under the house.

Like no other sport in any other country in the world, the New Zealand national rugby team personifies the people and in return, the nation places its self-worth on the performances of those who wear the black jersey.

The team represents the people and the people, every last one of them, are as one with the team.

When you go to New Zealand to play rugby you have to be ready for what is coming at you because it is a unique experience from anywhere else on the planet. The Kiwi nation unites behind their team to fight off the invader. To have cars driving past your hotel at 2am the night before a match with horns blaring is not unheard of.

On one trip to Aoetrora, I had the privilege of having a long talk with a Maori elder. He explained to me that the purpose of the Haka was to both challenge and intimidate their opponent. Historically the more fierce the Haka before a battle, the more likely your opponent was to reconsider having the fight and break off to high tail it home.

As New Zealand as a nation has so wonderfully embraced the Maori culture, The Haka, is now a serious and widespread cultural practice.

So when the New Zealanders form up in a wedge behind their captain and deliver their controversial Kapa o Pango, or as we call it, the throat-slitting Haka, you better be ready.

Here is a translation of what the New Zealanders will be screaming at the men in green.

All Blacks, let us become one with the land.

This is our land that rumbles

It’s our time! Our moment!

This defines us as All Blacks

It’s our time! Our moment!

Our dominance

Our supremacy will triumph

And be placed on high

Silver Ferm

All Blacks

Silver Fern

All Blacks

As the saying goes, the Kiwis are not here to put socks on centipedes. They are in the business of winning.

Nothing personifies the cult status of rugby in New Zealand more than their high temple, Eden Park.

If you can stretch your imagination to consider a national treasure like Croke Park, being placed on a long-term programme of jingoistic steroids and ego-driven animal adrenal gland injections, then you are still a long way off from what Eden Park represents to New Zealand rugby.

Think St Peter’s Basilica, Machu Picchu, Fatima, the Coliseum and Ibiza all rolled into one alter of human sacrifice, national supremacy and entertainment. Eden Park is the beating heart of how the New Zealanders indoctrinate themselves with the belief that their team is invincible. A belief system that has miraculously moved from myth to fact.

The last time New Zealand lost a game at Eden Park was when a free-spirited French team created one of rugby’s greatest explosive upsets when they defeated New Zealand 20-23 in 1994.

Since that day across 44 consecutive matches, New Zealand has not been bettered at Eden Park. Not one of the current New Zealand squad has ever witnessed a defeat at Eden Park in their lifetime.

Uncomfortably for Ireland, the national rugby team of New Zealand are filthy, dirty, and angry at Ireland for beating them out the gate in Dublin last November. It was a commanding Irish performance as they defeated New Zealand in a manner that the Kiwis have rarely experienced.

Legitimately, the Kiwis claim that the match was the last across almost five months of living, or more accurately existing, inside a Covid biosecurity bubble. Because of strict Covid restrictions at home, New Zealand were forced to play all of their 2021 Rugby Championship matches in Australia before moving their bubble to Europe for the November Internationals.

The mental exhaustion the New Zealanders endured under such harsh restrictions, without doubt, affected their performance.

While that in no way detracts from the excellence of Ireland’s victory (“Mate, take a look at the scoreboard!”) it does toss a bucket of petrol on to the fire of Kapa o Pango-driven revenge that is burning deep inside New Zealand hearts.

Yet if Ireland can create enough momentum to win just one Test, the benefits of self-belief and confidence that will be injected into the team cannot be overstated.

The World Cup-winning campaigns of England in 2003, South Africa in 2019, plus Australia in 1991 and 1999 all defeated New Zealand in the Shaky Isles, in the seasons prior to their lifting of the Webb Ellis Trophy.

In recent seasons the Kiwis have been at their most vulnerable in the opening match of their home series. So Ireland’s best shot at victory should have been in the first test.

Traditionally, it is the last test match of every tour that is played at the iconic graveyard that is Eden Park. But Ireland appears to have New Zealand nervous.

The Irish upstarts string of recent victories over their previous masters has the Kiwis playing their scheduling ace, forcing Ireland to play the first test at Eden Park.

While it is a backhanded compliment to Ireland, no one ever suggested the New Zealanders lacked cunning.

Despite the odds of any wins on this tour being hugely stacked against Ireland, they remain a high-quality team who are capable of producing a historic performance to claim a first-ever Test victory on New Zealand soil.

Ireland have proved that the rejuvenated running game and physicality introduced by Andy Farrell and his coaches can unsettle New Zealand.

That knowledgable Maori elder also explained to me that if a clan gave a powerful Haka that was accepted by their opponent, who then attacked with ferocious intent, the power of the Haka could be turned back against those who displayed it.

Imagine Kapa o Pango coming right back at the men in black.