When you first walk into Eden Park it is the extraordinary architectural blandness of the place that strikes you.
“That’s it?” You ask yourself. “What’s all the fuss about?”
You have to dig deeper than the physical to understand that it is not the bricks and mortar that make Eden Park the toughest place on the planet for away teams to win.
Eden Park represents the New Zealand people’s belief in the invincibility of the black jersey bearing the silver fern. Like the rugby superpower they are, the Kiwis’ aim is to outwardly project that power and intimidate the rugby world to bend to their will.
Despite the devastating power of New Zealand rugby, it also has a great weakness. New Zealand rugby has only two emotions. The elation of winning and the panicked crisis that engulfs the nation with a single defeat.
From 1987 until 2011, that ecstasy or oblivion mentality, which is as deeply entrenched in New Zealand rugby culture as the invincibility of Eden Park, heaped such unreasonable pressure on their teams that across five consecutive World Cups the New Zealand teams simply could not function to their potential.
In this unnatural environment of either world supremacy or crisis, Eden Park is the Kiwis’ safe place. This is where the crisis of defeat can never exist.
The New Zealand public believes victory at Eden Park is guaranteed. A 100 per cent sure thing. This is where Ireland’s great opportunity has its genesis because guaranteed victory in rugby does not exist.
However, instead of focusing on this wonderful opportunity that Ireland have earned via brilliant performances against New Zealand over the past few years, Ireland decided to have their own good old fashioned panic attack this week.
As Covid laid low the New Zealand head coach Ian Foster, Joe Schmidt was asked to come into the Kiwi camp and lend a hand. Like a scene from the Lord of Rings, Irish rugby dropped into a state of hysteria as Schmidt, the great green wizard, turned up in the ranks of the dark side.
Irish rugby people picked their kids up from school early, stopped off at the supermarket and stripped the place clean of toilet paper, then came home and crawled under their beds.
As Russian missiles rained down upon Ukraine, Joe Schmidt stepping in to help the New Zealand rugby team hit by Covid was the leading news story.
I honestly cannot remember ever witnessing such an extraordinary overreaction. It sadly displayed a national inferiority complex against New Zealand that should be dead and buried but lives on superstition, like a type of rugby banshee.
In winning three of their last five matches against New Zealand Ireland proved that the notion that the New Zealand team possesses some form of mystical, untouchable supremacy is a big fat myth.
Please don’t misunderstand me. New Zealand is a great rugby nation that I have the utmost respect for but that does not mean that when Ireland enter into the high temple of Eden Park they must kneel before the altar of the black jersey, bow their heads and concede all hope.
Never ever, under any circumstances bend the knee to that black jersey.
The greatest respect you can give to your opponent is to do all that is in your power to defeat them.
The reality is that, like every other international team on the planet, the New Zealand coaching staff have been preparing their tactics for Ireland for many months and Schmidt would have been an integral part of that preparation but very much behind the scenes.
The fact that Joe’s role as a selector and analyst for New Zealand was officially not due to start until after the Irish tour was simply Joe displaying his class and great respect for his former team as he did not wish to confront them.
The vast majority of planning for the opening test was completed and delivered in full to the national team last week. Practice during the week of a test is an exercise in refinement which was being led by assistant coaches Brad Mooar and Greg Feek, not Joe Schmidt.
What this sideshow has done is to distract the Irish rugby community from realising that while winning at Eden Park is the toughest mission on the rugby planet, by that very definition, it is also Ireland’s greatest opportunity to create history.
When Ireland defeated New Zealand last November, a year after Joe Schmidt had departed, they played superior rugby, with superior belief, using superior skills, played at a pace New Zealand could not live with, for the entire 80 minutes.
This was due to Andy Farrell selecting combinations of players predominantly from Leinster and also, intelligently adopting much of Leinster’s game plan. This meant that the key combinations across the Irish team have played and practised together for literally hundreds of hours.
With Keith Earls and Peter O’Mahony the only players in the starting XV not formed in the Leinster academy, Farrell has rightly continued with his plan.
‘Carpe Diem’ is a cliché, but in sport it remains the basic truth. Teams that seize the opportunity on any given day can achieve extraordinary results. Just look at La Rochelle in the Champions Cup final.
Never again in their lives will this group of highly talented Irish players be offered the staggering opportunity to create history, defy the bookies and win at Eden Park.
To attack the mythology of both the jersey and the place Ireland must act with a deeply intense and accurate physical aggression far above anything they have ever produced before in their rugby lives.
This must not be reckless aggression but rather a ruthless, warrior like mindset of actioned disciple.
Away from home defence is paramount. Especially the Irish kick-chase defence that must nullify the buckets of counter attacking potential that lurks across the park in black jerseys.
Ireland should emulate the breakdown tactics La Rochelle used against Leinster in the final of the Champions Cup and turn every ruck into a slow moving MMA brawl. Ireland will require more aggression and accuracy at the tackle contest than any Irish team has ever executed before in the history of the nation.
With the ball, Ireland must impose their running game plan, performed at pace with high precision, on to the New Zealanders and heap the pressure back on the home team.
All of this will require a monumental performance of skill, tactics and mental strength, which this Irish team is capable of.
Still, most will say the mission of winning at Eden Park is an impossible task.
To seize their once in a lifetime opportunity to defeat New Zealand at Eden Park and claim their place in rugby history, Ireland must channel the spirit of the life changing words uttered by the great heavyweight boxing world champion, Muhammad Ali.
“Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”