Gerry Thornley: Wonderful shot at history for Ireland may never come their way again

Even the British & Irish Lions have only managed one series win in 12 attempts in New Zealand

There was a time when Ireland didn’t do the last game of a summer tour particularly well. In truth, travelling with an Irish squad on an end-of-season tour left you approaching the final match with a sense of foreboding, before sure enough then slinking away through the tradesman’s door when it was all over.

Maybe it was the rigours of a long campaign. Maybe it was the best laid summer holiday plans for the day or two after that final Test. Most likely it was both. But in nine summer tours to the southern hemisphere between 1994 and 2012, Ireland signed off their season with defeat, often rather ingloriously and ignominiously.

There was even a fortunate 27-all draw in Canada in 2000 as well, along with a 33-0 loss in South Africa two years earlier, and so on ... 40-8 by the All Blacks in Eden Park, 37-15 to Australia in 2006, 16-0 to Argentina in 2007, 18-12 and 22-15 to Australia in 2008 and 2010 and 60-0 to New Zealand in 2012.

But since then, in five end-of-season summer tours, Ireland have only signed off with defeat once, when South Africa won the deciding Third Test by 19-13 in 2016. As well as unbeaten tours to the Americas and Japan in 2013 and 2017 while the frontliners were on duty with the Lions, Ireland won both Tests in Argentina in 2005, and also completed a 2-1 comeback series win with a 20-16 victory over Michael Cheika’s Wallabies in Sydney in 2018.

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Irish squads are now better managed, better coached, are stronger mentally, are more professional and have more strength in depth.

What’s more, unlike any of those aforementioned nine tours to the southern hemisphere, in South Africa six years ago and Australia four years ago, Ireland had earned themselves a series decider after winning one of the previous two Tests, as is the case again on this venture.

Psychologically, once more they have proven themselves capable of beating one of the big three in the southern hemisphere at the end of a long, hard campaign and are competitive in a three-Test series abroad. Emotionally and mentally, no less than last week, they are not feeling remotely weary or sorry for themselves. The sense of foreboding before the last Test in the 2000s and 2010s has long since gone.

Ireland also go into this series decider with a settled side, and most likely will make just one enforced change, with Bundee Aki starting alongside Robbie Henshaw in the absence of the concussed Garry Ringrose, and a number of players vying for the number “23″ jersey.

By contrast, the All Blacks are a wounded beast, with huge criticism coming the way of Ian Foster and his coaching ticket. One columnist in the New Zealand Herald said that “the Ian Foster appointment is one of the greatest bungles in NZ rugby history”.

Another wondered whether last Saturday’s Second Test in Dunedin was “the worst All Blacks test ever?” While some of this was the fault of “a mediocre All Blacks” the “debacle in Dunedin” was also the fault of referee Jaco Peyper, “who had all the command of a headless chook”.

Indeed, much of the post-match analysis has focused on the officiating. Incredibly, the red card brandished to Angus Ta’avao for his head-on-head high hit on Ringrose was deemed unjust by former international Jeff Wilson among many other. Nor has there been much acknowledgment that Leicester Fainga’anuku might also have been sent off for his recklessly high collision with Mack Hansen (a near replica of CJ Stander’s red card in the First Test in Cape Town six years ago), nor that the All Blacks should have been reduced to 12 men when they went to uncontested scrums, not how they endeavoured to resume with 15 players toward the end of the half.

There might also have been a penalty try when Ofa Tuungafasi was yellow-carded for tackling Ringrose without the ball and with a clear run to the line, although that argument would have been more compelling had Johnny Sexton attempted the pass inside to his team-mate.

As an aside, in the wake of the First Test wins by the All Blacks and Australia over Ireland and England, another NZ Herald columnist deduced that those results underlined the health of the Super Rugby Pacific. Whereupon, a week later, Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland all beat New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Argentina on the same day for the first time in history.

As for next Saturday’s game in Wellington, Ta’avao is ruled out and Caleb Clarke is also unavailable, but the likelihood is that Foster will unveil a stronger team than was the case in Dunedin.

For starters, Foster has indicated that Sam Whitelock will be able to complete his enforced 12-day stand down after being diagnosed with concussion after the First Test. “The signs are looking really good for him,” according to Foster.

Both Quinn Tupaea and Fainga’anuku had uncomfortable moments in defence and hence it would be no surprise if David Havili is restored at inside centre and Will Jordan will start on the wing following his try-scoring cameo off the bench after both players missed the First Test with Covid.

History has shown us that it is one thing winning a Test against the All Blacks in New Zealand, it’s altogether another one to register a series win here.

The British & Irish Lions have managed just one series win, and one drawn series, in 12 attempts in New Zealand. In six series against the All Blacks in New Zealand, South Africa drew the first in 1921 and won the second in 1937, but have lost the four series in New Zealand since then — in 1956, 1965, 1981 and 1994.

England have never beaten the All Blacks in seven series and have managed two wins in 15 Tests against them in New Zealand. In 10 series against the All Blacks in New Zealand, France have won one, drawn two and lost seven.

All of which rather underlines what a wonderful shot at history next Saturday morning is for this Irish team, one that may never come their way, or anyone else’s, ever again.

But even if this team returns with just one win from the three Tests, they will have been imbued with a real belief that despite Ireland’s most brutish World Cup draw ever, they can break through that quarter-final glass ceiling and maybe achieve something even more special.

Which is, after all, what this tour is also about.